Diamond Buying Guide
Even though diamonds are one of mankind’s most valued substances, most people don’t know anything else about them. However, knowing a bit about diamonds will help you appreciate them beyond their aesthetic appeal, and show you exactly why they are so unique and valuable. Here’s a brief guide to help you familiarize yourself with the basic elements of what makes diamonds special, as well as the essential vocabulary you should know.
What is a diamond?
Simply put, diamonds are crystals made entirely of carbon, forming deep within the Earth by being exposed to heat and pressure for billions of years. The pressure slowly pushes them up to the surface, and that’s where they can be collected by people. Because they require such special conditions, and such a long amount of time to form, they are extremely rare, and therefore highly valuable. They’re also not easy to mine. In order to collect just one carat of diamond (just 0.2 grams) 500,000 pounds of ore have to be mined and processed. And that’s not even accounting for the fact that only one fourth of mined diamonds are even able to be used as gemstones!
What makes a diamond beautiful?
Diamonds don’t come out of the ground ready to be set in a ring, so after the tedious mining process, diamonds have to be cut. Cutting is an essential part of what makes diamonds wearable, and it takes an incredible amount of finesse. It’s not easy. Diamonds are one of the hardest materials on the planet, and diamond cutters have to possess specialized knowledge, tools, and equipment to help them achieve the level of precision required to make diamonds beautiful. Because diamonds are so valuable, cutters have little room for error. They have to retain as much of the diamond’s weight as possible, create facets with exacting angles, and they have to avoid any slips that might cause a blemish to the stone.
What kind of diamond should I buy?
When it comes to buying diamonds, there’s a lot to keep in mind. However, if you’re going to invest the money to buy a diamond, it’s a smart idea to do your research. By familiarizing yourself with the basic principles of diamonds, and what makes a beautiful, sparkly diamond different from a dull one, you’ll be able to make an informed purchase. The four most important of these principles are referred to as the “Four C’s” – carat, clarity, cut, and color – but there are also a few more aspects of a diamonds you’ll want to know. Here’s a quick overview of all these elements.
- Cut: When talking about diamonds, the word “cut” can mean two things. The most common assumption is that “cut” refers to the shape of a stone (i.e. Princess cut or Oval cut). But with the 4 C’s that determine the quality of a diamond, the “cut” actually refers to the proportions of the diamond and how well it is cut. You want well-cut, well-proportioned diamonds, because they are brighter and better. Read more about Cut here.
- Clarity: Clarity refers to the purity of a diamond, and it is graded based on the number of internal flaws (also known as inclusions) and external blemishes found on a specific stone. Clarity grades range from F (Flawless) to I (Included), with many affordable yet beautiful options in between. Read more about Clarity here.
- Carat: Carats are the units used to weigh diamonds. A carat is a metric unit that can be divided into one hundred smaller “point” units. Unlike many things sold by weight, the carat price of a diamond is not uniform. This is because large diamonds are so extremely rare, so a 4-carat diamond won’t typically cost the same as two 2-carat diamonds. It will cost even more. Read more about Carats here.
- Color: Although diamonds come in every color, colorless white diamonds are the most sought-after and therefore the most valuable. White diamonds are graded on a scale of D through Z, D signifying complete colorlessness and Z signifying yellow. L diamonds are the lowest grade still considered to be white, and because L diamonds are less expensive, choosing one can mean you’ll be able to afford a high-carat, higher-clarity diamond in your budget. Read more about Color here.
- Proportions: The proportions of a diamond refer to the measurements and many different angles of all the facets on a diamond, and how they all relate to each other. Very precise proportions are needed for an optimal diamond, and how well a diamond is proportioned affects its Cut.
- Finish: The finish of a diamond describes how well it is polished and how symmetrical. After a diamond is cut, it can be meticulously polished with a spinning wheel to smooth out blemishes on the surface.
- Brilliance: The brilliance, or brightness, of a diamond depends on the surface polish and the amount of internal reflection. While the polish is defined by a lack of external blemishes, the internal reflection depends on the cut and proportion of a stone.
