Andrew Tolve presents a men’s guide to the greatest gift you’ll ever buy.
To truly understand how obsessed Americans are with engagement rings, you have to be in the market for one.
Then you start to notice jewelry stores on every third or fourth block, sparkly pop-up ads on your desktop, and the voice of Tom Shane everywhere—during Monday Night Football, on your morning drive to work, on your “I’ve got a feeling” Pandora radio station—crooning on about the Shane Co.’s best diamond prices in America.
Add to this rigmarole the pressure of grandparents, mothers, siblings, friends, Facebook, and, of course, the lucky lady herself, and it becomes clear why shopping for an engagement ring is such a trying experience for men.
I, for one, was petrified. I have a track record for putting tons of time into gifts that end up badly missing their mark. Only after I’ve given the gift can I see all the other options that would have made for an infinitely better one. The thought of having the same epiphany after a proposal was near paralyzing.
Thankfully, I emerged from the process unscathed, with a ring that was and continues to be a hit. Hardly a week goes by that Ali doesn’t get compliments on her ring from friends, co-workers, waitresses, her gym trainer—really, anyone who sees it.
Indeed, the success of the ring was part of the reason Ali and I were able to move beyond the disaster of the proposal that accompanied it (For a full recap of that proposal, read here. For a summary, imagine stampeding sheep, boys with pellet guns, and a stammering guy on one knee. That was me.)
Every time we look at the ring, though, we don’t remember any of that. Instead, we see a beautiful stone and love what it represents and how it’s going to be on Ali’s finger for, well, ever. It’s my hope that this list will help you arrive at a similar success.
Brace yourself for the bill.
Buying a glittering ring for the love of your life is a romantic thing to do. Swiping your card for a $3,000, $10,000, $50,000 purchase … not so much.
The average diamond engagement ring goes for between $3,500 and $4,000 these days, but it’s easy to spend way more in a hurry. Take some time from the start to get used to how much rings cost and how much you feel comfortable spending. A general rule is that you should expect to spend about twice your monthly income.
If you’re out of work or under financial duress from the recession, there are low-cost alternatives—pawnshops, classifieds, online discount stores—but unfortunately, engagement rings are difficult to cut corners on. If you really can’t afford a nice ring, forget it altogether for now and wait until more prosperous days return. They will eventually. And in the meantime, it’s the commitment, not the diamond, that counts.
If you’re not under financial pressure but you’re looking to cut corners (for more beer, a bigger TV, a more expensive gym membership), I suggest you a) reevaluate the soundness of your relationship, and b) start counting the days until your future wife goes to upgrade her ring.
Jewelry stores vary greatly from one to the next. Some have vast collections spread over multiple floors with dozens of salespeople scampering about; others showcase a few select rings in a small room with a sole jeweler, who may also be the owner. Do yourself a favor and visit a bunch early on. Talk to employees and build up a comfort level with the Four Cs (cut, clarity, color, and carat) and decide which you value the most.
You might also try out a wholesale marketplace where the jewelers themselves go to buy their rings. You too, it turns out, can buy directly from the source. It’s an overwhelming experience for some, though the reward is in designing your own ring and chopping the retail rate in half. AmericasMart in Atlanta and the SF Jewelry Center in San Francisco are both highly recommended.
I went to a wholesale marketplace to design my own setting, and sifted through hundreds of stones myself. I ended up with a central sapphire instead of a diamond, partly because I knew Ali loved the look of a sapphire, and partly because that stone just felt like us.
Finally, use the Internet as a resource. With a quick Google search, beautiful estate jewelry can be at your fingertips. Some jewelry companies keep blogs that match celebrity jewelry with affordable alternatives. Most offer guidance for identifying quality and getting up to speed with the gemstone argot.
Talk to her friends.
It’s a strange thought that your girlfriend’s friends may know about her proposal long before she does herself. But get over it. Her friends will prove an invaluable resource.
Ask them if they know the exact ring your girlfriend has always wanted; it’s possible they’ve circled it in a magazine together. Or maybe they’ll know the cut, setting, or stone she’s most fond of.
If not, you can still use them for general advice. You can also ask your girlfriend subtle questions without her knowing what you’re up to. As you get further into the process, her friends will be good for bouncing photos and ideas off of, and for other odds and ends—like making sure you get the ring sized correctly.
Go to a jewelry store together.
There’s nothing more unglamorous than walking through a jewelry store and waiting for your girlfriend to say, “There, I want that one. It’s perfect!” It kills the surprise.
But let’s be honest here: Girls have a knack for picking out wonderful, thoughtful, exciting gifts that make their boyfriends feel like the luckiest guys in the world. And guys, well, sometimes we don’t. Bad jewelry, bad clothes, bad restaurants—we’ve been guilty of them all.
Which means that come engagement time, spending a ton of cash on arguably the most important present of your life, with zero input from your girlfriend, is a totally insane proposition. If your girlfriend’s friends are certain of what she wants, then great, this isn’t a problem. If they aren’t, and you haven’t managed to subtly pry the information out yourself, then maybe, just maybe, it’s best to suck it up and let her help.
Take a casual stroll around, take note of what she’s interested in, and then leave her out of it for the rest of the process. She’ll have no idea if you’re planning to propose in a week, a month, a year, or never. Besides, odds are you’ve already discussed marriage together, so taking a look at a few rings won’t spoil anything.
Make sure it counts.
More than anything else, make sure the ring you choose is significant to you. Most diamonds are good at being shiny and beautiful and looking good on any finger. But that’s the thing: your girlfriend’s ring finger isn’t just any finger. It’s your wife-to-be’s, and the ring on there should represent whatever force made you want to buy it.
That doesn’t mean you need your initials inscribed. But when you look at that ring, it had better resonate with both of you. If it doesn’t, the rest of the advice on this list is moot.
—Andrew Tolve is a columnist for The Good Men Project. Want to know when his next piece is published? Sign up for our email mailing list.