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5 Utterly Insane Things I Learned While Designing My Engagement Ring

As most of you probably know already, I’ve been engaged for a little over four months now, and in that time, I’ve designed a beautiful ring with Marc to celebrate that engagement. (And no, for those who have asked, I won’t be sharing a photo of that ring on social media — it’s just something I find personal, and I’m not interested in something Marc and I created together being put up for any kind of public scrutiny, even if most of it would be very positive.) Point being, I am a ring-wearing person now, and despite the fact that it is not something I’m always 100% comfortable with — as someone who has never owned or coveted designer objects, having such a visible display of money on my hand can be uncomfortable at times — I do love the ring overall.

And moreover, I loved the process of designing it with Marc and an incredibly-talented jeweler and artist whose work I’d been following for a long time. I loved the process of being proposed to with a simple, temporary ring (a ring I also cherish and often wear on my other hand), and then being able to create something together with Marc which represents not just my taste, but a collaborative decision in financial and aesthetic terms. Not only was the process of designing the ring fun as hell — and getting to watch a woman I’d admired for so long work was in and of itself a joy — I also loved that it was such an active moment on both of our parts.

I have never liked the idea that Marc, perhaps with the best-intended help of a few loved ones, would select something for me that I would have to wear prominently for the rest of my life. I would like to have a say in how that thing looks, how much it costs (including helping to pay for it), and how it is made. If you have thought this, too, and particularly if your finances are already combined, I cannot recommend enough creating or choosing a ring together. In my view, it in no way detracts from the experience of the engagement (as some people fear). In fact, I’d argue that it extends the joy by adding yet another wonderful, shared moment.

All of that said, I understand that an engagement (and the ring-choosing that often accompanies it) is a deeply personal and unique thing. Some people don’t want a ring at all, others want to be totally surprised by the presentation, still others have long had a plan for a family heirloom or a personally-designed piece. Whatever your preference is, I can only universally encourage that the woman make her choices as much a part of the conversation as possible. No woman should feel like it’s pushy or un-traditional for her to make known what she wants. She is an active, equal participant in the relationship who, lest we forget, actually has to wear this item every day. And that might seem like an obvious thing to insist on, but as someone who took advantage of our ring-designing session to also ask the designer and her assistant plenty of questions about the engagement ring-buying world, I was beyond shocked at how many outdated (and frankly damaging) gender norms are still deeply in play.

So, in the interest of turning the experience into a bit of a financial lesson, here are the five craziest things I learned about the engagement ring process from designing my own.

1. The default is women being prevented from seeing the price.

By far, the most shocking thing I heard during the process was how rare it is for a woman to be actively participating in the financial side of the ring creation. (And this is while women are in the studio choosing stones/settings!) Initially, the numbers were hidden from me, and only when I started speaking openly about the budget we had come to did they realize I was a part of the decision (as well as the financing). Marc and I were having an open discussion about whether to go over our planned budget, and that I would make up any difference in addition to my contribution, and they actually volunteered the comment: they almost never, ever see women do this, because the men explicitly instruct them not to show any numbers. And this very much includes couples who live together, whose finances are combined, and who are therefore equally impacted by the ring’s cost. I was beyond shocked at this, and immediately wondered how many of the women in these stories would have largely preferred to be a part of the conversation. Our initial budget — $7,500 — and the price we settled at — just under $10,000 — was a direct result of a) a long conversation, and b) the fact that I was paying for part of it. And if your engagement ring is of insignificant cost, sure, that can be an individual decision. But if your engagement ring is in any way an investment, as many are, the idea of one half of the couple whose finances this represents being excluded from the conversation is ludicrous.

