Ask men who’ve married recently what the hardest or most confusing part about the whole planning process was, and the majority will say trying to understand how to choose an engagement ring.
That’s understandable. Even the most scrupulously honest jeweler is working in a highly technical field and needs a lot of technical terms to describe his wares accurately. (And most, let’s face the facts, don’t mind dazzling customers with lots of information all at once to get a good sale.)
Choosing the right ring without going nuts requires a little research in advance. Fortunately for you, we’ve got it all right here:
- How to get your intended's ring size
- The key ring characteristics you need to know
- Engagement ring styles
- Understanding gold, silver & other metals
- Finding the right gemstone (carat, clarity, color & cut)
- Choosing an engagement right in five easy steps
How to Get Your Intended’s Ring Size
Ring size can be found with either a circle chart or a linear ruler.
Circle charts are simpler but more approximate: you lay an existing ring that fits comfortably flat on the paper and find which circle it fits into most perfectly. That’s the ring size to start with.
Linear rulers require you to use a bit of string, paper, or measuring tape wrapped around the ring finger where the ring will sit. Then you straighten the measuring tool out and compare it to a linear scale, which will tell you which size is equal to the measurement.
Jewelers have both, and you can find printable versions online easily.
If your intended is in on the process, that’s easy enough. But if you’re planning a surprise, how do you get an accurate measurement without giving the game away?
#1 Compare with an Existing Ring
If you can find a ring that your intended wears on her (or his) ring finger already, and you know it’s a comfortable fit, you can sneak that away for a quick measurement some time when it’s not being worn.
Just be sure it’s actually a good fit — not everyone complains about every minor imperfection in their jewelry, and you don’t want to base your measurement on something that’s a little too loose or too tight!
#2 Give a Non-Engagement Ring as a Gift
Planning well in advance? Find a ring that would make a nice gift for some other occasion, like a birthday or anniversary.
Then either buy it in a best-guess size and plan on having it resized (a small additional expense), or else tell your intended that the ring is the present but you need to go to the jeweler’s together to get the right size. And then, of course, eavesdrop on the sizing process and note down his/her ring finger size.
(Seriously, note it down. Put it in your phone or something. You’re not going to remember.)
#3 Send in a Spy
Have a friend or relative slip a trip to a jeweler’s or a craft fair into a day of shopping with your intended and encourage some trying-on of rings. They can report back to you with the size afterward.
#4 Or Just Ask
At the end of the day, most of these are going to be fairly obvious if they’re a break in character or routine. Most people are smart enough to guess what’s going on if their significant other or best friend takes a sudden and unprompted interest in trying on rings!
If you give yourself enough lead-time, it’ll still be a surprise when you actually pull the ring out and pop the question. Besides, it shows that you like openness and honesty in your relationship, which is a healthy trend to set sooner rather than later.
So you’ve got the size. Now what?
Begin thinking about the sort of ring your intended will like in terms of general characteristics.
Don’t worry about specifics of stone or metal yet (we’ll get to those in a minute). Focus on descriptive words: elaborate or plain? delicate or bold? flashy or subtle?
Finding the right ring is a process of triage. The more possibilities you can eliminate before getting into specifics, the better.
If you’re planning on some browsing, that’s fine. But as early in the process as possible, try to have a general sense of what you’re looking for in each of the following attributes/characteristics:
- Width – How broad will the band be? The wider it is, the more of the finger it takes up. Wider rings have a bolder look, which attracts attention but can make them harder to mix and match with other jewelry.
- Depth – A ring made from a band with a larger cross-section weighs more and looks “chunkier.” Again, this is eye-grabbing (and may be necessary for some inlay styles), but can affect comfort and prohibit the wearing of other rings on adjacent fingers.
- Metal Color – Most metals fall into either a gold, silver, or copper tone, with some oddball exceptions and in-betweeners if you want to get into those. Note that you’ll still have different metals to choose from in each color family, but you’ll want to know which colors you’re looking for before you start picking the actual metal.
