Blame De Beers. In 1938, the jewelry giant launched the first initiative for engagement rings, which painted the sparkling stunners as status symbols and must-haves. It was also De Beers that set the standard for how much to spend on an engagement ring: two months’ worth of the would-be groom’s salary.
Fast-forward eight decades, and the diamond engagement ring is still the standard. I’d say that was some extremely effective marketing, wouldn’t you? Because while diamonds are expensive, they aren’t rare. In fact, according to the International Gem Society, diamonds are the most common of all gemstones. Considering markup is routinely 20% to 100% of wholesale value, there’s just no reason they should be as costly as they are.
How to Save With an Affordable Engagement Ring
The New York Times found that the average cost of an engagement ring is $4,000. That’s $4,000 that could otherwise be going toward the down payment of a new house, a travel experience, reducing student loans, or covering the cost of the wedding. So, when it comes time to pop the question, would-be grooms need to decide whether a status symbol is worth the inflated price. Here are some of the affordable alternatives to purchasing diamond engagement rings.
1. Select an Antique
If you’re an old soul, you may love the idea of an antique or vintage ring. Antique jewelry often tells a story, uses unique gemstones, and offers settings that aren’t always available today, so it’s an attractive option for brides who really want to stand out.
In the world of diamond rings, there’s a difference between “antique,” “vintage,” and “retro.” When a seller calls something “antique,” it should refer to a ring from before 1950. The term “vintage” applies to something newer – post 1950s – while “retro” refers to something that is simply outdated.
Once you’ve got these terms down, it’s easier to understand seller listings on jewelry websites. Antique and vintage jewelry is your best bet, but you need to ask for a certificate of appraisal before pulling the trigger to ensure seller claims of authenticity and date are true. You can find antique jewelry everywhere from estate sales and higher-end consignment stores, to sites like eBay and Etsy.
2. Buy a Used Ring
I’m a member of several “indoor yard sale” groups on Facebook, and engagement rings are among the most common items posted. Whether it’s because the bride went for an upgrade or the proposal didn’t work out, you can score deep discounts by purchasing a used diamond ring – retail store markup and overhead can make for steep prices otherwise.
When buying used, you don’t get the same experience, but you can get discounts anywhere from 20% to 40% off retail price. Look on online auction sites, online classifieds, and indoor yard sale groups – search Facebook in your area so you can see the ring in person if you’re interested. And if you live near a college campus, check the bulletin – it might sound callous, but students often sell their used rings to earn some money, or simply because the engagement didn’t pan out.
As with buying antique jewelry, you always want a certificate of appraisal before you buy. If the seller doesn’t offer one, you can ask to have the ring appraised before you purchase. A reputable appraiser usually asks for a fee per hour – anywhere from $25 to $50 on the low end, and up to $150 per hour on the higher end. However, the majority of appraisals should only take about an hour.
3. Choose a Family Heirloom
Family comes first, so it’s worth seeing if there are any heirlooms that could work as engagement rings for you. And remember, these don’t necessarily have to feature diamonds. Grandma’s cushion-cut emerald ring might be just as beautiful as a more traditional diamond setting. What’s more, family heirlooms come with a lot of wonderful history – a sentiment that simply can’t be replaced by a commercially available engagement ring.
If you’re hoping to use a family heirloom, start with your parents. They should have some ideas on what’s available or which family member currently has a ring you may want. If you acquire it, and with the original keeper’s permission, you may be able to update the ring with a new setting. I inherited my grandmother’s engagement ring – a solitaire set in a yellow and white gold band. I don’t wear a lot of yellow gold, so after checking with my mom, I brought it to a jeweler who coated the ring in rhodium to make it look more like white gold. I paid $40 for the service, and received an updated, beautifully polished ring in return.
Dig through your grandparents’ jewelry boxes, talk to your parents about your intentions, and see if your aunts and uncles have any ideas – that’s how you can score a meaningful engagement ring for free.
4. Go for Something Other Than Diamonds
There are hundreds of gorgeous gemstones and settings to choose from, and they don’t all require dipping into your life savings. Some of these even resemble diamonds, so you may be able to get a similar look for less.
Try one of these diamond lookalikes for a fraction of the cost:
- Moissanite. Moissanite comes just behind diamonds in terms of hardness (diamonds are a 10 on the hardness scale, while moissanite is 9.25), but it routinely costs about half what diamonds of the same carat weight cost. The main difference in appearance is that moissanite is more brilliant and can actually be shinier than the average diamond. When it comes to color, diamond is clearer than moissanite, which can have a gray cast. If color is less important to you, it’s a pretty even swap.
