Ring Shopping & Realistically Prioritizing the Four C’s

Here is the trite statement that all writing on this topic begins with: Shopping for an engagement ring can be one of the more daunting tasks of a man’s life. Expectations, as well as nerves are high, finances concern most, and the unrealistic jewelry you know she’s read about in celebrity trash mags is completely out of touch with reality.

After some investigation, we all come to know the “Four C’s,” being Cut, Color, Clarity, and Carat, but few of us have the means to purchase a ring that excels across all four factors. Yet we and virtually every other article on the subject like to sugarcoat and pretend that size isn’t our primary concern. So the question remains: In what order should the Four C’s be prioritized. The answer… depends primarily on the shape of the stone. Or to be more precise, how can we get her the biggest stone possible without dropping the ball too much on the other three concerns…

Whether you have chosen to include your future fiancé and bride-to-be in the purchasing process of the ring or not, deciding the actual shape of the diamond is arguably the most important factor. For guys keeping the process and proposal a secret, this is where you should hit up her close friends, siblings and perhaps even her mother for advice. No matter what, if she is worth marrying, she is going to tell you that the ring is beautiful and that she absolutely loves it. However, on the inside, she may have grown up imagining something completely different while you go into it blind with zero knowledge of what she likes at all.

The most common shapes are Round Brilliant, Emerald, Princess, Cushion, Oval, Pear, and Marquise.

Round Brilliant, or just round, is the most common and the clichĂ© image that pops into your head when you simply hear the word “diamond.” The brilliant part refers to what jewelers call brilliance, or what we regular folk call “sparkliness.” Though they are circular on top, because of their cone-like overall shape, Round Brilliant diamonds reflect a ton of light, basically creating the sparkle factor that many women love. On the downside, since Round Brilliant diamonds are historically the most popular, they can often carry up to a 15% cost premium over other shapes for no other reason than demand.

Cushion, Oval, Pear and Marquise shaped diamonds are known as Fancy Shapes, but are generally considered offshoots of Round Brilliant as well. In a similar fashion, their rounded edges create brilliance, or again, “sparkliness,” just not to the same extent as a true Round Brilliant. While Oval and Pear are self-explanatory, Marquise are shaped like footballs, and Cushions, which have enjoyed a surge in popularity over the past few years, are rectangular-like with rounded off edges.

Princess and Emerald shapes are far different in look and taste to Round Brilliant. Princess diamonds are square, and Emerald diamonds, not to be confused with the green color emerald, are flat and truly rectangular. With these Square edged diamonds, their flatness trades away brilliant “sparkliness” for a clear, elegant, window-like appearance.

Taking this all into account, the question remains: In what order should someone prioritize the Four C’s? Which C should be afforded the highest grade you can get, and conversely, where should sacrifices be made?

Although admittedly ridiculous and so obviously rooted in male insecurity, as a guy reaching out primarily to other guys here, I am not going try to convince you that Carat or size shouldn’t be priority number one. Having gone through the process myself, it would be completely hypocritical to pretend that getting her “a rock” wasn’t always on the back of my mind as if the difference between something large and something small separated the men from the boys; and those who have cocks, from the those with little weewees. Beyond the masculinity component, there is no arguing that the most blatant characteristic which people notice is size. Like comparing a Hummer to a SmartCar, it’s just that obvious. Still, I had no interest in getting her a three-Carat browneye either.

After size, things get a bit more interesting, and a little more tricky. For those in the round camp, and by that I mean Round Brilliant, Oval, Pear, Marquise and Cushion included, the goal is to get the stone as sparkly, or brilliant as possible. To do that, you need to ask your jeweler to show you stones with greater Cuts. For round shapes, not only do better-cut stones hide inclusions (more on that later), they also help reflect light more, thus making the diamonds shine. Words like “Excellent,” “Ideal,” and “Signature” are used by various suppliers to label their better “Cut” diamonds.

On the flip side, since you can’t have it all as we have already discussed, where you choose to make a sacrifice will rely on the remaining two C’s; Color and Clarity.