- Number of Stones – Single stone at the top of the band? Cluster of stones spreading out down the band? No stones at all? They’re all fair game, and they all create different looks. Think about the styles your intended already prefers, if possible.
- Stone Color – Clear diamonds are popular, but anything’s fair game. Again, a sense of your intended style helps here. Colored stones aren’t as easy to match with clothing and other jewelry as clear stones.
You don’t need a single, fixed, one-word answer for any of these before you start shopping in earnest, but having a general sense of rules for wearing jewelry and what you’re looking for will save a lot of time.
If you can tell a jeweler that you’re looking for “a big, bold engagement band in a gold tone, without stones,” rather than just “a gold engagement ring,” he or she will be able to narrow the field down much more quickly. That’s helpful for both of you!
Engagement Ring Styles
Now it’s time to start getting a little more specific.
Rings can be broken down into broad families by looking at the decorative elements and how they come together. These aren’t technical terms — they’re simple descriptors that you can use to communicate your basic needs.
Pick one or two that appeal to you and focus on the selection in those styles so that you aren’t looking at every ring in every store.
#1 Simple Bands
The most basic style and the one most commonly used for actual wedding rings is a plain band of solid metal, unadorned or with a light inscription or etching.
These have the advantage of being less complicated to match — good for partners who have a varied or eclectic style. They’re also (let’s face it, it can be a concern) often cheaper than rings with precious stones.
In some traditions, the engagement band actually becomes the wedding band and is simply swapped from one hand to the other. Plain bands work very well for that function.
If you go with this simple style, you can really focus on the quality of the metal and the specific shape of the band, which will result in subtle but significant improvements. Since there’s nothing to distract from the band itself, you’ll want it to be the best quality you can afford.
#2 Inlaid Bands
An “inlay,” in jewelry, is a piece of metal set into the body of a larger piece. They can be a different color, in which case the ring has distinct visual contrast, or they can be made from the same metal as the larger body so that only the outlined edges of the inlay are immediately noticeable.
This can be used to produce effects ranging from a subtle shift in angles to a bold checkerboard, and everything in between. It’s a way to add visual interest that doesn’t rely on gemstones, which can be nice for people who worry about ethical stone sourcing, and the look is a little more unique than the traditional crown setting.
Inlaid rings are typically low-profile since they don’t have a protruding setting.
#3 Single Stones
A metal band with a single gemstone atop it is another common style for a wedding band (we’ll also include rings with one large stone set immediately into a cluster of smaller stones in this category).
These are traditional, straightforward, and, for lack of a better word, “pretty.” They fit the cultural understanding of the “engagement ring,” at least in most of the Americas and Europe.
If you want something with some sparkle and a traditional appeal, the single stone (or single large stone framed by smaller ones) is the way to go.
#4 Multiple Stones
For maximum sparkle, a ring with stones set not just at the top but also along the sides is the way to go.
These are very flashy and very eye-catching — great for making an impression, but tough to tone down, and potentially challenging for matching if the stones are colored.
There are several ways to set multiple stones on a band, ranging from a single crown with smaller settings on either side of it to a gemstone inlay. The way the stones are set will affect how three-dimensional and “textured” the ring is, but in any case, having them spread out along the band will make sure it catches the light (and therefore the eye) from any angle.
Go with multiple stones if you want your engagement ring to be a “special occasion” piece that isn’t worn every day — or if you and your intended live the kind of lifestyle where a bright, sparkling, multiple-gemstone ring is a good fit for your everyday style! (A shorter way to say that would be “I know how to look rich and I love it.”)
Ring Materials – Gold, Silver & Other Metals
First up we have by far and away, the most common metal for wedding bands, and it’s frequently used for engagement rings as well.
This isn’t just because of tradition or symbolism. Gold’s malleability makes it an excellent material for jewelers to work with, and it has a deep, natural luster that can’t be mimicked by synthetics. Well-polished gold seems to have its own soft glow when it catches the light.
