AS FINAL preparations are made for the holidays, one significant gift may remain on your shopping list: a diamond engagement ring.
With family gathered, the holidays are one of the most popular times for wedding proposals. As you narrow ring selection, here are a few tips for when you make the purchase - you're on your own with the actual proposal.
If you don't already know a good jeweler, you can look for stores through the Jewelers of America (www.jewelers.org) or the American Gem Society (www.ags.org).
It's smart to check with the Better Business Bureau for any complaints against a retailer, then ask whether a certified gemologist selects the retailer's inventory.
"The thing you should be looking for in buying a diamond is fair value - not a good deal," says Antoinette Matlins, co-author of Engagement & Wedding Rings: The Definitive Buying Guide for People in Love (GemStone Press, $16.95). "If someone goes into a jeweler looking for a bargain, they are almost enticing a retailer to pull out things that are difficult to sell."
In comparing rings, you want to press the jeweler for details. Of the "4Cs" (cut, clarity, color and carat weight), focus on a diamond's cut, which can affect the price by 40 percent or more.
Don't forget to ask about the band's metal and craftsmanship. A white gold band, for instance, can be made with platinum alloy (more expensive) or nickel alloy (cheaper), and the mounting may be a casting or custom-made.
Web sites such as BlueNile.com, an online jeweler, are good resources for diamond education. They also serve as another price comparison for when you negotiate.
To stay within budget, Fred Cuellar, author of How to Buy a Diamond (Sourcebooks Casablanca, $14.95), recommends buying a few points shy of a half-carat or full-carat weight. While Cuellar says the actual size difference between 1 carat and 0.9 carats, for instance, is the thickness of a sheet of paper, you could save thousands of dollars.
Cuellar also recommends buying your ring with a credit card instead of cash. Since a diamond's true value will escape the untrained eye, there is an opportunity for jewelers to misrepresent a stone. A credit-card company will help contest the charges if that proves to be the case.
Independent laboratories, such as the Gemological Institute of America Inc. or the American Gem Society Laboratories, analyze some diamonds and generate a grading report that's passed on to you when you buy the stone.
Without a lab report, you should insist that the color, clarity and exact carat weight for each stone is noted on the sales receipt. For cut, have the jeweler describe the make (the quality of work in fashioning the shape) from poor to excellent as well as the shape itself.
With a thorough look at the return policy, buy the ring and take it to a gemologist appraiser, who will verify the diamond's characteristics. Even with a lab report, the diamond should be appraised, since counterfeit reports do exist.
E-mail Carolyn Bigda at firstname.lastname@example.org.