When Megan Shoemaker’s boyfriend proposed to her in February 2017, he knew better than to purchase a classic engagement ring dominated by a glittering white diamond.
Instead, he selected a gray marquise-cut — sometimes called a boat-shaped — diamond set in sterling silver, because he knew that Shoemaker, a Jeweler’s Row designer, would want to customize the rest.
“I’m not a very traditional person,” Shoemaker said, tilting her hand to show off tiny diamonds that flanked the gray centerpiece on her white gold band. She had gotten the extra stones from her mom. “I just never saw myself with the round, brilliant-cut white diamond, even though they’re absolutely gorgeous. It’s just not me.”
In a continuing trend of bucking tradition, a growing number of young couples are opting for “alternative” engagement rings — replacing the standard Tiffany’s fare with colored gems, locally designed bands, or ethically sourced stones. For some, it’s a way to save money. Others want to tailor their rings to their personalities. In all instances, it’s shaking up the jewelry industry.
‘It can be exactly how you want it to be’
The rise of Pinterest, Instagram and Etsy has papered the internet with glam shots of rings with black diamonds, knife-edge bands, oval sunstone rings, even coffin-shaped stones, shattering the idea of what a ring can look like. Besides standard white, diamonds come in varying shades of gray, brown, blue, and more — tinged by the presence of elements like nitrogen and boron. Galaxy diamonds, flecked with black and white imperfections, have a salt-and-pepper appearance.
Forget diamonds altogether and the selection expands: Sapphires and rubies are a good pick for durability. Opals, pearls, and morganite (a pink-colored stone that’s a variety of beryl) have a refined look, but steer away from them if you lead an active lifestyle; they’re softer and more easily scratched.
Customers also have a better idea of what they want, according to Lauren Priori of Center City Philadelphia’s L. Priori Jewelry.
“People are getting married a little bit older, so they have more confidence in their own sense of style,” she said. “[They] have a broader understanding of what’s possible. It can be exactly how you want it to be.”
When she consults with clients, Priori asks questions to suss out what kind of ring they want: What does their lifestyle look like? Do they see themselves wearing the ring every day? Do they see themselves wearing an engagement ring at all a couple decades from now? (Some past clients have only planned to wear a wedding band down the road and prefer an engagement ring that’s more fun and reflective of their youth.)
Priori designed an engagement ring for her sister Christine with her now-brother-in-law, Josh Poole, who wanted to incorporate the principle of wave interference. The double-banded yellow gold ring, studded with small baguette-cut and round diamonds, has two focal points and a gap where the main stone would traditionally be.
“The idea of interference — where a wave combines with another to form a new wave — is very romantic to me,” Poole said. “It’s a beautiful metaphor for love and getting married.”
Going against the ‘three-month rule’
Talk to someone about buying an engagement ring, and they’ll probably mention the “three-month rule” — the idea that the partner proposing has to spend three months of gross salary on the bling. But that rule, which stems from a 1930s marketing maneuver by the De Beers diamond cartel, has grown outdated. According to a New York Times poll this year, most people spend two weeks’ pay on a ring, or between $500 and $3,000.
According to Shoemaker, a one-karat brilliant-cut diamond of good quality will easily run $3,000 to $4,000. Choose an alternative stone and the price comes down: A black or gray diamond of the same size and quality might go for less than $1,000. The same is true of bands.
Michelle Lattner of Keta Metals in South Philly works with people who purchase their own stones and come to her for the rest of the ring. At 27, she’s at an age where her peers are talking about getting engaged. Spending several months of salary on a ring seems impractical when more expensive life goals loom on the horizon, she said.
“It’s like, ‘I have to put away $500 [a month] for this engagement ring that I’ll get a year down the road,’ ” Lattner said. “I would rather spend that $500 on a really awesome trip or a down payment on a house.”
Using 3D-printed models and metalworking tools, Lattner can usually craft a silver ring for under $100 and a gold ring for under $200. While commercial jewelry uses CAD (computer aided design) to make precise, tiny settings with perfect prongs, Lattner’s lower-tech approach translates to settings with fewer prongs and a more natural-looking shine to her rings.
“It feels more intimate,” Lattner said. “I think that people these days are recognizing the appeal of natural, imperfect things.”
A former classmate of Lattner’s, Mary Pohlod, noticed her work on social media and commissioned her to make both an engagement ring and the rings for her September 2019 wedding.
For her engagement ring, Pohlod bought a two-karat champagne topaz for around $200. Then she worked with Lattner to finalize the design of all the bands. For three rings, the total came to around $500, including the stone.
“It was kind of a no-brainer for me,” Pohlod said. “Any stones that aren’t diamonds are way less expensive, almost absurdly so. I wanted to put that money toward our life together.”
A different type of diamond
Thanks in part to pop culture and politically active performers, today’s ring shoppers are more conscious of the origins of diamonds and metal. A growing number of couples seek out conflict-free diamonds, ethically mined, with no connection to terror or opposition groups.
There has also been a rise in awareness of the environmental effects of their extraction. Irresponsible mining practices often result in stagnant water in open pits, creating a breeding ground for diseases. Dust blasted out of mines pollutes nearby water sources, and the destruction of habitats leads to decreased biodiversity.
And some couples opt out of the system entirely, buying lab-created diamonds.
That’s what 27-year-old Penn medical student Daniel Xu did when he bought an engagement ring for his now-fiancee.
“I found out that they were a thing a few years ago,” Xu said. “From what I understand, they’re indistinguishable to a jeweler. And I had always felt that the demand for diamonds is the result of market manipulation, so that left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Synthetic diamonds have been around since 1954. Technology has improved over time, making lab-created diamonds identical to their mined counterparts. The preferred process today (chemical vapor deposition) grows carbon atoms from a tiny diamond seed that’s kept under extreme heat and pressure for several days. The resulting stone generally costs 30% less, Priori said.
For Xu, the real struggle was finding a reputable website that sold lab-created diamonds in the right quality and size. He purchased a round-cut diamond set in 14-karat white gold from Clean Origin for about half of what he would have paid in a store, he estimates.
“I don’t think I had the same sort of reticence some people have about buying lab-grown diamonds,” Xu said. “The fact that they’re more ethical and cheaper made the decision even easier.”