JEWELRY


Get a Diamond Deal Online

For a lot of people, Valentine’s Day is all about cards and candy. But for men (and a few women) hoping to truly win points with their significant other, it’s about the other C’s -- carat, clarity, color and cut. One reason diamonds are a VD staple is that the holiday is the second most popular day (after Christmas) to pop the question.

In order to keep sales from lagging, many jewelers are offering incentives to buyers, says Ken Gassman, analyst for the Jewelry Industry Research Institute. "If you're inclined to buy jewelry, now is a great time to do so," he says.

Notwithstanding the prospect of attractive deals, purchasing a diamond can still be an overwhelming task. With a myriad of choices, a staggering range of prices and glitzy ad campaigns, how can you be sure to choose the right rock and get the best deal?

This year, Americans are expected to spend $14.1 billion for the romantic day, down from $14.7 billion last year. But you don’t have to forgo the stone to tame your spending. We have ways to save on sparkle.

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First and foremost, bypass the jewelry store and go online. The Web has all the information and selection you need -- and you'll snag a better deal than you could at a traditional retailer. In an industry famous for high markups and perpetual closeout sales, diamond e-tailers have brought transparency and competition to pricing jewelry. Says Scott Devitt, a senior analyst at Legg Mason: "They expose diamonds for the commodities they are."

Lower costs

E-tailers have lower costs than local jewelers because they spend less on labor and leases, and they keep their inventories lean. Compare online jeweler Blue Nile with Zale Corp., which runs Zales stores, Bailey Banks & Biddle and other chains. For every dollar Zale hands suppliers, it sells items for $2. Zale also stocks its merchandise for months before it sees a dime from customers.

For every dollar that Blue Nile pays suppliers for stones and settings, it sells finished jewelry for $1.25. And Blue Nile orders merchandise only after customers pay. The minute you place your order with Blue Nile, the company buys your rock from a New York City cutter, which ships it overnight to Blue Nile's 27,000-square-foot warehouse in Seattle. There, a bench jeweler, at a small desk packed with tool-laden drawers, peers through a magnifying visor and uses files, pliers and hammers to marry the diamond to its setting. Other workers bathe the finished ring in a tiny hot tub and blast it with steam. They pack it in a wooden box, put that inside a blue-and-silver box, and put that inside a cardboard shipping box. The ring is then ferried on a conveyor belt to a loading dock for overnight delivery. The whole process typically takes just three days.

Most online sales are to men, who, in general, love shopping for jewelry on the Web more than women do.

Skittish about buying a diamond without seeing it in advance? That's an understandable hang-up. But recently many of the best grading reports -- a cross between spec sheets and report cards for diamonds -- added a fifth measure to the famous four C's to allow for easier comparisons among stones. (Check out our buyer's guide, at the end of this article, to learn more about how to choose the right stone sight unseen.)

You may have heard about "blood" or "conflict" diamonds, which are gems that have been traded for money or guns to fight wars in parts of Africa. Don't worry about accidentally buying one of these diamonds. Selling them in the U.S. is illegal, and the world's diamond suppliers have tightened up their supply chains to stamp out such problems.

The major e-tailers, including Blue Nile and Whiteflash, pledge to exclusively sell diamonds untainted by violence. If you're curious how tightly diamond suppliers can track the sourcing of their diamonds, visit the trade Web site Diamondfacts.org.

Best e-tailers

When selecting an e-tailer, look for one with access to a wide selection of diamonds as well as responsive customer service, generous return policies and low prices. We used those criteria to size up seven of the leading sites: Amazon.com, BlueNile.com, Diamonds.com, Ice.com, JamesAllen.com, Overstock.com and Whiteflash.com. and we found two standouts.

We found two standouts. The best is Blue Nile, which recorded diamond jewelry sales of $295 million in 2008. The site has sold more than 200,000 engagement rings. It can tap a pool of 50,000 diamonds that it has exclusive rights to sell online. The store lets you return an item within 30 days from the day it ships. Most calls are answered within ten seconds by an employee in Seattle.

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