questionswhere would be a good start when looking for…

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No doubt some here will criticize me for being unromantic, but to be honest my suggestion is taking her ring shopping, and let HER decide what kind of ring she wants, especially since this is an area where it can be difficult to shop and individual tastes can be fickle.

Clearly she's aware you intend to propose sometime in the near future. This does not mean the proposal itself won't still be a surprise... if this is a ring she'll have for the rest of her life, there are some huge benefits to making sure it's one that she absolutely loves.

Anyway, just my 2 cents. I will now cede to Wooters giving actual advice about rings. Best of luck!

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Princess cut is more expensive. On a budget you'll get a bigger bang with a round and more to pick from. Go to several local jewelers that aren't in the mall, ask to see their diamonds. Remember you can take the diamond from one store and put it in the setting of another. If you know you're looking for a 3 stone setting in white gold you'll have plenty to pick from. Just start the work.
Every jewler is going to have a solid return policy. Fight the urge to put other stones besides diamonds in the setting. You can always add a band at like 5-10 years with those. No girl ever turned down a ring because it was "too classic".

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First, I am not an expert by any means on gemstones so let's get that out there.

Second, be sure she what she wants. If she doesn't want a diamond, you have likely saved yourself (and her eventually) a fortune. Also find out if she wants to pick out her own. If not, try to get a friend who knows her taste very well to come with you to point out a few possibilities.

I would suggest going to the privately owned jewelers in your area. (Don't discuss budget with the jeweler while the friend is there unless you want to entertain the possibility that she'll tell your girlfriend.) Private jewelers tend to have better pricing for quality in my experience because they know the engagement ring is the first major jewelry purchase for most people, but not the last. They want to earn your business for the next 50 years. Chain stores don't seem to care as much. Still compare online though just to make sure and don't be afraid to haggle a bit in store. It won't hurt.

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@novastarj: I did this. We were just looking for something to do one night so I said "lets go window shopping". We started out a few stores down from the jewelry store then wandered in there on my suggestion. She had fun looking at all kinds of jewelry then when walking past the engagement rings she pointed out some she thought were pretty.

I ended up finding one that was similar to the ones she liked and she loved it and had fun looking at the shop too.

I started out in the mall and looked at the 3 ring stores in there and then ended up getting the ring at Jareds.

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Agreed with others, be sure you know what she wants.

That doesn't mean ask her "what do you want lol", because I just knew my woman wouldn't want to pick it out, and that she would love whatever I got her.

You have the 4 C's. Cut, clarity, color, and carat. To some women, size is all that matters (heh), and she would rather have the cloudiest 2 carat diamond than the clearest (or yellow, surprisingly rare...) half carat diamond. This goes along with the first question, be sure you know what she wants.

If you don't want to ask her, or you want to surprise her, get her something meaningful to you. "I went smaller because I felt that quality was more important than quantity", if she's particularly petite, any ring is going to look massive on her finger. "I got 3 center stones to represent our past, present, and future". "I got you a solitaire because it was simple, elegant, and I felt we can accent it nicely with a sparkly wedding band". All good reasons!

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first off, congrats on making the leap!

second, i'd try to educate yourself on at least the basics of picking out a diamond before ever even walking into the store. there's a lot of good tutorials out there that will help you get at least a base knowledge of what you're going to see/hear. here's one that came up on a quick search:
http://www.diamondgrading.com/Diamonds_Tutorial.htm

third, i echo the statements above about finding a local shop. they truly do go above and beyond when it comes to service. for example, when i was searching for a diamond (i was going to let my wife pick out the setting), i went into the chain stores. the service was good, but there was the nagging feeling that they were always trying to upsell me. so, i did some poking around and found a local place in seattle. i made an appointment and went in a couple weeks later.

continued...

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for the entire appointment, the lady just answered my questions and showed me examples of different diamonds. for the first hour, she just schooled me on how to pick a diamond. the second appointment, she asked more questions about what my budget was, how many carats i'd like, what cut, etc.

and to give an example of customer service, here's a quick story. i accidentally gave her my home# instead of my cell#. so, she called and left a message on our home machine. my wife heard it and wanted to come with. so i called the lady back and explained that my wife didn't know that i'd already been there twice and to act like it was the first time we had met. not only did she pretend not to know me, she actually went over the entire 'intro to diamonds' again for the benefit of my wife. the full hour long lesson. now that's service!

in the end, i got a beautiful diamond. to this day, 7 years later, complete strangers still comment on my wife's diamond.