- White Sapphire. White sapphire is essentially colorless, so it makes a good alternative for traditional diamond engagement rings. Unfortunately, diamond is about four times harder than sapphire, so sapphire may not hold up as well. Still, it costs about a quarter of the price, so it might be an option if you plan on upgrading later on. Diamonds have more brilliance than white sapphires, but a clever, multifaceted cut can remedy that lack of fire in the diamond alternative, so look for cuts that are less flat than, say, a princess (a cushion or pear, for example).
- Cubic Zirconia. The least expensive of diamond alternatives, a cubic zirconia costs one-tenth of a diamond of the same carat weight. They look very similar, but cubic zirconia is significantly lighter than diamond to the trained eye. Cubic zirconias are made from the synthetic material zirconium dioxide, and, since they’re synthetic, are always technically flawless. Diamonds are harder (CZ gets an 8.5 on the hardness scale) and you may find that as such, cubic zirconias cloud and scratch more easily.
You don’t have to purchase a diamond lookalike, however. By choosing a completely different gemstone altogether, you can get an extremely unique ring. For instance, choosing a ring with the bride’s birthstone could cost a fraction of what a diamond of the same size would. Some common gemstones for engagement rings include sapphire, emerald, and ruby. Or, get really creative and go with something like opal or pearl. Shifting your focus off diamonds can open up a world of availability and creativity.
5. Buy a Lab-Created Diamond
Some individuals take issue with the way natural diamonds and gemstones are sourced. Diamond and gemstone mining often involves hurtful processes such as child labor, worker exploitation, and environmental disruption. Stricter industry standards are in place, thanks to the 2003 Kimberley Process for South African gemstone mining.
The Kimberley Process is a certification instituted after the conflict in Sierra Leone, when diamonds were essentially funding conflict via rebel groups in the 1990s, and it is only awarded where diamonds are checked and verified to come from a conflict-free source. Those diamonds can then only be exported to 74 Kimberley Process countries.
Still, even diamond sources labeled “conflict-free” can use questionable practices – only minimum requirements surrounding the location of the diamond mines must be met in order to be certified, and the Kimberley Process does not regulate working conditions, only the sourcing for diamonds. It has been described as “a perfect cover story for blood diamonds” by The Guardian, and its credibility was severely damaged in 2009, according to Human Rights Watch.
Politics aside, purchasing a lab-created diamond ring might be best for someone who doesn’t want, or have the means, to purchase a natural diamond. Lab-created diamonds are actually grown in accordance with strict standards, usually in sizes up to a carat. They’re characteristically indistinguishable from their natural counterparts, yet cost up to 50% less. It’s also how jewelers get those fancy-colored diamonds – all colored diamonds are treated with various chemical processes to get brilliant yellows, pinks, and blues.
My brother purchased a lab-created diamond for his now-wife because of ethical reasons. I can’t tell the difference between her ring and a naturally sourced diamond.
6. Choose a Gem-Free Ring
There’s no law that says an engagement ring has to have a gemstone. Metal-only rings are becoming more and more popular, thanks to the availability of different styles. They’re perfect for the bride who wants an everyday ring and isn’t particularly excited about flashiness.
Try one of these options for a beautiful and meaningful ring:
- A knotted metal band, which represents the continuity of the relationship.
- A Claddagh ring, meant to be worn with the heart facing away from the body when engaged, and then toward the body when the bride is married. Claddagh rings are traditionally Irish, and represent love and loyalty, so they make wonderful engagement rings.
- A personalized band, which can be engraved with initials or a message.
- An artistic-style metal-only band, where the gold or silver has been twisted to create a unique design.
- A band that looks plain on top, but has scroll-work on the sides to offer personality.
- A ring made with a mix of different metals, such as white and rose gold.
There are a ton of gem-less options that can suit a bride with more demure tastes. Find one on regular jewelry sites by searching for “fashion ring” or “gold ring” to see what comes up.
An engagement is always something to celebrate. When that celebration comes with the dread of going into debt, though, it can put a major damper on anyone’s happy news.
Instead of stretching to purchase a diamond out of your price range, try looking for alternatives that suit your budget and your personality. Remember that in essence, diamond engagement rings are a marketing ploy. By thinking beyond the jewelry store, you can come up with something that is truly unique.
Do you have a traditional diamond engagement ring? If not, what do you wear?