How to Pick an Engagement Ring

What you need to know before taking a knee

By Megan Collins | Last Updated: Jul 30 2019

This is one of the times where the hype is all true: asking her to marry you probably will be the most important moment of your life. For many of the guys I know, it was equal parts incredibly amazing and astronomically stressful. Deep breath: Let me take you by the hand through some of the bigger issues.

Below, how to pick the perfect engagement ring in three easy(ish) steps:

Above: From a selection of vintage rings at Erie Basin

1. Know the rules so you can break them

First things first. Thanks to—obviously—the diamond industry and our favorite national mall jewelry stores, we all have a pretty good idea of what’s required from an engagement ring:

It doesn’t count unless it’s a brand-new diamond, and it won’t even register unless it cost two (or three) months’ salary. Beyond the fact that to me, this all sounds as old-fashioned as a dowry of, like, 100 head of Highland cows, let’s crunch some numbers:

  • The average age of an engaged man is 29.
  • The average college-educated man makes around $50,000 a year.
  • If you go with the three-month “rule,” that means the average ring should cost about $12,000.

But don’t break the bank..

Call me a grinch, but I’m not even sure I want to own something (a) that costs $12,000 and (b) can fall down a sink.

I’ll leave the bottom line to Lindy of PenelliBelle, who makes custom and other engagement rings: “If you are super in love, your lady would be just as happy with a string around her finger, so do not break the bank, guys.”

Vintage 1920s Art Deco ring, $4750

2. Get your head around the ABCs (actually, all C’s) of diamonds

You wouldn’t walk onto a used car lot without a thorough Blue Book investigation. Equally, you’ll want to bone up on your diamond knowledge before diving into the world of engagement rings.

Diamonds have four chief characteristics that determine their price:

  • Carat
  • Cut
  • Clarity
  • Color

Any of these factors can hugely influence your cash outlay. As no less an authority than the Gemalogical Institute of America points out, the price difference between a diamond that’s .99 carats and 1 carat can be substantial. Wait for it…while also being nearly impossible to visually discern!

Have you torn your hair out yet? No? Good, let’s keep going.

The carats will largely be determined by your budget. Clarity can actually be a question of taste—while diamonds with a higher degree of clarity are typically more sought-after (and so more expensive), some jewelers enjoy working inclusions (interior flaws) or blemishes (external ones), though generally with stones other than diamonds. (For more information on this, I strongly recommend playing around with the GIA’s clarity slider, which shows a range of diamonds with various flaws.)

Cut and color are really issues of taste.

In terms of color, diamonds are graded on a scale of D (practically colorless, incredibly rare) to Z. (Some stores, like Blue Nile, won’t stock diamonds below a grade of J.) But some ladies don’t mind a touch of yellow in her stones—who’s to say that “colorless” is intrinsically better, unless you’re just looking for an indicator of cost?

Cut—cut can really make someone insane. Officially, “cut” isn’t precisely the same thing as “style.” But the two are often used interchangeably, so let’s keep going, shall we?

Cut actually indicates how well the diamond is (yes) cut to maximize its sparkle. Any style—round, emerald, pear, princess, etc.—can be cut well or poorly. But in terms of the style: If you don’t know her aesthetic, I promise: There are clues out there, somewhere.

“Find little ways to see what she likes,” Lindy says. “Definitely ask best friends. Usually guys are snooping on their lady’s favorite lists on Etsy and Pinterest and other social media in order to surprise them.” You also might want to consider involving her in the design process: “We are also seeing many couples work on the ring together,” she says.

Vintage 1920s Art Deco ring, $1550

3. Consider new alternatives

Diamonds are now recovering from some bad publicity, the result of global concerns about a stone’s pedigree. Diamonds are mined in many parts of the world, including countries where their sale has subsidized war and conflict, including Sierra Leone, Congo, and Ivory Coast. Many retailers try to guarantee conflict-free diamonds, though some organizations, like Amnesty International, have expressed concern about how successful these policies are.

It’s possible to skirt this problem entirely. One way is to go vintage. “I have seen a big shift in people’s attitudes towards diamonds over the years,” says Russell Whitmore, owner and curator of Brooklyn’s Erie Basin, which regularly stocks vintage engagement rings.

“I used to hear ‘anything but a diamond’ a lot back when we first opened, either because of ethical or aesthetic reasons,” Whitmore says. “Now I rarely hear anyone asking for anything but a diamond. I also think that diamonds and the idea of a ‘traditional’ engagement ring are really back in style. We have always stocked a lot of non-conventional-looking engagement rings, but there’s very high demand for classic solitaires, like the ones that Tiffany introduced in the 1880s.”

Vintage 1930s diamond in new mounting, $3350

Non-diamond stones are also totally viable—perhaps a birth stone. “Couples are tending to want something unique and special—’Everyone has diamonds’ is what we often hear,” Lindy says. (Does anyone actually think a man is less in love if he goes for yellow quartz over a diamond?)

Working with an independent designer (there are 108,603 search results for “engagement rings” on Etsy) can provide financial benefits for the buyer beyond the sticker price, like a willingness to include customizations at low or no charge. “Customization is usually very difficult in the [chain] stores and if they do it, it is very costly,” Lindy says. “For me, custom work is very fulfilling. I can create anything and ensure the couple gets exactly what they want.”

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