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Shopping for a Ring: What to Look For

Why let your fiancé do the choosing? Shopping for a diamond — or a wedding band — is half the fun.

Sure, it's romantic to be surprised with an engagement ring, but if you're serious about style, you won't want to miss shopping à deux for this symbol of your mutual affection. Whether you're buying in tandem or "just looking" with your intended to talk about what you both like, it's good to know what you're looking for.

Classic solitaires are the most popular style, but for some couples, that means they're a little too common. You might want a finely detailed vintage design, an innovative diamond cut, a sleek modern setting, or perhaps even a colored diamond (yellow is the most common color; pink and blue are rare and much more expensive). Almost all engaged couples will be looking for wedding bands. New York jewelers offer every style imaginable, and at a huge range of prices. To begin, consider the options in cut and design, as well as the kind of statement you want to make.

Tried and True

Chances are, when you think engagement ring, you picture a big, round solitaire. Traditional prong-settings have been around since the nineteenth century and are the best-sellers at practically every jewelry store. They are used for all the classic stone shapes — round, princess, emerald, heart, and pear. "Women come in wanting something different, but, in the end, tradition usually wins out," says Jim Haag, marketing director for Harry Winston. "The ring has to hold up for 50 years." These settings are relatively standard. But that's not to say there aren't variations: Side stones — typically diamonds, but also colored gems (emeralds, rubies, sapphires) — are usually a fraction of the size of the center stone and come in various shapes, like slim baguettes, half-moons, trapezoids, and shields.

Large center stones are also often accented by just slightly smaller stones of the same shape on either side. Known as three-stone rings, these were traditionally given on anniversaries but are now very much in vogue as engagement rings among traditional brides, especially New York society girls.

Even the most traditional jewelers continue to update their selections with new shapes based on classic styles. Tiffany's, which pioneered the six-prong setting more than a century ago, recently introduced the Lucida cut, a square-shaped stone set in a wide gold or platinum band. And the Asscher family has just introduced a new take on its signature style, an octagonal step-cut from 1902. The new version, called the Royal Asscher, is more sparkly than the old one. It's available at Fortunoff.

What's Old Is New

Wish you had an heirloom ring in your family? Vintage rings are the specialty at places like Fred Leighton, Doyle & Doyle, and Stephen Russell. Most come from the Georgian, Edwardian, Victorian, or Deco eras. You can also find elegant reproductions of these styles. Women who want their engagement rings to look more like unique pieces of jewelry are snapping these rings up. Old cuts that were forerunners of the modern-day brilliants and emerald cuts have a subtler gleam than the new ones, and offer a soft, romantic look. These include old mine-cuts, rose-cuts, cushion-cuts, and the original Asschers. "The old diamonds were cut by hand with just the human eye to guide them," explains Russell Zelenetz, a partner in Stephen Russell. Estate jewelers generally stock these stones in both their original settings and in delicate, handmade new mountings. Jack Kelege, for instance, uses oblong marquise-cut diamonds in his Art Deco-inspired rings. These new takes on old settings are often a bit more streamlined than the originals, and are at least as popular. "If you have a beautiful, softly sparkling diamond, the setting should be just a subtle accent," says Zelenetz.

A Modern Touch

Shudder at the thought of a traditional ring? There are many modern designs that double as engagement rings for couples with minimalist or exotic aesthetics. One popular contemporary design is a bezel-set ring. Here, a diamond is surrounded by metal rather than elevated in a prong setting. Equally hot: two-tone platinum-and-yellow-gold styles with a sprinkling of diamonds, and even simple interlocked bands, like Cartier's three-color gold Trinity ring.

For rings that are classic but don't look engagement-specific, check out the non-bridal sections of your favorite jewelry store. Tiffany's Atlas collection, for instance, has sleek diamond rings; Cartier's ultrafeminine Délices line is equally stylish.

Some brides prefer contemporary jewelry designers who do more cutting-edge work. "The type of woman who buys a very simple wedding gown usually wants a clean, minimalist ring," says designer Michael Bondanza, who favors low-set diamonds that are flush with the metal. At Barneys, you'll find unique diamond styles from several designers, including Mizuki, who is known for her delicate diamonds, geometric forms, and steely finishes. Stores like Aaron Faber Gallery, H.Stern, and Stuart Moore also carry strong selections of contemporary designs.

Captivating Color

Think sparkling white diamonds are the priciest stones on the market? Colored ones are rarer and more expensive. Yellow diamonds are available in great supply (some jewelers, like Louis Glick, actually specialize in these) and cost about 25 to 50 percent more than white diamonds of similar quality. International diamond mogul Laurence Graff, who has a store on Madison Avenue, is one of the best resources for these gems, as are Harry Winston, the major auction houses, and high-end estate jewelers.

Blue and pink diamonds are harder to come by and many times more expensive than their white and yellow counterparts. Industry experts say you should expect to pay $30,000 to $200,000 per carat for these. If you're interested, check out Sotheby's or Christie's — these houses' "Magnificent Jewelry" auctions, held several times a year, often include these stones.

If a colored stone is out of your budget, consider a pink-diamond wedding band from Harry Winston, where they start at $9,200. Or a skinnier version from Martin Katz, whose selection of handmade "micro pavé" wedding rings (bands encrusted with tiny diamonds all the way around) includes bands of yellow and pink diamonds set in matching tones of gold ($3,800 and $4,500, respectively). Or you could invest in colored gemstones, say: pink, yellow, or blue sapphires, or even a gumdrop-size pearl in an elegant setting.

Wedding Bands

Traditionally, a wedding band is either a plain platinum or gold ring or one with delicate diamond accents; it's meant to match the engagement ring without taking away from it. But now, women are wearing everything from the plainest bands to elaborate diamond-and-gemstone-studded pieces that are as big or bigger than their engagement rings. Some women wear their engagement rings on special occasions and have diamond-set bands for everyday wear. Others collect super-thin wedding bands and wear them stacked. If religion dictates a solid metal ring (some rabbis refuse to use diamond-studded versions in the ceremony), women often buy one band for the ceremony, and a fancier one to wear thereafter. With all the options on offer, it isn't hard to see why.

From the 2003 New York Wedding Guide