2. The process is often deeply transactional.

On the one hand, I completely understand the need to be at least somewhat unemotional about the ring-purchasing prospect, as it is extremely easy to get carried away. (For context, the central stone on my ring is not even a full carat — .9 something — and the price was already at the very, very top of what we were considering.) For me, a ring has always been something very important to me, as I have been lucky enough to inherit many of my grandmother’s clothes and jewelry, and always known that I would like at least one or two things of similar enduring value to wear every day, and to pass down to a child or someone I love. And while I understand that for many people, a ring is simply not something to spend money on — I feel largely the same way about most costs associated with a wedding, and have an explicit goal to make my wedding as small and affordable as possible — for those who have decided that a ring is an important purchase, I was shocked to hear about just how explicit the financial side can be. We heard a lot about men (and couples!) who went into the process barely speaking, there only to find the biggest, most expensive piece to offer their fiancée, even getting frustrated that what they wanted wasn’t available (the artist we went with only works with vintage stones, so her selection is naturally somewhat limited). This idea that “bigger is better,” and somehow representational of how much you love your soon-to-be spouse, is apparently deeper than I imagined, even when going to a jeweler who is more sought after for her designs than for a name-brand like Cartier or her sizable stones.

3. The diamond makes up the vast, vast majority of the cost.

I went into the process fairly certain I didn’t want a diamond, and ended up with a diamond mostly surrounded by other stones. I love the ring we ended up creating, and I do like the versatility of having a completely-neutral central stone (I imagine I will occasionally change some of the surrounding stones as my tastes change over the years). But I am also frankly flabbergasted at how much the diamond determines the cost of the ring itself. I was asking about the cost differences in various surrounding stones — not-tiny sapphires and spinels — and our designer was quite frank in telling us “It really doesn’t matter, it’s only a few dollars’ difference. The only thing that changes the cost is the central stone.” Now, obviously, we paid a high premium on our ring because it was custom-designed by an artist who values her time highly, and we knew that going in. But the diamond itself still represented several thousand dollars of the cost, which is something I simply wouldn’t have expected going in.

4. Budgets are routinely blown up.

One of the most cringeworthy side effects of the whole “woman-is-not-let-in-on-the-cost” phenomenon is that, if she participates at all in the choosing of the ring without knowing the numbers, she almost always unknowingly blows up the man’s budget. It is simply too easy to look at two rings that seem similar on the surface, yet can vary by thousands of dollars, and not understand the differences factoring into the disparate prices. It took us a very long time to decide between stones because we had to be very discerning about what was actually worth it in our view, and even then we ended up knowingly over-budget. If I had just gone in blind and picked out what looked the most like the image I had in my head, I would have very, very easily doubled what we intended to spend without being any wiser. This dynamic — the combination of men not always knowing what is an appropriate amount, and women not being allowed to participate in the conversation, financially — is undoubtedly what leads to men routinely overspending, and often putting themselves in debt, to pay for a ring.

5. Women are often secretly unhappy with their ring.

Probably the saddest, and I imagine most unfortunately-common, issues we were told about was a simple one: women who secretly come back to the jeweler partially or totally unhappy with their ring because they weren’t part of the actual decision-making process. Perhaps it was because the man just chose based on what culture had told him women wanted, perhaps her friends/family who helped him choose didn’t know her tastes, or perhaps she simply thought she wanted something that she didn’t love in practice once she had it on her hand. In any case, the phenomenon of women feeling at least a little unhappy with what they have is much more common than we think. And speaking personally, I went in with an idea of what I wanted that our designer (thankfully) refused to create for me, because the color of the stones were essentially the color of my skin, and looked absolutely terrible once put together. If I had simply sent Marc on a mission with what I thought I wanted, I would have ended up with a ring that I deeply disliked in practice. And even while spending a few hours painstakingly choosing what I liked best, our designer was very open about, “Hey, sometimes you wear it for a few weeks and decide you want this or that tweaked, and you can come back to swap something out.” The point is, this is something that I am wearing every single day, and should be something I absolutely, unequivocally love and choose — something that flatters me and makes sense for my style and reflects my personal tastes. It should be something I actively decide on, not something that was decided on for me. And while no one can ever be perfectly sure what they love in the long-term (after wearing my ring for about two months, I’m still unsure if I want to make one little stone darker after hesitating back-and-forth), not at all participating in something you will wear every day significantly ups your chances of being dissatisfied.

