Couples Speak Up: Why They Do—Or Don’t—Buy Their Diamond from You

Most couples don’t consider a betrothal to be “official” without a diamond ring. There are approximately 2.3 million marriages per year in the United States, and 81% of all brides receive an engagement ring, according to the latest figures from De Beers.

Seventy-four percent of all brides receive a new diamond engagement ring (presumably the others get antique or estate rings or family heirlooms). That’s slightly more than 1.7 million diamond engagement rings sold each year in the United States. At an average expenditure of approximately $2,000 per diamond engagement ring (according to De Beers’ last publicized figures), bridal jewelry represents a significant—and the most economically stable—portion of the overall jewelry market. That’s the good news.

Now the bad news: For many couples, shopping for a diamond engagement ring is an ordeal to be endured, not a pleasure to be enjoyed. Buying a product they know little about is daunting enough, but they’re also intimidated by the jewelry shopping experience itself—and afraid they’ll be cheated.

Last spring, JCK conducted two focus groups of currently engaged and newly married couples. From behind a one-way mirror, we observed 14 couples discuss their experiences shopping for diamond engagement rings. Much of what we heard was not surprising, but some was quite enlightening. Overall, independent jewelers fared better in the participants’ evaluations than high-volume stores. (Mall-based chain stores, department stores, and warehouse clubs all were mentioned.) But by the end of the evening, it was clear that many jewelers have some work to do if they expect to be in the bridal business for the long haul.

Key findings. Trust, education, and intimidation were the critical issues that emerged during the discussions. Also, style matters—a lot. For jewelers who tend to focus their sales presentations solely or mostly on the diamond, here’s your wake-up call: The primary value of an engagement ring is in the center stone, but much of the romance is in the setting. Consideration of the setting should not be relegated to a mere afterthought.

In their preliminary research, the men sought hard information such as what makes one diamond better than another. The women were more interested in the kind of cut and the design of the setting—i.e., the look.

Not surprisingly, the men in our study were the primary decision makers for the purchase, and they tended to shop alone or with a friend. While they all said they wanted to find a ring that would please their intended, most did not discuss style preferences extensively with their fiancées or shop as a couple. Few of the couples did much pre-purchase research together. The brides tended to window-shop on their own, and most dropped hints or tried to show their grooms examples of the style and type of rings they liked, but they were rarely present on the actual buying trip.

Some of the men were discouraged from shopping as a couple because they encountered too much sales pressure when their fiancées were present. Here’s one man’s account:

“We went once … and the salespeople are much pushier if you’re in there together. They’d just grab K— and sit her down and yell at me to get this ring right now and try to make her fall in love with something. I don’t mind telling a jeweler that I’m not interested, or that I will think about it or whatever, but when there’s another person involved you don’t want to hurt any feelings. And they can get emotions playing in a jewelry store because the proposal is such an emotional thing. So I didn’t like that idea, and I started shopping alone.”

But privately, many of the women admitted that they were less than completely satisfied with the style of ring selected by their fiancés. One wife tried valiantly not to let her disappointment show, but it was obvious she didn’t like the ring her husband had selected—one identical to her sister-in-law’s ring. Her husband had apparently mistaken a polite compliment to the sister-in-law for a desire to have the exact same ring. Even without the in-law factor, she described the style as “okay” but not what she’d have chosen.

Despite their disappointment, the women still seemed reluctant to take a more active role in the selection process—or their fiancés did not initiate it. Part of the brides’ reluctance stemmed from a desire to preserve the element of surprise. Many of the brides window-shopped for rings on their own (or accompanied by a friend) while visiting a mall, and some went into jewelry stores to look at rings, but they often felt guilty about taking up a salesperson’s time. Some of the brides said they were “brushed off” by salespeople, which discouraged them from asking for more information.

Said one, “I would look at rings at the malls. But it depends on how busy it is. They know if you’re just looking, so if somebody else comes in, they’re going to jump on them really quickly. But if there’s nobody in there they’ll show you. And they’ll tell you, like, ‘Oh, you should bring your boyfriend in’… and that kind of stuff. It depends on the salesperson. Some people get annoyed with you real quick.”