The Color grading system starts with the letter “D” and can go all the way down to “Z.” However, unless you don’t mind getting your significant other a mustard yellow to brown stone, “K” is the lowest most buyers go on the color scale. The Color is also important because it is something that the naked human eye can detect, albeit the very slight differences between each letter. “D” may be the clearest and colorless grade money can buy, but on average “H” is the most common color grade sold for diamonds in North America. For round shaped diamonds, I advocate prioritizing Color as the third most important C of the four. Yes, you see color with a naked eye, but unless she’s holding up her ring right next to someone else’s, it is virtually impossible to decipher the slight differences of “D” through “H” grades from afar. Once you drop below “I” however, the yellowish hue becomes much more noticeable.

Finally, when discussing the priority of the 4C’s for round shaped diamonds (again RB, Oval, Pear, Cushion, Marquise), the C that finds itself at the bottom of the list is Clarity. Two reasons back up this argument. First, the brilliance or “sparkliness” of the stone will help hide imperfections in the diamond which jewelers refer to as “inclusions.” Next, because of the cone-like shape of round stones, inclusions can also be masked by the various facets in the bottom portion of the gem. For extra help hiding inclusions, you can also play around with the setting and rest of the ring to try and conceal any imperfects on or near the diamond’s edges and sides.

For Princess and Emerald shaped diamonds, the game is completely different and arguably not even the same sport. The goal with these shapes is not brilliance or sparkliness, but clear “clarity” all the way through the stone as if you are looking through a freshly windexed window. If these diamonds were TV’s, they would be those Samsungs with the almost-too-realistic 1080P picture that makes you feel like you can put your hand right through the screen.

With Princess and Emerald diamonds, inclusions towards the center of the stones are much more visible to the naked eye because they are not hidden by brilliance and facets. The Clarity scale ranges from Flawless/Internally Flawless (F/IF), and from there decreases across nine levels all the way down to what is known as “i3.” On the high end, I will strongly advise you against spending the money to purchase a stone labeled “Flawless” as the very act of setting it in a ring setting will likely change its grade to “IF.” To put this in perspective, even Tiffany & Co. who is arguably the standard-bearer in the diamond industry does not classify its diamonds as flawless because they know that actually putting it in any form of jewelry will likely degrade it to some point. On the low end, unless you’re really trying to stretch a budget, you should try to avoid the “i1,” “i2” and “i3” Clarity grades at the bottom of the spectrum; even if that means sacrificing Carat weight and size. Yes, I said it. In general, more reputable jewelers and wholesalers won’t carry diamonds of those three Clarity grades and will offer what is known as “Si2” as the lowest rated stones in their inventory.

In contrast to diamonds which are sought after for their brilliance, sacrifices can be made on the Cut grade of Princess and Emerald stones because they don’t rely on the sparkle factor to show off their beauty.

All in all, what I am advocating is that for those of us who have less than multi-million dollar budgets, Carat and Color never change their positions of being number one and number three on the priority of the 4C’s. However, it is the Cut and Clarity that swap being in second and fourth place depending on the type of stone that you are trying to buy.

To be as clear as a Flawless diamond:

If choosing a Round Brilliant, Oval, Pear, Marquise or Cushion Diamond, try to follow this order:

  1. Carat
  2. Cut
  3. Color
  4. Clarity

If choosing a Princess or Emerald Diamond, I recommend this order:

  1. Carat
  2. Clarity
  3. Color
  4. Cut

Good luck in your ring search, it’s a big pill to swallow but try to enjoy it as much as you can. When it’s all over, treat yourself to a tall drink, and really start to pat-down just how you’re going to ask the question. Believe me, it won’t be long till that diamond ring starts burning a hole in your pocket.


The minute it arrives you’ll need to get insurance across the trifecta too. Loss, theft and damage coverage. You won’t sleep until you do.


There is a reason “Heart Shaped” Diamonds weren’t mentioned in this post. Believe me, it was on purpose.