- Fire: The term “fire” refers to the flashing, rainbow light a diamond disperses, which can best be seen in low-lit environments such as a restaurant. Like many aspects of a diamond, the amount of fire a rock has is largely determined by its cut. Cut with steep crown angles and small tables (the flat top facet) create the best fire.
- Scintillation: Scintillation is the black and white sparkling a diamond does as it moves. It’s different than fire, and is actually best appreciated in bright lights, where no fire can be detected.Diamond Guide
Usually people think of diamonds as white (D-F colors) or near colorless (H-J), but of course there are diamonds of every color including pink, blue and yellow. In white diamonds, though, it’s the absence of body color that makes the stone more valuable.
On the D-Z white diamond grade scale (colored diamonds are graded on a separate color scale), the letter D is the highest, given to those very rare diamonds that are completely colorless. If you compare this stone to just about any other diamond, the Letter-D diamond will be visibly whiter.
At the other end of the spectrum is the letter L. Although diamonds with this rating have a tint of yellow that is easy to see, they are still considered white diamonds. Letter-L diamonds are less expensive than diamonds with higher color ratings, which means that improvements in clarity and cut and setting may be affordable. Another tip worth noting is that a Letter-L diamond with blue fluorescence can counter-balance the yellow tint, making the diamond appear whiter.
It might make your color rating selection decision easier to remember that most people can’t tell the difference between diamonds graded G through I, since all stones with those ratings are virtually colorless to the untrained eye. The lower price, on the other hand, can be appreciated by anyone.
Another thought to keep in mind is that diamonds at the lower end of the color scale can be said to have a warmer glow than colorless stones. This is very subjective, of course, but if you prefer the look of lower-color diamonds, you may be able to afford a larger stone and still stay within budget.
As a rule of thumb, yellow gold settings show lower color grade stones off to their best advantage. If you plan to set your diamond in white gold or platinum, however, it’s probably advisable to choose a higher color grade diamond.
Cut refers mainly to a diamond's proportions, although symmetry and polish are also taken into account, but not to the gem’s actual shape. This is because proportion determines a diamond’s brilliance.
Every diamond starts by being cut from its rough crystal state and its final appearance depends on the quality of that cut. If done well, the stone will be brilliant and reflect a lot of light. A diamond with an excellent cut is a much brighter stone than one with a poor cut.
Cuts are graded from excellent to poor and the proportion of the cut is crucial to its rating. When a diamond is rated at the top end of the scale, it means that its proportions allow nearly all incoming light to reflect, giving the stone fire, brilliance and sparkle.
Whether the diamond is deep-cut, with a smaller top (table) and larger depth, or shallow-cut, with a relatively smaller depth compared to its larger table, it’s the proportions of the cut that will ultimately determine how much light is returned to the outside.
It makes sense that cuts graded either excellent or very good are quite similar in respect to the amount of reflection, brilliance and fire. That being said, however, diamonds with very good cuts tend to be less expensive than those graded as excellent.
You’ll save more significantly when purchasing stones with good or fair cuts, while still enjoying moderate brilliance and fire. Most people will only really notice the difference if a fair cut diamond is compared directly with an excellent cut diamond.
The clarity of a diamond is graded based on the number of inclusions within it, as well as any outer blemishes. Clarity grades range from F (“flawless”) to varying levels of I (“included”), and that means for diamonds an F clarity grade is actually the best possible (though for diamonds F’s are extremely rare).
Inclusions are caused by small fractures or particles within a diamond, and the more inclusions a diamond has, the lower its clarity grade is. Many diamonds have inclusions that can only be detected with a powerful microscope, but if there are multiple inclusions, or large visible ones, that’s when the ability of the diamond to reflect light, and therefore its clarity, is affected.
A diamond absolutely does not need to have a flawless grade to be worth buying. In fact, since most people can’t detect blemishes or inclusions in diamonds, most lower grade clarity diamonds (like Very Slightly Included or Slightly Included) function as beautiful, affordable diamonds. You only need to worry if you’re considering buying diamonds with Included clarity grades. This level of imperfection is often very visible and such inclusions are noticeable even to the average viewer.
Here’s a guide to the specifics of what different clarity grades indicate. For the levels with numbered subcategories, keep in mind that 1 indicates a higher clarity grade, and 3 the lowest.