Another added, “I would go in when it wasn’t that crowded … and look real quick, but I didn’t want to waste their time. I felt guilty. She could read my mind [that] I’m not buying anything.”

These findings suggest that jewelers should ensure that their store environment is pressure-free and inviting to women. With recent research from the World Gold Council, Cultured Pearl Information Center, and Silver Information Center indicating that the lion’s share of their total category sales are made to women, jewelers can’t afford to alienate even the most casual browser. She may not be buying a diamond ring today, but she’ll probably purchase plenty of jewelry over her lifetime.

Information, please! The grooms in the two discussion groups were not educated jewelry buyers when they began shopping for the ring. Many had never purchased fine jewelry before, and they wanted answers to basic questions like, “How much will I have to spend?” “How can I tell a good quality diamond from a poor one?” “What can I get for the money I have to spend?” and “Where is the best place to buy?”

Few respondents reported making a purchase on their initial shopping trip. Most were not ready to buy on their first trip to a retail store, and those who thought they would simply go out and buy a ring found the purchase more complicated than they expected.

The men began their research in one or more ways:

  • By asking a recently married or engaged friend or relative for advice.

  • Visiting local jewelry stores, either alone or with a friend.

  • Consulting brochures obtained from retailers.

  • Searching the Internet (sites mentioned included De Beers’ adiamondisforever.com, Yahoo Shopping, Diamonds.com, and various retail links).

  • Browsing through their fiancée’s magazines.

The women were more interested in style elements, including types of cuts and various settings. They often stopped to look at rings while shopping or discussed rings with friends and relatives. Magazines were also a source of information. One woman visited the “build your own ring” segment of the De Beers site but said she didn’t find it particularly helpful. “… ‘A diamond is forever,’ it said, like the commercials. … They build this ring for you. You can’t build it very far. It’s one stone and then you pick side stones. I couldn’t, I’m not very good with the Internet. So I had a round stone on a gold band and it looked nice to me,” she said.

Other comments from female participants included:

“I just looked on other people’s fingers and said, ‘I like that one.’ “

“I looked in Town and Country, or in the bridal magazines.”

“I went looking, not to shop … I looked for style. I went with a co-worker.”

Most of the men in the study learned about diamonds and rings by visiting retail stores. In-store literature, brochures, and videos played an important role in the process, suggesting that in-store educational materials help make a sale. Several men said adiamondisforever.com was helpful in learning the basics.

Said one man: “I started by asking other people who were married—asked them where they went, what they knew about diamonds. Then I also researched. I know I was at De Beers.com. I don’t know whether they run commercials for De Beers, but somehow it seemed to focus me that way, and they had a good instructional on diamonds and what to look for when buying. And a lot of the bigger chain stores give you pamphlets on how to buy a diamond, what to buy, and what not to buy. So we read up.”

Some of the men said they browsed through their fiancée’s bridal magazines but didn’t spend much time reading about rings or looking at ads, since the publications are aimed at women.

Many of the men began their search at the closest, most convenient jewelry stores. Mall-based chains were frequent first stops (both Littman’s and Zales were named). Some felt the large chains would be more “impersonal,” making it easier to get information and prices without making a commitment. Some comments:

“I went wherever was closest. I went to a couple of different stores to get a couple different presentations on how to buy a diamond.”

“I went everywhere that I could within reason in the general vicinity. … But I found out that I felt kind of pressured in the small stores just because once the people get to know you, you feel kind of guilty walking in and out. So I’d purposely go to the big stores to learn ’cause you don’t care about the big stores as much in the malls. … You go in there, and you think they’ll teach you. And then you get prices, and then I would go to the smaller jewelers to kind of price shop. Once you knew what you wanted, once you learned about the rings and knew what you wanted, then you could price around.”

But at the end of their odysseys, many of the men returned to buy from the store where they felt they’d been treated well. Nobody returned to stores where they felt pressured or “brushed off.”

Trust and reputation. Building trust was, not surprisingly, a key element to making a sale. Our couples wanted to shop at stores with good reputations. They wanted to find a trustworthy retailer who would be around in the future. Despite the couples’ proximity to New York’s diamond district (the focus group was held in northern New Jersey), only a few went there. Some found the ability to compare prices at Jewelry Exchange to be an advantage, but others felt it was too overwhelming and impersonal.

