The new rule is, there are no rules when it comes to choosing an engagement ring. Sure, brides still opt for multicarat sparklers, but there’s a growing trend toward less traditional options and a desire to support brands whose values align with their own.
Likewise, many heterosexual couples are doing away with the antiquated belief that it’s the groom’s responsibility (or prerogative) to pick the engagement ring. About two-thirds of couples are now choosing the ring together, according to Brides. While diamonds continue to be the stone of choice for nearly 9 out of 10 women, couples are increasingly side-stepping the murky economics of excavated stones in favor of lab-grown diamonds (LGDs), which are chemically, optically and physically identical to mined ones—but retail for 30% to 50% less.
Though the pandemic most likely played a big part in the uptick, one-third of engagement rings were purchased from e-retailers in 2020. Customer-centric online jewelers like Frank Darling and VRAI can take some of the credit: Their free design services, ethically sourced stones and affordability have transformed the once-daunting task of buying an engagement ring into a fun (and far less stressful) event.
Founded by design and tech entrepreneur Kegan Fisher in 2017, Frank Darling makes customizing your engagement ring a breeze. Start by taking the company’s “dream ring” quiz, then order a free Try at Home Kit—which includes sterling and cubic zirconia replicas of your top four ring selections. A design consultant will hold your hand from there.
Unlike other retailers, VRAI creates the LGDs it sells in its own zero-emission foundry. “It allows us to cut out the middleman, reduce prices and make our jewelry more accessible,” says CEO Mona Akhavi. Best of all: Once you’ve decided on all the specifics (cut, carat, etc.), your creation will be made to order and delivered within a week. Want to browse in person? VRAI opened its first store on Melrose Place in Los Angeles in September 2021.
An early adopter of conflict-free stones, Anna-Mieke Anderson founded MiaDonna in 2005, offering ethically sourced jewelry, including nearly 200 engagement rings that can be
customized with a vast inventory of LGDs, gems and recycled metals, including white gold and platinum. To offset any carbon generated by shipping, a tree is planted for every order.
Is an engagement ring a good investment? In a word: no. When comparing natural vs. LGDs, it’s a mistake to assume traditional diamonds will appreciate more in value over time. “There are a lot of great reasons to buy a diamond, but an investment isn’t one of them,” Fisher says. Master diamond setter Larry Green, a 33-year veteran of the jewelry trade, concurs: “Most diamonds purchased retail simply don’t have great resale value.”
Green, the owner of Green & Co. Jewelers in Salt Lake City, advises couples to set a budget and not get overly obsessed with the Four Cs—clarity, color, cut and carat. “A diamond doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful,” says Green, who recommends focusing on cut above all else, as it affects a stone’s overall brilliance, followed by color. “Choose a diamond that has a cut rating of ‘ideal,’ ‘excellent’ or ‘very good,’ and that has a D to H rating on the GIA Color Grading Scale—anything lower may start to take on a slight yellowish tint.”
The same buying tips hold true for lab-grown diamonds. “LGDs are an incredible product and their green benefits appeal to younger clients who can also get a bigger, higher-quality
diamond for their money,” Green says. He adds that Moissanite, another lab-grown stone that resembles a diamond, is also an affordable option for some shoppers, though he doesn’t recommend cubic zirconia. “The stones have a cheaper-looking sparkle and often chip, fade and scratch over time.”
As with any big purchase, choose a trustworthy jeweler or retailer with good reviews and a transparent supply chain. Multiple retailers can have the same exact stone (owned by a shared supplier) but at different markups, so shop around before committing.
A lot of couples skip engagement rings entirely—putting the money saved (an average of $5,500) toward a down payment on a house, student debt or even a super-fabulous closet a la Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big in Sex and the City.
Some couples express their lifelong devotion (and save a few bucks) with one-of-a-kind wedding ring tattoos. “My husband, Gabe, works with his hands and doesn’t like rings, so a wedding band tattoo made sense,” says 28-year-old Nashville resident Jaclyn Williams, who had an Egyptian ankh, or key of life, inked on her ring finger in solidarity. The couple paid a total of $200. “It was cost effective,” Williams says, “but it also means a lot to have these symbols of our love literally on our hands forever.”
Celebrities are in on it, too. Married in the fourth month on the fourth day, Jay Z and Beyoncé inked the Roman numeral IV on their ring fingers to commemorate their wedding—and their shared favorite number. Dax Shepard has a tiny bell (as in Kristen Bell) on his fourth finger, and David Beckham went with 99, the year he married Victoria.
Put a Gem on It
Roughly 1 in 10 brides opts for a colored gemstone. But, if you go this route, don’t choose your gem solely based on aesthetics, especially if you work with your hands, Green cautions. While sapphires and rubies are relatively tough, opals and emeralds, for example, are fragile. “They’re softer than diamonds and often have inclusions, which make them prone to scratches and breakage,” he says.
Never a big fan of diamonds, Los Angeles fashion stylist Audrey Brianne, 37, and her fiancé, Jerime Tabor, wanted a sapphire as a center stone—and assurances that it was ethically sourced. They found Brooklyn-based Mociun on Instagram. “Working with them was a no-brainer,” Brianne says. “Their designs went way beyond your average Tiffany-looking solitaire and they’re fully transparent about the origin of their stones.” After consulting with owner Caitlin Mociun, the couple created a bevel-cut sapphire ring flanked by round peach sapphires. “The ring’s a conversation starter because it’s unique, not because of its carat size,” Brianne says.
Millie content is licensed from Meredith Corporation, publisher of Millie, Real Simple, InStyle and more.
Monica Michael Willis, a former editor-at-large at Modern Farmer, has reported on the environment for 25 years.