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@zarfus: I would also recommend HIGHLY that you go local, not chain. If you know EXACTLY the size and the ring, go ahead and do chain as you'll save potentially loads of money.

I went local, and this particular place had a great deal, and offered free re-sizing for life (fingers swell in the summer or during pregnancies), guaranteed free replacement if damaged, 100% money back in store credit if she decided it's not the right ring, but the right guy. They even emailed me seeing if she said yes and offered a discount for our wedding bands.

Now: to answer your question "where do I start". I would start online and learn about those 4 C's, and figure out what's important to you (her). Then go into a store and ask to see different examples (half carat compared to 1 carat, H color compared to D color, I1 clarity compared to VSI2 clarity, princess to round, etc etc).

Congrats buddy and good luck!

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Fine, one more answer. Best value without losing any visual clarity = a diamond rated at SI1-2. Flawless to the naked eye.

Since you want 3 stones, never judge the ring by t.c.w (total carat weight), but instead find how large the center stone is to judge if that ring is a good value (price compare to other rings).

White gold costs the same as yellow gold, the other white metals will cost more. (don't worry too much on metal strength, gold is perfectly strong).

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Try and find a try wholesale house and then look for the setting. What you get at a mall store for 6000 is about 600 if you buy the stone and setting separably

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@fivemtz: I would have to disagree, specifically because I went a different route.

I actually went with a sapphire primary stone (Yogo sapphire, so it actually ended up costing more than a diamond - DOH). But other stones in engagement/wedding bands are becoming more popular. My wife isn't really a big fan of jewelry and diamonds and didn't care about some big expensive diamond. So I went with a "wrap" of two round diamonds to each side of the sapphire. (Picture xxOxx x=diamond, O=sapphire).

Use your imagination, take her out ring shopping there's nothing wrong with that. Ask her best friend - maybe they have an idea of her tastes?

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here's a piece of advice that no one ever wants to give, and since i don't know you from adam i'll throw it out there:

you're young. really young (assuming you're not a late student). make abso-f'ing-lutely sure you want to roll over in the morning and see that girl for the rest of your life because i promise you both are going to change between now and when you finally mature (~28).

there...i said it.

don't mean to throw salt, i mean to throw honesty. with divorce rates over 50% more people should be saying this to people thinking about taking the big leap. especially college-aged.

so, if you're all set and you really wanna do this action....congratulations! i've bought jewelry, but nothing that expensive so i got nothing.

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@novastarj: Absolutely agree with you. The ring is going to be on her finger (presumably) for the rest of her life, so she should absolutely have a say in it.

I actually proposed the day of the Northridge earthquake, figuring something good had to come out of that day. I hadn't planned it and had no ring. When people asked "Where's the ring" we told them it was on layaway at a department store that had completely collapsed.

But a few months later we went to the Jewelry District in Downtown LA and looked at different styles in a few shops. After not seeing anything "perfect" she eventually decided she wanted to design her own set. It didn't cost any more than any other ring since they made them all to order anyway. The set turned out great, with the engagement and wedding rings in an interlocking V-shape that she still loves 16 years later.

So if there is a jewelry district where you live, check it out, and don't be afraid to haggle either.

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I bought a raw round diamond off of blue nile and brought it to a local jeweler for a platinum engagement band setting. This way I knew all of my money was going to the important part and I could obsess over stone clarity vs size I wanted. I size-guessed a step larger, then resized with her to fit. You could save up and shop together for the perfect permanent band later (if she accepts!)

http://www.bluenile.com/diamond-search?pt=setform

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@pinchecat: Seriously, don't worry about it. This is a decision that I have been working around for many years. We have experienced "ups" "downs" and everything else around the sun. I'm confident that this is the best decision that I have and will ever make in my life. I agree that divorce rates are quite high and my demographic is largely responsible for this, no doubt. However, my decision was made confidently.

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@studerc: go git 'er then, boy!