- Flawless (F) – no inclusions or blemishes
- Internally Flawless (IF) – no inclusions internally, but contains small surface blemishes
- Very Very Slightly Included (VVS1-VVS2) – tiny inclusions small enough to make it difficult for even a skilled diamond grade to detect under 10x magnification.
- Very Slightly Included (VS1-VS2) – Has small inclusions that are somewhat easy for a grader to detect under 10x magnification.
- Slightly Included (SI1-SI2) – Has small inclusions that graders can easily see with 10x magnification.
- Included (I1, I2, I3) – Has inclusions extremely visible under 10x magnification, and often they are visible to the naked, untrained eye.
A carat is the basic unit used to measure the weight of a diamond (not to be confused with karat, which measures the purity of gold). One carat has an equivalent weight to 0.2 grams, 200 milligrams or 0.007 ounces, but since diamonds are usually dealt with in very small amounts, the smallness of the carat-unit makes numbered measurements easier (because the numbers have fewer decimals).
In general, the more carats a diamond weighs, the larger it appears, but this is certainly not always the case. Sometimes diamonds are purposefully cut very shallow. That means that a smaller carat diamond is made to be very wide, therefore appearing to be much larger than it actually is. However, diamonds cut in this manner are not ideal, because when a stone has a shallow cut, the brilliance and light reflection are severely diminished. For a diamond that has the best brilliance, you want to be sure to take the cut (with appropriately proportional width and length measurements) into consideration.
In addition to the carat, there is another unit that’s often used to measure diamonds, called a “point.” One carat consists of a hundred points, so this means smaller diamonds are frequently measured in terms points. For example, a diamond that weighs 0.5 carats can also be said to weigh 50 points.
Inclusions are internal fractures and bits of mineral or other foreign substance in a gemstone, some only visible by microscope but some which can be seen quite easily. They’re so common in fact that gemologists use inclusions to separate lab grown or synthetic stones from natural diamonds.
If the inclusion is a colored deposit, it can be permanently removed with laser treatment. If the inclusion is an internal fracture, the solution is to insert filler -- a synthetic material that has the same optical properties as diamonds. It’s this second approach that produces what’s known as clarity enhanced or CE diamonds.
Stress fractures in diamonds are also called feathers and look like tiny white cracks inside the stone. Formed by the enormous pressure some 100 miles under the earth’s surface, it’s not surprising that the hardest gem in the world tends to contain inclusions.
Although these imperfections don’t usually impact the durability of the diamond, feathers are visible when held up to the light. When light hits the feather, it reflects in many directions and is easy to see with the naked eye. It’s only after the diamond goes through the clarity enhancement process, which fills the fracture, that the flaw becomes invisible.
Inclusions only lower the clarity grade of diamonds if there are enough of them or if the flaws are large enough to affect the stone’s brilliance. Whether you opt for diamonds with inclusions or those which have been either laser-treated or clarity enhanced comes down to a matter of price and personal preference.
Some people think of inclusions as a stone’s birthmark or fingerprint and indeed each diamond (except for the extremely rare flawless) has its own, unique imperfection. It might be an element or gas that was trapped during the crystallization process or it might be a feather fracture or a combination of these. Like snowflakes, no two diamonds are ever the same.
The brilliance of a diamond is the technical term for how bright it is. That is to say, the more brilliant a diamond is, the more it sparkles. To determine just how much brilliance a diamond has, there are two main factors: the surface polish of the stone, and how much internal reflection there is. Although these factors sound scientific, they are actually fairly easy to understand.
The internal reflection of a diamond is largely affected by the cut, and that’s why a diamond’s cut is one of the 4 C’s (or the four main factors) used to grade it overall. A well-cut diamond is specifically proportioned, using certain shapes and angles that best bounce light off of each other and into the eye of someone looking at it. By doing this, the appearance of brightness is maximized. Although there are many different shapes a diamond can have, all shapes should be cut in a way to create certain angles of reflection.
