My normal approach to buying diamonds during the holidays is pretty simple: I don't. I'd rather bail out with a cashmere sweater or scented lotions.
Not all guys, though, especially you married ones, can pull this off.
So to help you out, I have attempted to learn what I could about diamonds and then map out a diamond-buying strategy.
You owe me big-time.
I started with my dad. He's been married to my mom, Dora, for 32 years. Surely he knew something about diamonds.
But when I asked, he paused for about five seconds.
"Uh, did you ask your mother?"
As it turns out, my dad didn't pick her diamond ring when she upgraded about 17 years ago. All he did was follow her instructions; he even called from the Plaza Mall in New Orleans to make sure he was getting the right ring.
My mom talked about white diamonds and man-made diamonds (cubic zirconia).
"What's the difference?" I asked.
"Those women want (real) diamonds!" she said, laughing.
I might not have known much about diamonds, but I knew Tiffany &. Co. was a popular choice.
So I called the Cincinnati location and spoke to market vice president Susanne Halmi.
Halmi told me about the "Four C's" of diamond perfection - cut, color, clarity and carat. These details are the difference between a beautiful small diamond and a not-so-nice big diamond.
Numerous jewelers agree that cut is the most important way to judge a diamond's beauty.
Simply explained, this determines how light reflects off the diamond. If light hits the gem and continues through the bottom, the diamond's too thin. If it hits the middle and makes its way out through one side, the diamond is too deep. But if it hits a middle spot and the light bounces back to your eyes, you've got a good one.
"That's what will give it its brilliance and its fire," Halmi said.
Tiffany & Co. stresses simple yet elegant settings, which Halmi said emphasizes the beauty of the diamond without overpowering the band and diamonds.
The company's No. 1 engagement ring is the traditional six-prong setting. It starts at US$1,900, and the price increases as high as your checkbook allows.
I mentioned that my mother had said some women would accept a pledge of love and a ring out of a bubble gum machine. Average cost: 25 cents.
"Well, that's true," Halmi said. "Really, if you marry someone, it really shouldn't be about the ring. But also think, when you get married, it's a lifelong decision and a diamond lasts forever."
Mary Ball Gorman, president of Henry B. Ball in West Akron, Ohio, showed me a natural, 2 1/3-carat yellow diamond on a platinum setting. The yellow diamond was surrounded by two white diamonds. The total carat weight was more than three carats.
I thought I heard US$2,500. I asked her to repeat.
TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS, she said.
I fled to the Internet. One of the best ways to learn about diamonds is to conduct research online. I found several Web sites such as www.bluenile.com that allowed me to design a ring and even more that allowed me to browse.
EBay had hundreds of diamonds for sale. I found a three-stone, one carat princess cut diamond ring, which looked like something I'd be interested in buying. (Get that? Princess cut. It's like a sparkling square.)
But the idea of buying a diamond without seeing it in person made me uneasy.
Something turned me off about buying jewelry on cable television. Why are the announcers so happy? I've never been that happy about going to work, and I often work at home.
It's common, Gorman said, for couples to shop together. It takes the surprise out of the gift, but when you're spending as much as you earn in two months, it's more important to be right.
You can stroll into a jewelry store with your girlfriend/wife, find out what she likes and hold on to that information.
Or just ask.
If your funds don't allow you to spend thousands, you can buy other diamond products such as diamond earrings, pendants and bracelets. Some can be found for less than US$100.
Now we're talking.
It's common, I've learned, for men to buy the diamonds they can afford for now, and upgrade later.
Gorman said one man started with an [-carat and over the years, moved up to one carat.
The bad news is that nobody could give me a rule of thumb on how much to spend. It really depends on how much you want to spend.
Me? I'm on a strict budget. This Christmas, my mom is getting diamond earrings.
Tips for guys
Here are tips to help guys shop for jewelry during the holidays, care of Gary Estwick:
n Take a friend with you when you shop for that special person. A second opinion can be helpful, especially from someone close to her.
n Pay attention. Most girlfriends/wives give us clues during the holiday season about what they want. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification.
n Avoid sticker shock. Research the market by reading local advertisements or going online before you hit the stores or Web sites.
n The simpler the better. Jewelry is not always about the biggest diamond.
n When shopping for an engagement ring, be prepared to spend one or two months' salary. But spend only what you can afford.
Each diamond should come with a grading report from an independent, reputable institute. The Gemological Institute of America and the International Gemmological Institute are the two best known. These reports will give you the facts and figures on a diamond from a credible source.
They make it easier to compare apples to apples. However, comparing branded diamonds with generic ones is trickier because branded ones are unique to each retailer.
In any case, you'll need to know the Four C's: carat weight, cut, clarity and color.
Start by logging onto the GIA's Web site (www.gia.edu ). It has a helpful tutorial and a special site on buying diamonds for Valentine's Day, said Alex Angelle, senior spokesman for the institute.
Carat weight is the weight of the diamond. The larger the diamond, the rarer it is.
Cut refers to the faceting of the diamond, which brings out the sparkle, fire and brilliance. (It has nothing to do with whether it's round or square - that's shape.)
Clarity refers to the presence or lack of spots and lines within the diamond that are considered flaws. The greater the clarity, the better the diamond.
Color is the actual tint of the diamond. Although some colored diamonds are prized, in general, the more yellow or brown the diamond, the poorer the quality and value.
Jewelry experts suggest asking to look at a loose diamond against white paper so you can see the color more clearly.