(oh, and the bluenile site linked by @snapster is pretty good. i've poked around there before, and usually end up sweating and hyperventilating after a while)

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I'd second the suggestion to read up on the 4 C's on bluenile.com, and then go find a local jeweler or at least one that only has a few stores in your state. They'll most often have the best customer service and higher quality stones and designs. An option would be to find a center stone you want in the cut you want, have it put in a temporary setting for the proposal and then you both go to find the perfect setting and side stones. Many reputable jewelers will help you out with this, and use the money from the basic setting towards another setting.
They are also more likely to want to build a relationship with you and do things like free cleanings, sizings, repairs, etc. It might cost a bit more up front, but will be worth it down the road. Good Luck, and Congratulations!

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best selection, prices okay: bluenile.com
best prices, limited selection: http://www.jewelry.com/Search.action?facets=jewelrytype:Ring|ringstyle:Engagement
best 'middle-ground blend' of prices/selection: jamesallen.com

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I am a jewelry manufacturer, I have been for over 20 years, get diamonds direct from importers, when it was time to get engaged I still took my fiance ring shopping, when I saw what she wanted I made it myself, but the girl should choose the design of the ring, size of stone and shape of stone. Once you know what she wants than you try and find the best quality stone (color,clarity) in your budget.
Remember if a stone is slightly off colored or has more inclusions this is only evident when you put a nother stone next to it.
Let me know if you have any questions, been making jewelry for companies like Zales,Blunile and others for over 20 years

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my husband proposed to me with a princess cut and we ended up trading it for a round - amazing how almost the same size but the princess looked little and cheap - if you're going with that cut.....go BIG!!!

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I gave my wife a ring pop. Sure I have to replace it every time she showers, but for the price, who could complain?

I actually gave my wife a 3-stone Princess cut with an inlay of princess cut diamonds set into the band below the main stones. The wedding band also has inlay princess cut diamonds and matches it perfectly (even though it came from a different retailer). I was also able to get a 30% discount for paying cash. I worked 20 hours of overtime every week for 6 weeks to pay for it, but it was well worth it. I wasn't aware of the cash discount and was able to score some diamond ear rings as well. She totally forgot about wanting me to propose after seeing them, and was shocked when I proposed.

So, if you can afford to do it, see if your local store offers a cash discount.

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Start with a Psychiatrist. After a thorough head examination... I have no idea. I'm just jealous you found someone before I did. Congrats are in order just the same! ;)

Many happy years to come!

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Look around for a jewelry store with competitive diamond pricing (be sure you're looking at the same cut/clarity/carat store-store), and that allows you to get the diamond in your price range set in a simple solitaire ring you can present and then bring back for re-setting into a ring that you pick out together.

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@pinchecat gave you a very important piece of advice. Young man, think hard.

Also, I can also say that I have broken of a potential engagement because the girl specified color, size, and cut before I even thought about proposing. I broke up with her, and bought a house instead.

Assuming that you really have thought it through, here's the deal related answer, a surprising one, too.

Go to Costco. Yes, you read it right, Costco. Once you have figured out the 4Cs. Many people don't know that Costco has stones selling all the way up to half a million dollars.

They have a strict supplier checking mechanism in place to ensure the Kimberly Process is adhered to, and that their stones are all IGI certified. For the same grade (the 4Cs), you will be hard pressed to find it cheaper anywhere. You can read more about it on their website. They also sell loose stones.

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Woot-offs are the best place for classy rings.

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Keeping my eye on this question... :3

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I'll echo the guidance to find a local jewelry district, e.g., Chicago's Jeweler's Row, LA's Jewelry District. There's nothing wrong with the jewelry store at your local mall, but I think you'll find that you can get a better value on a higher quality diamond by going to local independent store. If you can, I'd ask around for recommendations in your area. In today's crummy economy, you probably have a bit more room to negotiate nowadays than before.

Princess cut is very nice. If it's what you want or more importantly what you think she'd want, stick with it.

I'd suggest taking a look at BlueNile.com, which has some good educational content about diamonds and engagement ring settings. Rather than a 3 stone setting, you could consider something with small diamonds along part of the band, which can make whatever diamond you choose really pop. It'll also give you an idea of what your money can buy (from their site at least).

Good luck.