Karats and Purity
The historical reasons for using the “karat” scale are a little complicated, but don’t worry about those — all you need to know is how to tell quality gold from the cheap stuff.
Karats are a measure of purity. The karat rating tells you how much of a piece of gold (or gold jewelry) is true gold, and how much is other metals. The scale runs from zero to 24, where 24 is pure gold.
That makes 24-karat gold sound good (and it is good for collectors), but gold on its own is too soft to make good jewelry. It needs to be alloyed with at least a little silver, copper, or other stiffer metals to keep the jewelry from denting and scratching with wear.
So what’s the best purity for a ring?
You can set your sights as high as 22k or 20k gold, which will be very close to the real thing but just a little bit sturdier. At that level of purity the gold will have a deep, buttery color and a soft richness. However, it will still be somewhat fragile — if the band is slim, it’s possible to bend or break a 22k gold ring accidentally by bumping it hard against a corner somewhere.
18k is a popular choice that combines high purity with good tensile strength, and is often the standard for high-quality gold jewelry.
Once you go as low as 12k (half pure), the gold starts to lose its natural luster and become a plainer yellow color. You shouldn’t discount 12k gold entirely, especially if you’re on a budget, but at that point it may be worth looking at other metals — or at 12k gold alloyed to make a specific colored gold.
Stop by any jewelry store and you’ll see not only gold jewelry but also “white gold” and “rose gold” (sometimes called “Russian gold” at old-fashioned shops).
These are not, in fact, special gold ores with natural coloration. Rather, they are regular yellow gold alloyed with another metal to achieve a different coloration.
Rose gold blends gold with copper in varying amounts to create anything from an almost rusty red to a light pink tinge. The result has the luster of gold but a more unique color, making it a popular choice for people who want an elegant ring that breaks out of the traditional mold a bit.
White gold achieves its silver color by alloying gold with nickel, over which a rhodium plating is then applied. The plating is necessary to give the metal a reflective shine — nickel on its own is a dull gray and mutes the luster of gold. People with nickel allergies should avoid traditional white gold, as the plating can wear through over time and expose nickel-tainted metal (this will also sometimes require re-plating to retain the shine).
Alternative white golds using non-nickel metals are becoming more common, and in some cases do not use the rhodium plating for shine. Ask your jeweler about the specific alloy if you’re considering a white gold ring.
Silver has a bit of a bad rap, culturally. It’s affordable and malleable enough to be used in “truck stop jewelry” — think big skulls, black widows, blinged-out crosses, etc.
If you Google “sterling silver ring” and leave it at that, most of what you turn up will not be suitable wedding bands, let’s put it that way.
But that doesn’t mean that jewelers can’t do great stuff with silver.
Sterling silver is 92.5% silver; the rest is usually copper. While it’s the most common kind of silver used, high-quality silver jewelry often uses a higher purity. “Fine silver” is 99.9% pure, which makes it considerably softer and more lustrous than sterling.
Both are acceptable materials for an engagement ring. Sterling silver is brighter and harder and slightly darker in color. It will be more scratch-resistant but also more prone to tarnishing, requiring occasional cleaning and polishing. For that reason, fine silver is a better choice for rings with intricate settings or detailing — it’s tough to polish all those nooks and crannies.
Bolder, simpler bands do well in sterling, however, and the added toughness will reduce the need for re-buffing.
If the ring itself doesn’t come with a purity stamp, double-check with the jeweler to make sure they’re using stamped silver bars for their raw material. Inspected silver will have three digits stamped on it, representing the purity: a “925” stamp is sterling silver (92.5% pure), a “999” stamp means 99.9% pure, and so on.
The vast majority of engagement bands will be some kind of gold or silver. Other alternatives include a few other precious metals and several modern composites or synthetic materials:
- Platinum is a sturdy but scratch-prone metal with a true, natural white-tone. It’s denser than gold, and used in higher purities for jewelry, which tends to make it slightly more expensive. A good option for those who can afford it.
