Bypass the glitzy jewelry shops. We name the best Web sites to get top quality at a good price and show you how to choose a stunning stone, even sight unseen. February 1, 2010 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. Advertisement 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. Advertisement 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. Advertisement 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. Best of all, Blue Nile’s prices are among the lowest online. For example, it was recently charging $5,831 for a 1-carat, round diamond of good but not flawless quality, which beat other sites' prices for similar stones. The site also has the easiest search features. You can search by the criteria most important to you and for multiple diamond shapes simultaneously. Later this month, Blue Nile is releasing a mobile app for its online diamond search to make it easier to comparison shop when you’re at the mall. For custom work, Whiteflash.com is the lord of the rings online. Whiteflash customizes nearly half its jewelry. Kevin Dolorico, a Web-operations analyst in New York City, exchanged designs by e-mail with Whiteflash when he was shopping for an engagement ring. Dolorico wanted a ring that combined the head from one standard setting with the shank of another. Advertisement Whiteflash nestled a 1.34-carat diamond that was graded good but not flawless in Dolorico's ideal setting. His soon-to-befiancée, Janelle De Rivera, was dazzled, and he was pleased with the price of roughly $6,000. When he asked a gemologist to appraise the ring, he was told that a local jeweler would charge about $9,000 for an equivalent piece. Whiteflash's return policy for custom work is that you can't send it back unless there's an error (exceptions apply to partly customized work). For loose stones and standard settings, Whiteflash offers a full refund ten days from receipt for any reason -- including a commitment-phobic significant other. Whiteflash can tap a pool of about 50,000 stones, most of which are also available for sale at other online retailers. It says its prices for finished pieces are competitive with those of Blue Nile and many other e-tailers, although we've found that isn't always the case. Yet Whiteflash unquestionably trumps brick-and-mortar jewelers on price. Plus, it offers a trade-up program that Blue Nile and most other online rivals don't match: Swap your Whiteflash rock for a higher-priced one at any time, paying the difference between your new diamond and your original purchase price less shipping. Buyer's guide: Five measures of perfection The four C’s to size up a diamond are carat, clarity, color and cut. Some of the best diamond raters have added a fifth criterion to the list of C’s: cut grade. Use all five measures to make sure you get the best stone for the price, especially when buying one without seeing it in person first. For help, read “How to Buy a Gemstone” at the Gemological Institute of America’s website, www.gia.edu CARAT refers to a diamond's weight, not its size. Fact: A carat is one-fifth of a gram. Tip: A lighter rock will likely fetch a lower price per carat, but a 0.9-carat diamond will sparkle more than a 1.0-carat diamond if the cutter trimmed its excess weight correctly. The lesson: heavier isn't always better. CLARITY is the degree to which a diamond is free of flaws. Fact: Flaws cut a gem's price. Tip: The naked eye would easily see the flaws in a stone with a clarity code of I2 from the Gemological Institute of America. A non-gemologist using a magnifying lens would have difficulty seeing flaws in a diamond graded VVS1. (See http://www.thediamondbuyingguide.com/diamondclarity.html for an explanation of grading.). COLOR refers to a diamond's transparency. Fact: As a rule, the more transparent the ice, the higher its price. Tip: Compromises on color may escape unnoticed. A nearly colorless stone will look the same to an untrained eye as a colorless stone (with a higher grade) but will cost less. CUT refers to a diamond's shape and style. Fact: A diamond's shape (round or square, for example) and style (such as brilliant, with facets radiating outward) are factors that together make up the stone's cut.. Tip: Cut can make two diamonds of equal weight appear to be different sizes. CUT GRADE (NEW) judges brilliance and sparkle, plus other factors. Fact: Cut grade is the most important indicator of a diamond's wow effect. Fewer than 5% of diamonds on the market would earn high marks if given a cut grade. Tip: Stones with similar cut grades should be priced about the same.