What is a wedding without the radiance of a diamond ring? Nothing quite symbolizes eternal love like these indestructible and brilliant stones. Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a friend on the topic of buying diamonds. A majority of my photography is focused on weddings; so naturally, purchasing those precious stones receives a lot of attention. I am by no means an expert on diamonds, but during the course of my work, I have encountered those who are. My associations have led me to accumulate a certain level of knowledge about these rare gems. One thing that struck me is the general lack of public knowledge about diamonds and buying diamonds. The idea that “diamonds are forever” thrives in our collective imagination. Everybody knows the implied value of diamonds: what they represent, what they signify, and how expensive they are. But it ends there. Dig deeper, and you will find that many people don’t have an in-depth understanding about diamonds, aside from what they see on TV and what commercial posters at shopping malls advertise. Here is where I can help to shed some light on the murky half-truths about these Pearls of the Earth.
Diamonds are one of the most abundant minerals on this planet. They are formed by the Earth’s intense compression of carbon atoms over many hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer. The purest diamonds are made up exclusively of carbon. The reason diamonds are so expensive is entirely a man-made phenomenon. A very famous diamond mining and trading conglomerate, based in Luxembourg, virtually dominates the diamond trade by manipulating the supply chain to jack-up prices, effectively creating a supply monopoly. Essentially, they buy up all the raw diamonds in the world and control how much is released back into the public each year, hence generating an artificial surge in global demand, which in turn creating a sustained price inflation. The concept is simple: the rarer the item, the more expensive to purchase. This is also the reason your diamond ring is worth so little when you trade it in (or sell it). Because the amount you initially paid was overpriced to begin with. The price you get when you sell your diamond is much closer to the actual value. Furthermore, even at that low price the buyer is still making a profit from “flipping” your diamond. There is without a doubt a level of business deception at work when it comes to the diamond trade. It is wise to exercise due diligence before buying a diamond to avoid unnecessary loss. I equate buying diamonds to taming a lion; there are many ways, hidden and predatory, the industry can finagle your money. But if you are patient, ask the right questions, know where and how to look, and continue to learn, then in the end you will master the cursed diamond. Its light will shine for you, and with it you can cast the magic spell of love on the girl of your heart.
The next major part of a diamond’s journey is called certification. This is when a diamond, after it has been cut, gets a legit “birth certificate” if you will. Each diamond that is destined to go on to a better life, from the Earth to your finger, has to go through a series of tests and evaluations to determine its quality and intrinsic properties. Think of it as a Standard of Evaluation. This certification process also aids in calculating the value of the rock when it is sold. There are quite a few scientific institutions that certify diamonds. Most reputable is GIA (Gemological Institute of America). If you haven’t heard of them that’s OK because you have probably heard of a system they developed called The Four C’s. GIA set the criteria for grading diamonds; they created the standard by which everything else is judged. GIA is a nonprofit organization with a mission to ensure the public trust in gems and jewelry by upholding the highest standards of integrity, academics, science, and research. In other words, you can’t bribe them to get a higher diamond grading report. And that is exactly what some of the lesser known institutes do; they falsify and doctor the grading report to make a diamond “appear” better on the certificate. These institutes work in cahoots with the retailers to supply mediocre-to-low quality diamonds with hyped up grading reports so they can sell their inexpensive diamonds at a higher price. Talking about bamboozlin’ the public! Similar institutes are: IGI, AGS, EGL, and a few others. They are pretty much copycat wanna-be’s so be careful purchasing diamonds that they certify. Very importantly – don’t buy a diamond unless it is GIA certified – period! GIA is renown for having the most stringent standards in the diamond certification industry. They invented The Four C’s, and they stand as an independent operation outside of any monetary or political influence. Forget about conflict diamonds, next time you walk into a jewelery store, ask them specifically for GIA certified diamonds. Your wallet will thank you later. As an added security measure against theft, GIA also laser-inscribes each diamond with a unique serial number. When time comes to have your ring serviced, you can be sure that nobody switched out your precious gem.
The Four C’s: Cut, Color, Clarity, and Carat Weight – this most people know. I am not going to get into heavy details on the four C’s because this information is widely available on the Internet. But I do want to point out a few things that some may not know off-hand. People talk about how big a diamond is by saying, “Oh my diamond is this many carats or that many carats”. The carat measurement is not the size of the diamond but the actual weight of the stone, hence the Carat Weight. You can have a relatively small top surface area diamond that has a big carat weight. It is determined by how the diamond is proportioned and cut. A skillful cutter can place the majority of the weight closer to the top of the stone, giving it the illusion of a wider circumference, and enhancing the overall appearance of the rock. When you shop for diamonds, inevitably you will see some that appear smaller but are outrageously expensive. Contrarily, you might see stones that are bigger around the same price. Price is based on the carat weight, and it is just one factor amongst many in establishing the price of a diamond. Imagine the stone is cut where most of the weight is concentrated in the lower portion of the diamond. The carat weight remains the same regardless where the weight is shifted. It looks smaller from the top but the price is still based on the carat weight.
