First, you should decide on how much you are able to spend on a ring. The standard is to budget about two month's salary for a bride's wedding ring and work around personal preferences within that range.
One decision is whether the couple prefers yellow gold, white gold or platinum. In its natural form, gold is yellow and fairly soft, which means jewelers have to add components such as copper and zinc to make it stronger; the karat weight indicates how much of the mixture is pure gold. White gold is mixed with nickel and silver to give it a whiter appearance. The most precious and expensive metal for rings is platinum, which jewelry designer Tom Mathis of Symmetry Jewelers & Designers (8138 Hampson St., 861-9925) says currently sells for about $800 an ounce, twice the price of gold.
Which to choose "is just a matter of taste," Mathis says. "If they want to spend the money, they can get it set in platinum." An alternative is 18-karat white gold, he says. "It has the same look as platinum and saves them hundreds of dollars."
Choosing the right gemstone can be a little trickier because what accounts for differences in value and price are not visible to the naked eye. Experts advise couples to find a jeweler they trust who has their stones graded by a reputable lab. Because diamonds are formed in nature, each stone is unique and is subject to intermingling with other components and forces of nature as they develop. A diamond's clarity is based on "inclusions" formed inside it, such as mineral deposits, feathering, and fractures. Inclusions may not affect the actual beauty of the cut diamond, but they do affect the value and price. To determine clarity, a diamond must be viewed through a jeweler's loupe or a microscope with a magnification of at least 10.
Much of a finished diamond's beauty depends on how it is cut, the angles and proportions of flat planes (or facets) that reflect and disperse light that hits it, referred to as brilliance and fire. Carat refers to the weight of a diamond and not necessarily to the size; shallower cuts or a flatter shape can make a smaller carat diamond appear larger than a more expensive, heavier one.
Another factor to consider is the color, which is graded under controlled lighting conditions using a master scale that runs from colorless -- an extremely rare find in nature -- to "fancy" colors of yellow, orange, pink, blue, green, brown and, very rarely, red. Once you're aware of these variables, you're ready to shop.
Nationally, about 78 percent of brides receive diamond engagement or wedding rings and the options are as varied as the couples choosing them. That's why Brian Boudreaux at Boudreaux's Jewelers (701 Metairie Road, Metairie, 831-2602; 4550 Hwy. 22, Mandeville, 985-626-1666) likes to keep as many different styles of rings on hand as possible.
"We have a very vast selection of rings from different designers," he says. "We also design and manufacture some of our own classic styles and we custom-design things if people have their own ideas."
Symmetry's Mathis says his store also carries hundreds of selections, plus he custom designs jewelry. To make the custom-design process easier, he uses a software program that allows him to feed his designs into a computer and produce a three-dimensional image of a ring he's designed on paper to show customers how it will look with different size and shapes of stones and in different precious metals.
"It saves time more than anything else and frees up my imagination tremendously," he says. "Now I take it from the drawing board directly into the 3-D computer program." What once took him days now takes hours, which also saves customers money. The program also allows Mathis to move the ring around on the screen so customers can see how it would look from any angle from which it will be seen.
In the end, actually deciding on a ring comes down to personal taste and, of course, price. This is where trusting your jeweler comes in. "We advise couples to work with a jeweler that they're comfortable with and has had longevity and stability in the marketplace ... so they'll know that jeweler will be there to stand behind the product," Boudreaux says. "We also advise them to shop for certified materials that have objective gradings from places [such as the American Gemological Laboratory for clarity, color and carat]. That gives the consumer protection."
Many couples shop for rings together, but there still are grooms who take the traditional stance of picking out a ring and presenting it as a surprise, which can be risky. "We as a company will work with these guys," Boudreaux says, "and will make exchanges possible (if the bride doesn't liked the ring). They don't have to feel they're out on a ledge."
Beyond that, couples look for beauty. "The diamond shapes that have been hot for us have been princess cuts, emerald cuts, ovals and rounds," Boudreaux says. "The rounds are the biggest seller."
He also allows couples to upgrade their rings or have the stones put in new settings after a time. "A lot of time, from an economic or financial position, the consumer has to be realistic about what they purchase," he says. "As their financial situation changes, we try to make it possible for them to trade up with their old diamond for something bigger, prettier or better."