Every once in a while we receive an Ask Team Practical question that’s just a little beyond our reach. (Having family problems? Sure we can help with that! We’ve got families! Want to know how to value an engagement ring? Uh…Come back later?) Luckily, when Alice sent us this question on beginning the process of buying an engagement ring, we knew just who to ask. So today we have a special guest Ask Team Practical from longtime sponsor TurtleLove.com. Adrianne, TurtleLove.com‘s founder, won my heart years ago with this brilliant piece on Authenticity and Engagement Rings and the story of her own $50 wedding ring. (Please go read it and then come back. It’s so good.) So unlike most of the wedding industry (and apparently also GQ), you can rest assured that Adrianne’s advice is going to be sane and helpful and not about buying the biggest rock you can find. So without any further ado, I give you Adrianne.
by Adrianne Zahner, Head Honcho at TurtleLove.com (APW Sponsor)
I’ve been pre-engaged for what seems like forever now (a couple years). It’s a long and complicated story that I’d rather not get into, but the good news is that it looks like my boyfriend and I will be free to Officially Get Engaged in the next month or two. I told my boyfriend that I expect a romantic gesture and proposal, but not a ring. (I don’t know what I want yet, so how should he be expected to know?)
We plan to go looking for rings together and seeing as I am a big planner, I’d like to do some research on what type of ring I’d like before we go visit jewelers. I’m not a huge jewelry person, I haven’t been dreaming about a ring (or wedding) my whole life, I have no jewelry experts or big Ring People in my family or close friend group, and I am very skeptical on upselling from jewelers when it comes to rings. Money isn’t particularly an issue (we can spend what we need to) but that makes me worried that we’ll be talked into spending more than we need to if we’re uninformed.
I’m leaning toward an antique but I haven’t been able to find any good online guides for what to look for in an antique ring. How do I know it’s going to hold up to forty more years of use? Where’s the line between “so cheap it will fall apart” and “at this point you’re just paying for status”? Where’s the line between “that stone is so tiny I can’t even see it” and “you’re just showing off now”? I know one carat is a magical number for no apparent reason, so it’s good to look for stones that are a bit under that number. Are there any other tips like that? I know the three-months-salary thing is total BS, but what IS a good guide then? Have you guys done a ring-buying guide on APW before? A practical girl’s guide to finding the middle ground with rings when you don’t have a starting point yet? Buying a ring that I’m going to wear for the rest of my life without knowing the first thing about it is so overwhelming to me! Am I over thinking it? Should I just go to a jeweler and trust whatever they say?
You are definitely not alone with your questions about engagement rings. Based on my experience with hundreds of couples purchasing engagement rings, I can offer some guidelines to help you find your ring. And I’m sure that the commenters can offer some other amazing perspectives (which I really enjoy learning about!).
You bring up some big-picture questions along with some nitty-gritty issues. I’ll start with the big-picture stuff and address some of the specifics in a subsequent post.
From what you’ve written, it sounds like you want to make sure you’re getting a good value on your engagement ring. That’s totally reasonable. For many people, an engagement ring is the largest purchase they’ve ever made (on something that’s not a house or a car). So how do you know if a particular ring is a “good value”? At the risk of sounding wishy-washy, an engagement ring that has a good value is a ring that you’re proud of. As disturbing as it is, questions that people will almost certainly ask about your engagement ring are:
- How did you get engaged?
- Where’d the ring come from?
- How big is it?
You likely think that your friends are more awesome than to ask questions like two and three (I certainly hope mine are!), but the truth is that you’ll probably find yourself answering these questions to a nosy friend or to your mom’s neighbor or a stranger in line at the grocery store. You don’t want to be in a position where you don’t like sharing the answer.
That doesn’t mean that the answer to those questions has to be super-romantic or over-the-top. And “proud” doesn’t mean you need to over-extend or look “better” than you really are. It just means that the answers to those questions should feel real to you. If a ring from a discount superstore is totally the way you roll, awesome. Rock it. If you would find it embarrassing to tell your friends (or your mother’s neighbor) that your ring came from said discount superstore, you might want to go for an awesome independent jeweler (like, say, TurtleLove.com) or a hometown jewelry store.