Small independent jewelers were perceived as more likely to be caring and to offer more personal attention. Some respondents felt that small independents offered better prices and were more comfortable places to shop, particularly those that had a special seating area for diamond buyers.

Mall-based jewelry chains were generally seen as impersonal and likely to have higher prices because they had high overhead. Department stores also were seen as impersonal as well as pushy and high-priced—the phrase “used-car salesmen” was used more than once in participants’ descriptions of the salespeople. However, some respondents argued that department stores offered the best “deals,” or that independents are “kind of expensive.”

A female participant described her experience at an independent jeweler: “I think that the comfort level alone that we had from that family store … they give that true care, like ‘I’m not trying to sell you the most expensive thing here,’ because there were more expensive things, but [they said] ‘Based on what you told me the dress looks like, I think this might look nicer.’ They were just genuine, and they cared, and they weren’t looking just to make a fast sale, it was what was best for you.”

A male participant liked the fact that the owners waited on him. “I actually felt that since they are the owners, they had a stake in it … [In] other stores, the salespeople may not care—they just care about their commissions.”

A store’s willingness to stand behind the merchandise and a liberal return policy were important considerations to all. The group as a whole had obviously heard enough about bad jewelers to give them a healthy dose of wariness, and they were concerned about being “ripped off.” The complexity of the product, the amount of money involved, aggressive selling, in-store security, and inexperience in buying jewelry all made shopping for a ring an intimidating experience, and many participants also felt vulnerable because they had no way to evaluate what they were buying. They considered themselves “at the mercy of the jeweler.” A few participants said they received some type of “certification” with their rings. Some nervous buyers sought appraisals from other independent jewelers—one even sought three different appraisals for the same ring!

Said one male panelist, “I look for two things. One, are these people going to be around if we have a problem with the ring? Second is price. I wasn’t really anticipating any problems, but if the ring were to break because of their faulty creation, they didn’t put it together right, or the diamond was not the thing that they promised us it was—you know, if they promised it was a certain color and cut and size and it wasn’t—you want to be able to go back. You don’t want somebody selling diamond rings on the corner and he’s not there the next day.”

Finally, while some of the participants used the Internet for research, virtually no one seriously considered purchasing a ring that way.

Price. When they began their search, most of the participants did not have a firm idea about how much they would spend, and they didn’t want to commit to a price point until they’d learned more about the cost of rings and stones of varying sizes and quality. Some couples said other considerations, such as wedding expenses or a house purchase, had an impact on their spending plans.

Many of the men in the group said they wanted to learn the “etiquette” of appropriate spending for an engagement ring. Most had heard of the two months’ salary guideline suggested by De Beers—and they all ignored it. They perceived it as unfair, pretentious, and unrealistic.

Despite their research, males in the focus group felt there was too much discrepancy between prices of rings that they perceived were exactly the same. But their attitudes and actions were somewhat contradictory: They believed in shopping around for the best price once they knew what they wanted, but they didn’t like it when jewelers immediately homed in on price as the basis of the sales presentation. (Note: The moderator didn’t ask if the rings they were comparing had identical grading reports, so there was no way to determine if rings were really “the same” or just perceived so.)

“A lot of dealers we went to, right away it was, ‘How much do you want to spend?’ But we went to the one dealer and it wasn’t that. … We were there for probably about 40 minutes [while he was] explaining cut, so we understood before we even got into it. The other people didn’t really care if we understood. They just wanted the bottom line on price.”

A necessary evil. At the end of the session the women left the room, and the men described their feelings about the ring-buying experience. Few regarded it as pleasant. Although they were excited about getting engaged, shopping for the ring typically was characterized as “no fun at all” or “a necessary evil.” Again, these findings have major implications for future purchases: Unless he knows that his wife specifically wants jewelry, a husband who had a bad experience buying it the first time may head for a florist or a furrier the next time.

One man summed it up this way: “I love my wife to death, and I would do anything for her, but it was just no fun at all for me.”