- Palladium is a precious metal similar to platinum. It’s usually seen as a nickel alternative to white gold, but can be used to make pure jewelry as well. Jewelry made from (or plated with) palladium has a slight golden sheen on a mostly-silver base.
- Titanium is an affordable silver-tone material with light weight and excellent durability. However, it lacks the deep luster of silver or gold, making it a less popular choice for wedding bands. It is best suited to modern, minimalist designs rather than elaborate bands with gemstone settings.
- Tungsten (or more accurately tungsten carbide) is a composite metal that can be colored to achieve almost any desired hue. Its natural shade is a bright silvery-white. It is highly reflective and shiny, without a deep luster, making it somewhat less elegant than silver, gold, or platinum.
There are countless other options, ranging from the high-tech and flashy (cobalt-chrome) to the exotic and ancient (ivory, bone, and even knotted rope or leather).
Those mostly appeal to very specific tastes — if your intended is the right person for an exotic material, you probably already know! If he or she isn’t, you’re better off sticking with gold (of one shade or another) and silver, and potentially platinum or palladium if you can afford them.
At the end of the day, it’s best to have the highest quality of your chosen material for your ring, rather than a lower quality of a more expensive ring. A 20k gold ring looks better than a heavily diluted palladium one!
The majority of engagement bands feature a cut stone of some kind, and the majority of those use diamonds.
For reasons of both tradition and availability (and ease of matching), diamonds have long been the default gemstone for fine jewelry. That doesn’t mean you’re stuck with them, of course — but if you are going for a diamond ring, go shopping armed with detailed knowledge!
There’s a whole industry based around passing second-rate diamonds off on guys looking for a “genuine diamond” engagement band with an affordable-sounding price. It’s easy to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on diamonds that are functionally worthless if you aren’t careful.
You may have heard of “the four C’s” in reference to diamonds: carat, clarity, color, and cut. Those are the four characteristics that combine to make up the final appearance of a finished diamond — and, to a great extent, that determine its price, as well.
Carat Weight (Mass)
This starts to get confusing because the “carats” that measure diamond weight aren’t the same thing as the “karats” that measure gold purity.
Additionally, most jewelers use the phrase “carat weight,” even though the unit actually measures mass. So there’s a lot going on with carats that doesn’t make sense.
What you need to know is this: carat measures the mass of the diamond, and therefore its size. The higher the carat measurement, the bigger the diamond.
One carat is equal to 0.2g, or 200mg. Carats are further divided into 100 “points” of 2mg each. Thus, a 1.5 carat stone weighs 300mg.
Small diamonds are vastly more common than large ones, so the price tends to increase on a curve with weight, rather than a straight line. Assuming equal color, clarity, and other qualities, a 2-carat stone will be far more than twice as expensive as a 1-carat stone.
You can often save money by buying just under the so-called “magic sizes” of 1, 1.5, 2, etc. carats — to the naked eye, a 0.99 carat stone is no different from a 1 carat stone, but because it falls just under that important benchmark it will be less costly.
The bigger the stone, the more prominent and eye-catching it will be on the ring. However, unless you have a lot of money to spend, you’ll likely end up compromising on color and quality, resulting in a stone that doesn’t look as good close up.
If carat weight is the most obvious aspect of a diamond, cut is the most important.
The shape of the stone (round, princess, etc.) isn’t the key issue here. That’s a stylistic and an aesthetic choice. The key issue with cuts is the quality of the cut This is what will determine how the stone catches, reflects and refracts light.
The goal of a good cut is to disperse the light that strikes the stone up through the top facets. This gives it the characteristic sparkle of a true diamond.
Diamonds that have been certified by the GIA (Gemological Institute of America) or AGS (American Gem Society) will be rated on the following scale, from highest to lowest quality:
- Ideal Cut – The most “brilliant” grade of cut. High refraction and precise angles maximize the sparkle of the stone. Only diamonds cut in the traditional “round brilliant” shape can have an ideal cut.
- Excellent – A high-brilliance quality of cut with slightly less sparkle than ideal. The best-cut diamonds in non-round shapes fall into this category, as do slightly imperfect (but still high-quality) round brilliant stones.