When you’re buying an engagement ring, what you’re really buying is the story. The story of the moment your intention to share a life became public information. So don’t look at your ring as a financial investment. At a conference I attended earlier this month, another attendee described the challenges of interacting with folks trying to resell their diamond engagement rings, and the repeated disappointment when they couldn’t resell the ring at its former retail price. Like a new car, as soon as you drive it off the lot, it will lose value. And while it doesn’t wear out the way a car does, fashions in shape and size and setting can date your ring and make it less (financially) valuable over time, too.
You raise the issue of “up-selling from jewelers.” I hate to sound so wishy-washy (and, as I mentioned, I will get to some nitty-gritty points in a subsequent post)—but if you feel like you’re having a good experience, you probably are. If you’re not having a good time, or if you don’t really trust the salesperson that you’re talking with, just leave! The purchasing experience should be fun and exciting and memorable, and result in a ring that you’re proud of. A brand name can add significantly to the price of a ring, but it’s worth it to a lot of people (and that’s okay). If you’ve never heard of the brand in question, you probably won’t want to pay extra to include that brand story in your personal story. Remember, your engagement ring is not a financial investment. It’s a social signifier that plays an important role in your conception of yourself, in you and your partner’s conception of your relationship, and in the outside world’s perception of you and your relationship.
Well, as I’ve mentioned, the value of an engagement ring isn’t exclusively in the materials. Only you know how important this social signifier is to you. The problem with the two months’ or three months’ salary guideline isn’t that it’s exorbitant (which it might or might not be, depending on your overall financial situation). The problem is that a salary guideline presupposes (and dictates) both how important this ring is to you and what you want from the ring.
So step back from simple multiplication and division questions, and figure out the story that you want. (Do this with your partner if it makes sense in the context of your relationship.) Is the story romantic or matter-of-fact? Private, or worthy of a viral video? Is humor a part of your vision? Or is humor totally out of place in this context? Do you see this ring as being about your individuality, or about your participation in a common cultural institution?
Then, taking your ideas about those questions, figure out what this ideal ring looks like: Do you want a ring that holds its own in the company of your friends’ rings? Do you want a ring that looks unlike anyone else’s? Do you want a classic ring? For many people, it’s important that the ring demonstrate a significant financial commitment to reflect the personal commitment that accompanies the ring. For other people, that’s just not the case.
So after contemplating these questions, you’ve got some good ideas about: (a) the story you want to tell yourself (and others) about this ring, and your engagement, and (b) how much you care about this story and what financial sacrifices you’re willing to make to make that story a reality.
What you want may not be a financial stretch at all—great! Or it may be that you want something that costs far more than the financial sacrifice you’re willing or able to make. If you can’t possibly afford the story that you want (four-carat diamond, Tiffany’s, proposal in Bali), change some (or all) of the elements to come up with another story that you like and that won’t cause unwarranted hardship. Depending on what you’re willing to sacrifice for an engagement ring, some options could be:
- Candy ring pop, subway newsstand, proposal during a picnic in the park.
- Antique ring from an awesome online jeweler, proposal at home during a thunderstorm.
- Spontaneous purchase from a big box store, proposal in the parking lot.
- A ring you already own, conversation in the car on the way to the grocery store.
- For some more engagement story options, you can check out the TurtleLove.com proposal guide.
The most important thing that I’ve learned in my time in the bridal jewelry industry is that there are a lot of different approaches to the engagement ring, and no one approach is bad or good. Some couples discuss engagement rings, others prefer an element of surprise. For some couples, the engagement ring is really important, and for others it’s no big deal. The most important thing is making sure that you’re on the same page, or at least aware of your partner’s preferences. A $200 amethyst engagement ring (or a $20,000 diamond engagement ring) could be a welcome surprise in one relationship and an awkward demonstration of a disconnect for another couple.
I’ll be back to address the specifics of engagement ring purchasing in a follow-up post. In the meantime, I’ll be learning in the comments!