The facets of a cut diamond, or flat surfaces, are produced to affect just how much light is reflected back when you look at a diamond. When poorly cut, a diamond’s facets are poorly angled, so that facets reflect no light back. When this happens, it diminishes a diamond’s brilliance. When facets are well-angled, a lot of light is reflected, and a diamond shines brighter.
After a diamond is cut, it can be polished, by being placed against a rotating compound-infused wheel. The idea behind polishing is that it will smooth out any outer imperfections on each facet, and by eliminating those, reflected light will be brighter. The fewer blemishes on the surface of a diamond, and the better light is reflected, the more brilliance it will have. That being said, polishing is a very tedious process, and a slight of hand can have the adverse effect of creating new imperfections on a stone. Yet the fact that it takes such expertise and care only adds to the value of a well-polished diamond.
Diamond Shapes Overview
The way a diamond is cut is very strategic, in order to ensure the most brilliance. There have to be a certain number of facets, or planes, and they have to be angled well, in order to properly reflect light. However, even with the limitations of what angles make for the best cut-diamonds, there are still a number of options when it comes to the shape of a stone. Below is a quick overview of some of the most popular shapes.
- Round: By far the most popular and most classic diamond cut is the “round brilliant.” Shaped like a cone, with 57 or 58 facets, it is considered to be the most ideal diamond shape for fire and brilliance.
- Princess: A similar cut to the round brilliant, the Rectangular Modified Brilliant (popularly known as the Princess cut) is also popular, and has the most brilliance of any square-cut diamond. Because it has so many facets (57 or 76) the Princess cut is the best at hiding inclusions, or internal imperfections.
- Emerald: Emerald-cut diamonds have a very striking shape, as they are flat and rectangular with cut-off corners. The cut was originally designed for cutting emeralds, hence the name, but it has grown to become a popular shape for diamonds as well. Although with diamonds this cut has significantly less brilliance than the Round Brilliant cut, its shape can highlight a stone’s clarity.
- Asscher: A square version of the Emerald cut is called the Asscher cut, or simply a Square Emerald. It was originally developed in the early 20th century during the Art Deco movement, and though it’s more rare today than it was in the 1920s, it can still be found at certain jewelers.
- Radiant: Combining elements from the Brilliant cut with the steps of the Emerald cut, Radiant diamonds are the best at hiding internal imperfections, and are one of the most brilliant square-shaped diamonds.
- Oval: The Oval is best for optimizing carat weight, which basically means that its shape and symmetry make a diamond appear bigger than it would look if it were merely round. Because the shape is drawn out, it can flatter short fingers, and for that reason it has become a popular in recent years as a shape for center stones in engagement rings.
- Marquise: A variation of the Oval is the Marquise cut, also known as a “Navette” shape (which refers to its resemblance to a “little boat”). Though the edges of a Marquise cut are pointed, like the Oval, it maximizes carat weight and elongates the fingers of its wearer.
- Pear: The Pear cut is a cross between a Round Brilliant and a Marquise cut diamond. Because of its unique shape, it is generally recommended that Pear cut diamonds have a very high grade of color. Color is more visible near the pointed edge of the pear shape, so good color prevents any uneven appearance of the diamond’s tone.
- Cushion: Cushion (or Pillow) cut diamonds are distinguished by their large and numerous facets, as well as their rounded, pillow-like edges. Like the Princess cut, the Cushion cut is wonderful at hiding inclusions and has a relatively high brilliance.
- Heart: Heart-shaped diamonds are difficult to perfect, and therefore rare. Their main draw is that many people find them to be romantic.
- Trillion: Most often used as accent stones, Trillion cut diamonds are distinguished by their triangular shape. They have a lot of fire and sharp brilliance, which means whenever they are used on their own, instead of as accents, they are very striking.
- Old Miner: Old miner-cut diamonds were the precursor to the Round Brilliant, and were the most popular shape in the 16th and 17th century. They’re very similar to the Round Brilliant, but slightly more square with high crown, faceted culet, deep pavilion and small table.
- Old European: Old European cut is another predecessor to the Round Brilliant, with slightly different proportions. The table tends to be smaller and deeper, and though they are more dull than Round Brilliants, they follow the natural shape of the rock to preserve as much carat as possible (whereas most diamonds lose half their weight in the cutting process).