The point is, no matter what you decide is the right price or the right design for a ring, have it be as much your choice as your partner’s. If you really want it all to be left to surprise, sure, but never, ever feel that that is somehow an obligation of the process. It’s 2017, women are equals in hetero relationships, and we are allowed to be a part of any process we want. And trust me when I say, being a part of this process is actually sweet (and illuminating) as hell.

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  • I wish I could be one of those people who could say, “I’ll love anything you get me!” but I am 100% with you. It’s a big investment, and a piece of jewelry you’ll have for the rest of your life. I think it’s pretty cool that you got to design your ring together, and I know several of my friends who have done the same thing. My route: my “ring” Pinterest board (no shame!) is basically a variety of the same kind of ring. Ha! Can’t go wrong there.

  • Jackie Onorato

    If anyone likes the neutrality of diamonds, but can’t afford the cost or want to avoid ethical dilemmas, I highly suggest moissanite. They are almost entirely colorless, more brilliant, hard enough for everyday wear and tear, and are a fraction of the cost. Also, they are synthetically made, with natural stones found only in meteors.

    • jdub

      Yes yes yes 1000 times yes. I love the look of diamonds but I just can’t justify even pretending that I want one, and when I discovered moissanite, I was sold. We have friends who just got engaged last year, and the dude was able to have a ring designed with a large centre stone (also super, SUPER personal touches included, and engraved!) for his fiancee for less than $2,000.

    • Julie Garbutt

      Same, same, same. I have a moissanite too and was really happy to only be paying for the gold. It’s not every day, or ever really, that people are getting within one foot of viewing your ring to see if it’s a real diamond or not.

    • Judith

      Made from meteors… Hell, that’s waaay cooler than a diamond.

      • Jackie Onorato

        Right!? They’re basically space diamonds.

        • Judith

          Exactly! I’m sold on it instantly.

      • jdub

        Haha that’s literally why I want one! My boyfriend tried to be ~SuBtLe~ last week by asking me “did you know you can make jewellery out of space rocks?” which is obviously the most important reason to have one. A super cool, sparkly fuckin SPACE DIAMOND.

        • Judith

          Oh, yes. Then, if someone asks if they’re “real” diamonds, you can just say “They’re even better. Mine came from space.”

          • jdub

            RIGHT? Totally plan on doing that.

          • Judith

            It’d be totally worth it. 🙂

    • Boys need to understand that moissanite has a different weight that diamonds. My fiance bought a 1 carat moiss which is approximately a 1.3 carat diamond so I feel weird as hell with it on my finger. We could never afford a 1.3 carat diamond and now people assume I’m rich.

    • Fae Ehsan

      i have a moissanite engagement ring, and i had no clue it was made from SPACE ROCKS. holy shit. now i love the damn ring even more!

  • Tara

    The last one is so true — unless your man has really good taste or knows your Pinterest board really well, it can be very tough to put the fate of this lifetime piece of jewelry in his hands. When my boyfriend and I began to talk seriously about getting engaged, we went to a store specializing in antique rings that I’d looked up and tried some on together. There was one we both agreed was superior. It was a participatory process and he still gets the fun of surprising me with THE ring.

  • Alexis

    I love this! I got engaged about 5 months ago, and my now-fiance and I looked at rings together beforehand. Whenever I’d mention that to close friends, they were pretty shocked. I encountered two reactions: people were either acting as though I was being too pushy by showing him what I liked, or that ring shopping together would “ruin the surprise.” But honestly, we talked about marriage together before we got engaged, so why would we not go ring shopping together? In the end, he designed the ring himself, but he worked with a designer I admire and knew my tastes very well thanks to us shopping around together! And he still surprised me with the proposal- I didn’t see it coming!

    Anyway, all this to say that going ring shopping with your significant other is definitely something to consider, so both of you are well-informed and happy! Thanks for articulating this so well!

    • jdub

      I totally do not understand how some people can be so averse to even looking at rings together before they get officially engaged. Even if you’re not going to purchase from a store, isn’t it better to set your partner up to get something you really, really want, by actually showing them what that looks like?

