The young man on bended knee, popping the question with a half-carat solitaire in a 14k gold six-prong setting. The diamond probably cost a month’s salary, was the first he looked at, at the only jewelry store in town, and was the first and last she would ever own.
For more than half a century, this was the diamond industry. If other sales did come, they were after the diamond engagement ring, and if you weren’t the guy they bought the ring from, you were not likely to be the one selling the pendant, studs, bracelet, and anniversary band in years to come.
A couple approaches the bridal counter at Fortunoff’s jewelry department in the Woodbridge Center Mall in Woodbridge, New Jersey. They’re in their 40s, one or both probably with previous marriages. She has very well-cut princess studs of 1.5 carats and a diamond tennis bracelet. He wears Rolex. The sales associate, Cary Goldberg, greets them and is soon showing premium solitaires, designer rings, semi-mounts, and bridal sets—Jeff Cooper, A. Jaffe, Ritani, Lieberfarb, and a new bridal concept from Hong Kong’s Continental Jewelry, “Kissing Diamonds,” which seats a small diamond, culet to culet, below the solitaire.
There’s very little gold in any of the cases. “We advise platinum for bridal,” says Goldberg, “and almost always for sets and semi-mounts.” The heft and durability of the heavier metal is correct for the occasion, “but more important, platinum doesn’t tarnish, but rather takes on that beautiful grayish luster with time.” Recent experiments with palladium bands have fared well, but Goldberg says the premiums for platinum are more achievable for bridal than other categories.
The woman likes Ritani and already has her eye on the matching band. The man’s eye, however, keeps straying toward pricier rings in two adjacent cases: a Gregg Ruth with pink accents, a large William Levine solitaire, and a Martin Flyer eternity wedding band set to the left; a Lazare Kaplan three-stone and a Richard Landry Deco-throwback “solitaire” that frames the round brilliant in a Mondrian square of sapphire baguettes in a case to the right. The man takes Goldberg’s card and says they’ll be back. Welcome to the 21st century diamond engagement ring sale.
“The days of the young man coming in for the solitaire aren’t history per se,” says Goldberg, “but it’s become much more varied. It may well be a platinum semi-mount, for one thing, or a set, or a multi-stone ring.” Three-stones have lost traction lately for bridal, “but are still a viable alternative. Also, he’s not as young as he used to be—our market’s 25 and up now—and it might not be just him. We get the couple, or the woman alone, or in with friends who’ve also gotten their nails done on a Wednesday afternoon, or the guy with his future in-laws. A lot of that, actually.”
The ring also may well not be the first diamond looked at, or owned. Goldberg estimates half of his bridal customers have other diamonds, and that most have very specific ideas about styles, sizes, and price. They’ve done their homework on the web, at other stores, or from Fortunoff’s extensive mailings. “We get a lot of, ‘I love this look, but what do you have that’s . . .’”