Precious Metals Overview
With jewelry, there are three kinds of precious metals: gold, platinum, and silver. Here’s what you need to know about each one:
Gold: Gold is classic for a reason. It’s sturdy, it lasts a long time, and it looks amazing with diamonds. Its purity is measured in “karats” (not to be confused with the weight-unit “carat”) and 18-karat gold is often considered ideal, consisting of 75% gold. Although 18-karat gold shows signs of wear faster than 14 or 10-karat, 18 is still preferred because its strong yellow color is best suited for jewelry. 24-karat gold is 100% pure gold, though such purity actually makes it less durable than 18-karat gold and too soft for most jewelry. While 14 is the most common level of purity in the U.S., anything less than 10-karat cannot legally be sold as “gold.”
Palladium: Palladium is similar to platinum with a silver, grey, white color, and resides in the platinum family of metals due to the similar chemical properties of the two.
Platinum: Although platinum was considered worthless 300 years ago, it is now far more valuable than gold. The reason is manifold. First of all, the white shine of platinum is unique and beautiful, which makes is very desirable. It is also the strongest of the precious metals, and it’s twice as heavy as 14-karat gold. Platinum has had a surge in popularity in recent years, and it has slowly replaced gold as the metal of choice in diamond rings. Though gold and diamond pair well together, platinum does a much better job at bringing out a diamond’s brilliance.
Rhodium: Rhodium is a white metal very similar to Platinum. Since the natural color of gold will eventually wear through white gold jewelry, you should maintain your white gold jewelry by having it rhodium plated every 12 to 18 months.
Silver: Silver is one of man-kind’s oldest metals, and it is still popular today. Silver’s main draw is that it is the brightest, with unparalleled reflective abilities: polished silver can look even brighter than platinum. Plus, there’s no need to worry if your silver isn’t pure. It’s typical and actually desirable for silver jewelry to be alloyed with copper, because pure silver is too soft to be practical.
Tungsten: Tungsten is a very hard , strong and durable metal and is highly scratch resistant. This metal has a permanent polish which means that it never has to be re-polished. Rings made of Tungsten cant be cut or soldered, so if your buy one of these rings, its important to know your size since they cant be resized
Conflict diamonds are those mined in war zones. Also known as war diamonds or blood diamonds and usually coming from Africa, the proceeds from their sale tend to support warlords and/or illegal activities and invasions.
The diamond industry worked closely with governments and the United Nations to form the Kimberley Process Certification System in 2002 in an attempt to curtail the flow of blood diamonds. The following year, the United States, the world’s largest consumer of diamonds, gave teeth to the system by enacting the Clean Diamond Trade Act that virtually eliminated trade in conflict diamonds.
Now that the world's supply of diamonds is coming from sources free of conflict, the diamond trade has taken its rightful place as a driving economic force, especially in Africa where more than half the world’s diamonds come from. The diamond mining industry not only provides employment, but government revenues there from the sale of conflict-free diamonds help fund universal programs such as healthcare and education.
Conflict-free certified diamonds are mined in Canada, Russia and Australia too, and your stone will come with documentation that shows that it is truly conflict-free.
Certificates vs. Appraisals
The words “certificate” and “appraisal” both conjure confidence and trust. Because of this, when you’re purchasing a diamond, you might think the two are essentially the same. However, while each kind of documents can come in handy in its own way, there is a huge difference between what each promises. Here’s what you need to know:
Certifications give quality reports on the insides and outsides of individual diamonds. They come from laboratories that aren’t at all affiliated with retail outlets, and for this reason they are the most reliable source for information on a stone. One of the most trusted laboratories who certify diamonds is the Accredited Gemological Institute, also known as AGI. Most reports will be very detailed and include size and weight measurements, as well as the color, clarity, polish, and symmetry. Since all the measurements are done in laboratories by experts with high-end equipment, they’re also extremely accurate.
Appraisals, on the other hand, are a bit less informative. These documents are typically generated by jewelry stores, based entirely on the professional opinion of jewelry store owners. Whereas diamond certifications offer detailed reports, appraisals merely give a sense of how much a diamond is worth, and they are great to use for insurance purposes.