    • Hailey

      I think that’s really lovely! I have two friends who recently got married, and they were able to make the whole experience very romantic. He put together a little pre-engagement surprise and asked “Will you go ring shopping with me?” Then they made a whole day of it. And like you said, it didn’t seem to ruin the surprise at all. Congratulations to you and your fiancé!

  • Lexie

    My husband and I went ring shopping and narrowed it down between two options I really liked. He picked between the two and customized the metal and size of the stone. I highly recommend shopping together! It’s a fun and intimate experience that fueled the excitement for getting married.

  • Alice

    Congratulations on your happy news, and on going through the process in exactly the way that suits you (and your partner). Yay!

    But I must say – I’m surprised you didn’t at least mention the name of your beloved designer. It sounds like a wonderful, woman-owned business that (especially as a female business-owner and creative type yourself) you would want to publicly support. Please do let us know, if you are willing.

    • Magical Unicorn

      Yes, if you feel comfortable sharing the designer, I’d love to know as well! While I may not be ring shopping (other than for myself haha), I do love jewelry design.

  • jdub

    I love this idea! As someone who has recently started seriously discussing marriage with her partner, this is really good timing.

    I’ve been looking at rings online to get an idea of what I want, but I think I’m going to broach the subject of a temp/design process we can do together. It’s not that I don’t have faith that he’d pick something I love, it just seems a little more… fun to make the decision together!

  • Elbee

    Totally agree with this article, Chelsea! I’m a very picky person about everything, which is actually something my fiancé loves–which is why I’m with him!–and he knew that I would never go for a ring I didn’t pick out myself. I do love surprises, but he surprises me with other things. I think that the way men approach buying an engagement ring says something about themselves and the way they view their relationship. If your partner picks something that is totally not your style at all, does he not pay attention your aesthetic? (and some women may excuse that with oh, he’s a guy, and guys don’t look at things like that blah blah–no. this is a very important purchase and something that he should think about). If your partner buys you a ring without consulting you when he knows you’re picky, does he REALLY know you? Or care about your feelings? I’ve read many stories about a woman picking out a ring or hinting at the kind of ring she wants only for her boyfriend to choose a completely different ring because HE liked that one better! WTF. He’s not wearing the ring!! I don’t think it would be overreacting to make you rethink that engagement because that signals issues farther down the road.

    Obviously I have ~feelings~ about this issue lol

    • Julie Garbutt

      Tooooootally agree. I was engaged once before I got married to my husband, and I told the guy I wanted a simple gold band. He pressured me into a ring from Tiffany’s that, while still modestly sparkly, was, uh, VERY diamond-heavy. It was a beautiful ring but it really just ended up representing how well we did not know each other.

  • Anon

    Vintage/antique rings are worth checking out. I got an amazing two-tone art deco ring from the 1930s with really intricate engraving and tiny diamonds for…..$400? the resale value of diamonds is really low, which helped. I loved owning a piece of history and I loved that it’s different and not so flashy. Also, designing my own ring would have utterly stumped me. I don’t wear them normally, don’t much care for diamonds and I think would have been overwhelmed by the task of designing something on my own.

  • disqus_Q3Xw3KYgud

    how did you come up with a budget of $10,000?

    • Anon

      I’m also really curious about how people pick a budget. I found that a really strange process because so much of my financial life is about *not* spending money. My partner and I are both pretty frugal by nature and in our 30s, so we easily could have dropped that much in cash and been fine but neither one of us felt comfortable in spending thousands and thousands. (Also, literally my most expensive jewelry is about $100, so it’s not really a category I’m used to investing in). We just muddled through and the vintage ring I liked best happened to be under a grand. But I felt like I had no idea what was reasonable when, honestly, spending thousands of dollars on any luxury item felt completely unreasonable.

      • Sara

        Agreed. While everyone has their own comfort zone and value they place on things like jewelry, there is no way I could ever justify spending that much money on a piece of jewelry. In fact, the only thing I would ever drop $10k + on is a car, house, or my education.

