I’m both a fan and a designer of nontraditional engagement rings. (In fact, my first big jewelry design — before I was even in the jewelry business — was my own unusual ring.) Therefore, if you don’t want a diamond in your ring, I will happily come up with suggestions for you.
That said, there are a limited number of gems that work for a ring that is subject to an extraordinary amount of wear and tear, so when you are considering alternatives, you want to seek out an expert. The internet can steer you the wrong way, as jewelry blogger Becky Stone of Diamonds in the Library pointed out today after reading a BuzzFeed article about eight alternative gems for engagement rings.
Two gems on the list — pearls and opals — are notoriously soft and all wrong for a ring that’s going to be worn every day. I feel so strongly about this that I once refused an engagement-ring commission from a customer who insisted upon a black pearl. I could have taken that money and presented the customer with a ring and a few care instructions … but in my experience, people nod and smile and then wear their rings to the beach and in the pool. Customers sometimes pop up in my emails wondering why their ring looks kind of scratched up after a few months, and those are diamond rings that have only suffered slight damage to the gold or platinum setting! Read what Becky has to say about opals and pearls:
How sad will you be when your engagement opal cracks after 6 months? Or your pearl dissolves in 2 years because you shower w/ it on?
— Becky Stone (@DiamondsintheLi) February 15, 2017
Emeralds are also on the BuzzFeed list. While emeralds are harder than opals and pearls, the same chemical makeup that gives them their vibrant green hue also makes emeralds likely to have internal fractures. Ultrasonic vibrations involved in some at-home (and professional) jewelry-cleaning devices can worsen existing emerald fractures, pushing the gem to the breaking point. Heat can dissolve the oils that are an approved treatment for minimizing the look of the fractures. You can also be randomly unlucky and hit your emerald against a hard surface in a way that causes breakage. I reserve emeralds for necklaces and earrings — which are safer from life’s hard knocks — or special-occasion rings that get extra care.
The other five gems on the BuzzFeed list aren’t quite as bad as those three, but they don’t thrill me either. They’re still much more prone to show wear and tear than diamonds. Part of the reason that diamonds became THE engagement ring stone is because they’re the hardest naturally occurring substance. The Mohs’ scale of mineral hardness rates gems and other minerals from 1 to 10, and diamonds rate a 10. A diamond can only be scratched by another diamond (or a laser beam, so be careful when wielding a lightsaber.) If you drop a diamond ring on the floor, it’s not going to have a big crack in it when you pick it up. Diamonds, by the way, come in a range of cuts and colors, some of which are much less expensive than the traditional white — or, as a gem dealer would say, “colorless” — diamond, so if it’s a round, colorless solitaire that leaves you cold, consider black, brown, and gray diamonds.
Those are both unexpected and budget-friendly. (Pink and yellow diamonds can be more expensive than colorless ones, and forget a red, blue, or green diamond! Very pricey!) I’d love to do an engagement ring with a heart-shaped black diamond. How fun would that be?
The next best thing to a diamond in terms of scratch-resistance is corundum, the mineral that comes in at 9 on the Mohs hardness scale. If gem-quality corundum is red, we call it a ruby. Any other color qualifies as a sapphire. People who aren’t too into gems and jewelry tend to assume sapphires are all blue, but they come in range of colors. I’m a big fan of yellow and pink sapphires, which are less expensive than yellow and pink diamonds and often more vivid. My Pink Elephant and Tipsy Writer Maneater ring is covered with pink sapphires.
I used orange sapphires to portray my Instagram-famous cat, FitzRoy, in this Y-necklace.
White sapphires — which are often used in watch faces thanks to their durability — can serve as an inexpensive substitute for colorless diamonds. They don’t have the sparkling brilliance of a diamond, so if you place a white sapphire next to a diamond, even the untrained eye will recognize the difference. But alone in a ring, a white sapphire can look quite nice, and we don’t have to give it a diamond cut. One of my wilder custom engagement rings was created five years ago for my gorgeous client Lori. Lori had a yen for my Edburga poison ring, which was originally made with rose quartz — one of the gems on the BuzzFeed list. Rose Quartz is a 7 on the Mohs scale, which was too low for me, so I recreated the color of the Edburga gem by setting a white sapphire over rose gold.
As you can see, Lori’s design doesn’t look anything like a typical engagement ring. But you don’t have to go with a domed-shaped white sapphire or a too-soft BuzzFeed stone in order to get a ring that stands out. It’s the same thing I was saying about heart-themed jewelry last week. If the jewelry looks boring and basic, that’s a problem with the design, not necessarily with the theme. If a diamond ring looks boring and basic, that’s also because of the design, not because of the material. If you throw an amethyst (7 on the Mohs scale) into that boring design in order to have a “different” engagement ring … well, okay. Now you have the same ordinary-looking ring with an amethyst in it. If you want an extraordinary ring, you need a designer with vision more than you need a certain type of gem. Bring me your round diamonds and let me go crazy!
Important note: If what you’re worried about is the ethical sourcing of a diamond, make sure your designer or gem seller will guarantee in writing that a stone is known to be conflict-free — as far as such things can be known. Also, remember that many things mined from or grown from the earth are subject to the same ethical concerns that diamonds are — including colored gems,the minerals used in products such as cell phones, and timber used in furniture. Sadly, unless you move off the grid and become a subsistence farmer, it’s going to be impossible for you to determine whether every resource used in modern life has come to you without harming another soul. But I feel like it’s good to be consistent within categories, at least. So, if you want a colored gem in your engagement ring because you want to avoid conflict diamonds, find out where THAT gem comes from rather than just assuming it’s better. You can also inquire about the use of recycled gold or platinum — we constantly recycle metal! — or Fairmined Gold in the creation of your ring.
And, as I frequently reiterate, I’m happy to create a new ring around an old diamond (or other gem) that’s already in your family. To be honest, it’s possible for certain older diamonds to have a more questionable past than a diamond that is mined today, but because there’s no way to know, you might as well reuse what you have.
Robin Brooks says
Have you ever worked with tension settings? Very interesting and remind me of designers like Issey Miyake who love to work with technical and cutting edge processes.
I don’t work with them, but I did redesign an old one once!
Catherine Gouker says
I was considering one of those at home ultra sonic jewelry cleaners, but now I am hesitant. It’s not like I have any emeralds but I do have a tourmaline that appears to have a flaw. And so much pearl jewelry. Maybe pass on the ultrasonic thing?
I feel like it’s not a necessary investment. The tourmaline should be able to be cleaned gently with soap and water — if for some reason the piece is extra dirty, a local jeweler can do a a professional cleaning.
A damp, soapy cloth — with very mild soap — followed by a damp cloth without any soap can be used on pearls.
Catherine Gouker says
Ok. I’ll skip it then. Thanks for the advice!?