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Big Diamonds Get Bigger As Brides Age, Compete
By LAUREN LIPTON Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Another, "clarity enhancement," involves filling flaws to make
lesser-quality stones look more perfect. That's what Yehuda Diamond
Co. does, and the New York manufacturer says its clarity-enhanced stones
sell for about one-third less than nonenhanced versions -- and that business
has grown fivefold in five years. "It's good for me that women
want to show off," says company president Dror Yehuda.
Maybe Chris Lynch shouldn't have waited seven years. By
the time he proposed to his girlfriend, his friends' sweethearts had two-carat
diamond rings, leaving Mr. Lynch nowhere to go but up. His 27-year-old fiancee's
new solitaire: 3.13 carats. "She now has one of the biggest on the block,"
says the Iowa telecommunications executive.
Gentlemen, here's a new reason to fear commitment: ring inflation.
Even in these times, the benchmark size of an "impressive" diamond
has crept up, from a single carat in the 1990s to two or even three today.
Diamond behemoth De Beers Group says sales of stones a carat and larger have
outpaced smaller ones -- up 81% from 1996 to 2002. And it's not just at the
fancy places: One big Southeastern mall chain, Reeds Jewelers, just began
stocking two-carat solitaires in October. And warehouse retailer Costco says it's selling $20
million a year of diamonds from 1.5 to more than six carats, after introducing
them two years ago. "Amazing, given the economy," says Megghan
Harruff, a merchandise manager.
Behind the run on large stones: Older brides with higher
expectations, megarock celebrity engagements (thanks, Jennifer Lopez), and new
technologies that can make flawed diamonds look more perfect. Competition from
Internet vendors, meanwhile, has helped to make big rocks cheaper. The industry
has been happy to push them, too, with stores running new bigger-is-better
campaigns and one national chain taking out newspaper ads for multicarat rings
-- with no-interest financing.
Still, life with a large stone isn't always happily ever after.
Some of the attention these rings draw is surprisingly negative. From an
investment standpoint, most big stones at best keep pace with inflation. And
the elation may be short-lived: Even a spectacular stone, many wives say, can
start looking average after a few years. (They even have a catchphrase for it:
For Christine Henderson, it wasn't that her rock shrunk -- her
lifestyle just got bigger. When the 40-year-old mom got engaged a few years
ago, she was delighted with her one-plus carat ring. Then came her husband's
lucrative Wall Street career and early retirement to Palm Beach, Fla., and
something befitting the couple's new station in life: a seven-carat,
canary-yellow diamond. "I really thought I wanted a three-carat ring, but
then I thought, 'Set your sights big,' " Mrs. Henderson says.
"We grow up."
The $27 billion U.S. diamond-jewelry industry -- $4.3 billion of
that is engagement rings -- is taking that sentiment to the bank. It's De
Beers, of course, that controls much of the world's diamond market and
popularized diamond engagement rings, and then persuaded grooms to spend two
months' salary on them. But while past De Beers brochures assured buyers that
"Smaller Is Beautiful," last summer its marketing arm came out with a
campaign pushing larger diamonds. Caption under a small stone: "Where'd
you get that diamond?" Under a much bigger one: "Where'd you get that
Even grooms in good financial shape can find the price daunting.
Jewelers pay about $10,000 to $100,000 for three-carat stones and then mark
them up 15% to 100%, says New York diamond dealer Joseph Schlussel. But sellers
themselves say they're surprised so many men are buying: When exclusive New
York jeweler Fred Leighton Ltd. expanded its line of engagement rings last
year, it expected to sell lots of one-carat stones -- but those have gone unsold,
it says, while nearly half of buyers have gone for three-to-five-carat
For Whitney Mantooth, buying an impressive stone for his
girlfriend recently meant putting off buying a new Mercedes and starting an
M.B.A. program. The business owner in Chattanooga, Tenn., says he'd just sold
his ad agency, too, so he had some money on hand. "She caught me at the
right time," he says.
To the chagrin of the guys who paid retail, some new technologies are making
the three-carat club easier to enter. Irradiation treatments can turn less-expensive
stones into fancy colors that are rare in nature. Another, "clarity
enhancement," involves filling flaws to make lesser-quality stones look
more perfect. That's what Yehuda Diamond Co. does, and the New York manufacturer
says its clarity-enhanced stones sell for about one-third less than nonenhanced
versions -- and that business has grown fivefold in five years. "It's good
for me that women want to show off," says company president Dror Yehuda.
But as these rings go mass-market, the backlash is brewing. Some
see them as ostentatious, while others assume the wearer sacrificed quality for
size. Meanwhile, simulated stones have become more realistic-looking than ever.
So even if there's little chance that a $20 dime-size cubic zirconia will fool
anyone, the $425, three-carat version from Impostors, an upscale-fakes chain,
'I've Been Following You'
That's been a problem for Liz Hoffswell, who wears a 3.25-carat
pear-shaped diamond in a Michigan town where most are significantly smaller.
"I have people tell me all the time it's the biggest they've ever
seen," says the small-business owner, who once had a couple shadow her at
a wine-tasting event. Finally, the wife came up to her. "I've been following
you all evening," the woman said. "Is that real?"
To avoid such questions, some people are taking the opposite
tack. At Tiffany, where the average
engagement ring is under a carat, they're seeing some buyers choose smaller,
high-quality stones. Even the sellers of simulated diamonds say many customers
are opting for smaller stones to throw off nosy friends and coworkers. Also
popular: rings featuring three smaller (lower-price) stones instead of one big
Big-rock lovers, however, are unmoved. Even if their stones
aren't great investments, they say, they still hold most of their value --
which was a good thing for Nikki Salerno. The Bel Air, Calif., actress was
wowed when her boyfriend of six months proposed during a private hot-air
balloon ride, with an 3½-carat princess-cut diamond ring. Three years later,
she's sold it for $25,000 to help cover legal fees in her divorce. Still, she
says, that hasn't soured her on big rocks. "I would never go
smaller," she says. "No way."
Write to Lauren Lipton at email@example.com
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