      • lazuliz

        Agreed. We are both in our 30’s, frugal, and would rather not contribute to the diamond trade. We went with lab made gems and got a custom beautifully designed ring on etsy for under $100. Also, my brother also lost his custom uninsured wedding ring on the first day of his honeymoon. oops! That definitely contributed to not wanting to spend very much on a ring. haha
        I’m glad that you and your partner are on the same page financially 🙂

        • Anon

          Your brother’s story is my nightmare! I’d be worried about dropping it down the sink if it were hugely expensive. :/

  • Riri Chime

    This! I was ”surprised” with a ring which didn’t even fit… so super awkward. He got a second ring, sight unseen again, which fit better but one I totally hated. Ended up not wearing it and when things didn’t work out, I was mildly relieved to give the rings back!
    When I got engaged to hubby, we went together to the jewellers and got a beautiful one I had the chance to size and fall in love with. Being a part of the process is incredibly important.

  • lazuliz

    I’m happy you were able to design your perfect ring! congratulations!

    Etsy also has really great options to customize a ring with designers and artists across the price spectrum. We went with a lab made white sapphire and the cost was very reasonable for the exact ring that I wanted.

  • Squiderous

    My boyfriend was pretty resistant to talking money when we went ring shopping, partially because he said he has been saving for this and didn’t want me to feel guilty about the price tag. I think it helped that we were looking at vintage pieces, so the price ended up being quite a bit lower anyway. It still bothered me, though, and we had A Talk.

  • HampshireGrad

    My husband bought my engagement ring without my input–which is freaking nuts. I always assumed it would be a group activity because that’s a lot of money that we’re spending as a couple on something that I’m going to wear every flipping day for the rest of my life….. and it’s not what I would have picked… but it’s actually perfect because he listened to everything I ever said about rings ever.

  • Jacqui

    So interesting… thank you for writing this article … I find it sad that bigger it’s sometimes seen as better … also I think the woman should have a say it must be awful to have to wear something you aren’t really feeling the love for … i haven’t gone for a diamond I choose a Ceylon sapphire stone 💎
    Would love to see a picture of yours ???

  • Natasha C.

    Love this! My husband proposed with a temporary brass ring (with the letters “FPO,” which means “For Placement Only” in design/editorial speak) because at the time he didn’t have a ton of money, but wanted to propose. He also knew that I am supremely picky and wanted me to be involved in the eventual ring buying process.

    We had a long engagement and designed the ring together – the stone is a lavender sapphire we got from a wholesale gem cutter on Etsy, and it was constructed custom by a jeweler in our city. I love my ring and always recommend to my friends that are on the cusp of engagement to communicate with their partners about choosing a ring!

  • Have written about this in comments before, but. My husband proposed without a ring, and then we spent months looking at rings together and feeling very stressed out and wanting to give up. I finally picked one out on Etsy that has ended up being a little bit of a nightmare. It arrived in the mail about a month before our wedding, only to have two of the diamonds fall out (don’t do pave settings if you can avoid it, people!) the week before. Luckily, my seller was communicative and rush-shipped me a new one to have in time for the wedding, but the new one also lost a diamond about a month later. I’m scared to clean the second replacement I’ve ordered from this seller for that reason – worried that if I take a toothbrush or anything at all to it, I’ll lose the diamonds again.
    And I do agree that both parties should be super-involved in picking out the ring. In this case, all of this could’ve been avoided if I hadn’t rolled my eyes when my partner said “I don’t know, that looks like it’ll catch on everything”. It does – including my finger. I’ve actually gotten numerous cuts from this thing, and have finally given up wearing it. So… $500 later (thank goodness that was all!), it sits on my nightstand and I occasionally wear it out. So. Not. Worth. It. Thoroughly research your seller and consider practically! It’s easy to get swept up in all the romance and *feelings* of it all, but giving it that extra bit of practical thought could make the difference between something you’ll wear the rest of your life and something that sits in a drawer gathering dust.

  • Chae

    My fiance proposed with his late grandmother’s engagement ring. We had a discussion about it and I’m not much of a diamond person so if he hadn’t had a heirloom that had been willed to him, I would have insisted on zero ring. I personally don’t see any reason to spend thousands of dollars on something that will instantly depreciate in value. We’re also eloping. No judgment on people who want to do that, it’s just not for me. Congratulations!