Now most people talk about the “bling factor” or the brilliance of a diamond: how dazzling and bright a diamond shines. Immediately, one may think that clarity is what makes a diamond shine brightly. That is not true at all. Clarity has very little or nothing to do with a diamond’s ultra bling’d-out shine called “brilliance and fire”. It is the cut of a diamond that determines the degree of shine. How a diamond is cut can greatly enhance or hinder the way light enters the stone and reflects back out. The shine we see when we look at a diamond from the top is basically light reflected back. So when light enters a diamond from all sides, and the cut is made in an angle allowing most or all the light to reflect back out through the top, then what you perceive is a very shiny diamond. However, when the cut is made too flat or too steep, light entering the stone is trapped and reflected out the sides or through the bottom, giving less light to escape from the top, this results in a duller looking diamond. So don’t be bamboozled into thinking that clarity is what affects the sparkle on a girl’s best friend. It is the cut that brings out the BLING! The better the cut the brighter your diamond will radiate pure white light.
So now that you know what gives a diamond its brilliance and fire, what exactly is clarity then? Most naturally formed diamonds have some imperfections in them. These imperfections are called inclusions. Inclusions may contain microscopic crystals, tiny cracks, and general flaws in the structure. They are like nature’s fingerprints for each diamond. When people say “eye-clean diamond”, what they are referring to is a stone’s unblemished appearance to the naked eye. GIA standard certification procedure uses 10x magnification to grade diamonds. Almost all inclusions, with the exception of the biggest and most obvious, cannot be seen with the naked eye without the aid of a loupe or a magnifying glass. Save yourself some money and lower the clarity of a diamond to meet your budget. Pull your money out from clarity and put it in the cut. Lastly, under clarity you see symbols like VS1, VS2, VVS1, VVS2, SI1, SI2, etc. What do they mean? VS = very slight (inclusion). VVS = very very slight (inclusion). SI – slight inclusion.
Finally, there is color. This is self-explanatory. However, there is a little bit of wisdom here that you can use to help find your perfect gem. As you know “D” designates the highest point on the color scale, meaning colorless. In fact, D E F are all under the colorless category. When you look at a fine diamond you will see pure white light dancing before your eyes. This is a spellbinding brilliance that is not seen anywhere else. It is no surprise many people are mesmerized by the glow of the wicked diamond. As the color scale descends, the diamonds take on a yellowish “warmer” tone. If you put a D or an E diamond next to an H or I, you can immediately see the yellowish tone of the H or I diamond. Likewise, you will also quickly notice the “cooler” bluish tone of the D or E. The bluish hue of the colorless stone is, in fact, pure white. It appears bluish only in contrast to a more yellowish stone. However, without a higher grade comparison, it is difficult to detect the difference in color. This brings us to something called fluorescence. Fluorescence is a natural phenomenon found in some diamonds. It occurs when traces of the element boron is found in the stone. Fluorescence can be seen in the presence of ultraviolet light. The diamond then glows blue. Under normal lighting the effects of fluorescence is not so noticeable. However, if the level of fluorescence is high, it can exhibit a slight bluish haze even under natural lighting. Diamonds with fluorescence are generally priced lower because of this impurity.
Here is where it gets interesting. It is advisable for some people to buy lower color grade diamonds with fluorescence. Because the bluish “cooler” tint of fluorescence helps to mask out the yellowish “warmer” color of the lesser grade diamonds. In effect, the lower color grade diamond may appear whiter and less yellow as the blue counteracts against the yellow. This option can help save you money and at the same time maybe even get you a diamond that looks like it’s in the near colorless category. Having said that, there is a caveat to taking this route. The general consensus is that if you are buying a diamond in the colorless, or near colorless class, avoid fluorescence. It may create a haze-like appearance that is quite conspicuous even to the naked eye. Furthermore, buying diamonds with fluorescence is not a prudent investment strategy due to its poor resell value.
Before buying a diamond make sure you are able to physically inspect it. This also means you have to be extra careful when buying online. Also, big name jewelry stores use indoor display lighting systems that exaggerate the appearance of the gemstones. Physical inspection is a critical step. If possible, inspect your diamond under normal lighting conditions. Use a powerful jeweler’s loupe to get a magnified view of the stone; turn the stone in a circular motion and examine each facet of the cut. Study every angle of the stone. Look for inclusions. Do a comparison with stones from a higher and lower grade to see the differences. Ask your jeweler about edge inclusion diamonds. They are quality diamonds with inclusions located mainly on the edge of the stone. This is preferable because when the stone is set, the prongs holding the diamond in place can hide these inclusions from view.
Lastly, if at all possible, do business with a real jeweler, not a salesperson at a jewelry store. You would be astonished at the deplorable lack of knowledge some of these salespeople have when it comes to the products they sell. However, they can be amazingly versed in the payment plans, extra charges, additional fees, every possible add-on and accessory they try to get you to buy. And once when I asked “can you show me a shared prong setting?” He looked at me bewildered and said, “what’s a shared prong?” You get the picture? Real jewelers work with precious gems on a daily basis, they know everything that needs to know about their trade. Furthermore, they are the go-to people should any problems arise. Basically, you want to cut out the gate blockers at the sales desk so you can get straight to the ring maker.
Familiarizing yourself with diamonds can help you zero in on the gemstone of your dreams. There is a diamond for every price. The old saying goes, “size does matter, but it is not a measure of love”.
– Odi Jin