- Very Good – Slightly less sparkle than an ideal or excellent cut, but still fairly lively. Usually the result of a gemcutter opting to keep a stone slightly larger but imperfectly angled. This is instead of grinding off more size/weight to achieve a perfect cut.
- Good – The proportions of the cut fall solidly outside of the ideal range. But, the stone still retains a visible shine. Common in lower-cost large stones, where the ideal angles have been sacrificed to retain size.
- Fair and Poor – Diamonds that reflect only a small amount of light back up through the surface of the stone. Many diamonds that look large but have suspiciously low prices will fall into these categories. By ignoring the issue of reflection, jewelers can keep the visible face of the stone quite wide. The bad angles beneath the surface rob the stone of its characteristic sparkle though.
In general, you want to hold out for a “good” quality at the very least. Shoot for a “very good” or “excellent” if you can afford it. It sounds harsh, but if you can’t afford a decent diamond, you shouldn’t be buying diamonds. Opt for a different style of ring. Leave the fair/poor cuts to suckers who are only considering the size of the stone.
If a diamond isn’t certified by the GIA or AGS, it may not have a quality rating. You can attempt to judge yourself by comparing it to rated stones under the same light. However, you’re better off asking an unbiased expert or moving on to a rated stone.
A perfect, chemically pure diamond has no color. It is transparent, like clear water.
Most diamonds, however, contain traces of chemicals that color the stone. The purer the color, the more light can pass through, adding to a diamond’s sparkle.
The GIA grades diamond color on a D-to-Z scale, with D being a pure “white” or transparent diamond. By contrast, Z will be a deeply discolored one. Colored diamonds have a yellow or brown tint. (Note that “fancy color” diamonds, like blue and pink diamonds, are their own separate gemstones. They do not fall into the basic diamond color scale.)
Diamonds graded from D through F are rare, highly sought-after, and expensive. They have a clarity that appears perfect to the naked eye.
More attainable and still practically clear as far as the human eye can tell are diamonds between G and I. Below that, faint colored tinges start to become visible, growing increasingly more so as you go down the scale.
What if a diamond isn't completely colorless?
A diamond doesn’t have to be perfect. A diamond graded low on the color scale could look just fine against a yellow gold band and setting. Even a clear diamond would appear yellow-tinged on that ring, making it a non-issue. So what's the trick? Find a diamond whose faint yellow coloring is a close match to the shine of the gold itself.
Silver-tone rings like white gold or platinum will make discolorations in a diamond more visible. This makes a higher color rating more important for those rings.
The final of the four C’s, clarity measures exactly what it sounds like. It's all about how perfectly see-through the structure of the diamond is. A perfect diamond would be as clear as smooth glass. In reality, most are clouded by slight imperfections, either:
- Blemishes (marks on the surface of the diamond).
- Or, more commonly, inclusions (cracks, bubbles, and other flaws inside the diamond).
The Graded Scale For Clarity
- F (Flawless) – A truly perfect stone with no surface or interior flaws. These are extremely rare and extremely expensive — out of reach for most people’s budgets at any significant size.
- IF (Internally Flawless) – Also rare and expensive, but not as staggeringly so. There are no inclusions, and only minor surface imperfections.
- VVS1/VVS2 (Very Very Slightly Included 1 and 2) – The stone has small internal flaws, but they are minor and can only be detected by trained gemologists under magnification. To the naked eye the stone still appears flawless. Expect to pay several thousand dollars for a single stone of this clarity.
- VS1/VS2 (Very Slightly Included 1 and 2) – Imperfections can be observed with some difficulty under 10x magnification.
- SI1/SI2 (Slightly Included 1 and 2) – Imperfections are visible under 10x magnification, and may visibly affect transparency to the naked eye.
- I1/I2/I3 (Included 1, 2, and 3) – Imperfections are clearly and immediately obvious under magnification, and visibly affect transparency and brilliance to the naked eye.
The clearest diamonds are exceedingly rare. Most jewelers will only have stones at the VVS ratings and below readily available for retail sale – particularly in large carat weights.
Keep in mind that above the S1 ratings, clarity does not have visible effects on the stone itself. Higher clarities will allow more light to pass through, creating a brighter sparkle. Any VS2 or higher stone will look clear to anyone who isn’t using magnification though.
For an engagement ring, you probably want to stay away from anything visibly blemished or included. All the other ratings are fair game though. The size and color of the diamond will affect the clarity you need. A very large, very clear diamond will suffer more from a poor clarity than a smaller, more colored stone would.
In any event, stay away from the I1/I2/I3 grade of stones, except as tiny setting details. They should never be the centerpiece of a ring.
Finding the Right Gemstone
Now that you know the four C’s, you also know that all diamonds involve trade-offs. (Well, unless you’re rich enough to buy one of the very few huge, perfect, colorless diamonds in the world).
Pick the attributes that matter most to your specific ring and focus on getting the best you can afford there. If you want a big ol’ stone front and center, then carat weight is important. You should take the minimum decent-looking grade in the other categories and spend your money on size.
Don’t care too much about how big the stone is, but want it to have a perfect shine? Focus on the cut and clarity. If the background surrounding the stone is colorless, a high color rating becomes more important than color.
Engagement culture is a bit obsessed with diamonds, but there are lots of alternatives out there. If your intended likes a particular color, it might be worth getting a gemstone in that color.
Colored stones like rubies and emeralds can be rated using the same four C’s as diamonds. However, color is judged somewhat differently. Deep “intensity” and a hue position close to the pure primary colors (red, green and blue) are preferred.
Similarly, different angles may be needed to achieve the most refractive cuts. But, the finished quality of the cut can still be rated using the same scale. Carat weight and clarity are identical to diamonds, and can be judged the same, although the associated costs will differ from gem to gem.
In addition to crystalline gemstones like emeralds, sapphires, and rubies, there are also ornaments like pearls, amber, and even shaped flint chips. Those often have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, as there are no precise systems in place for them. They also tend to be less expensive so you’re not risking as much money.
The four C’s are most important for large, central stones.
Considering a ring that makes use of smaller stones in a pattern or line? The quality of the individual gems matters less here. Although, the better they are, the brighter the ring will sparkle.
Using small, unrated stones to line a band or make a cluster around a larger stone is quite common. It’s a particularly popular option for engagement bands.
Feeling staggered by the complications (and price) of picking out a high-quality diamond? Take a look at some options that use smaller stones in artistic arrangements instead.
Or you can always do both. A center stone ringed by smaller ones is certainly eye-catching for those that can afford it. Just make sure your intended actually wants a big ol’ hunk of sparkling rocks to tote around their finger…
Choosing an Engagement Ring in 5 Easy Steps:
All that is a lot of information. Here’s how you take it and turn it into a successful shopping trip, in five easy steps:
- Find out your intended’s ring size.
- Settle on a basic look for the ring: thick vs. thin, single stone vs. cluster vs. plain band, etc.
- Choose a metal. Determine what purity is best for your ring’s look.
- Select a stone (or other decorative elements). If using a crystalline gemstone, determine which of the four C’s is most important to you. Ask yourself what your minimum standards are.
- Shop around until you find the perfect ring that meets all your needs! You don’t want to be spending serious money on anything but the perfect ring. Don’t be afraid to say “no” a lot of times.
You’ll want to set a general budget for yourself. Of course — you know your limits better than anyone else. Try to be flexible though and not think exclusively about getting the best price possible.
Gents, it’s easy to trick yourself into spending a large amount of money and get nothing much in return if you try to cut corners when shopping for precious metals and gemstones. The last thing you want is the worst of all possible worlds: lots of money spent on a mediocre ring. So get out there and find your girl the ring she will wear with pride for the rest of her life!
Want to know more about how to make a wedding a day to remember? Click here to discover my ultimate guide to wedding attire for men.