Tuesday, August 22, 2006

On Diamonds and Deception

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but blowing all your hard-earned dough on them is hardly in a girl's best interest. Don't get me wrong -- I would never turn down a briliant sparkler if it came my way. When my beloved sprung a 2+ carat beauty on me Christmas Eve, all the neighbors heard the squeal of joy as he lifted open the top of the little velvet box. I got it insured the next business morning. My fiance joked that I was wearing a car on my finger. Had I dreamed what unearthly prices these earthly treasures beget, I would have asked for a new car for Christmas. I certainly could use one. Just kidding of course. I mean, what red (or blue) blooded female would refuse such a gem, no matter what the price tag? He postulated further (half believably) that in a few years, we would be coming back to the store to
"upgrade." I brushed it off as unlikely at that romantic blissful beginning, but the guilty thought would eventually start to gnaw at the corners of my little mind.

Eight months later and a wedding just around the corner, I've gotten somewhat of a "street" education in diamonds. The first introduction that my fiance utters when I meet his friends or colleagues is "This is my fiance, A. Look at her ring." My friend Samantha, who just got married, told me that men buy women large diamonds so they can show them off. Size does matter in a man's world. An older (and wise) friend looked approvingly at my left hand, smiled, and assured me that I could wait at least a few years to "upgrade." She proceeded to list in the next sentence all her friends who had recently "upgraded" and what the newest styles were running for. I've learned that, much like a car, a diamond comes with a certain usable "lease." The key was to recognize the span of that lease, trade it in while it's still marketable, and move up to something more, shall we say, appropriate for a women of a certain age. How romantic!

We have developed a supersized appetite for all things extravagant. Hardly a B-list celebrity lacks an enviable collection of estate jewels. My fiance casually informed me that when Paris proposed to Paris, he bestowed upon her a 24-carat version of my pretty little cushion. How my beloved knew that -- or why he cared -- is still a mystery. What's not a mystery is that she don't mean a thing if she ain't got that bling! In the past decade, the size of a diamond on the average girl's finger has doubled. No longer is the requisite half-carat engagement stone considered sweet, or the (gasp) 1 carat rock considered the ultimate symbol of love. One can easily browse online and pick out the perfect 2, 3, and even 4-carat boulder to design their own creation. A little bit of ice isn't just nice, is de riguer for a society girl.

Furthermore, I commend the increasing percentage of females who step up to the diamond counters and plunk down their own credit cards. De Beers has developed an advertising campaign geared exclusively towards women that focuses on the "right hand" ring. In fact, October is the official right-hand diamond ring month. I mean, why shouldn't a girl who earns a respectable salary buy something sparkly now and then to reward herself? Or, perhaps for their less fortunate sisters? Girlfriends deserve a little diamond now and then as a pick-me-up!

Yes ladies, we have truly arrived. Some trailblazing girls are taking it a step further and buying not just trinkets but actual rocks, including engagement rings and anniversary bands. Interestingly, the bling doesn't stop with the ladies. The savvy gal now buys a matching tennis bracelet for her partner. And who hasn't noticed the proliferation of well-dressed men (or even shabbily clad rap artists) sporting an ice kingdom on their hands, neck, and ears? Heck, why stop there -- the truly trendsetting types brandish specks of diamond on their phones, iPods, and teeth. No wonder the price of diamonds has shot up astronomically! Everyone's just gotta have a piece.

So, in the spirit of equality, I set out to buy our wedding rings. Little did I know the winding and deceptive road it would take me on. First, like all good shoppers, I surfed the web, hoping to bone up on my knowledge of prongs, paves, channel settings, and eternity bands. I began my journey at Jarod (of the ubiquitous "He went to Jarod!" commercials that propogated the airwaves during the holiday season) where my honey bought the engagement ring. On and on I continued in my trek, visiting Bailey Banks & Biddle, Mervis, Lenkensdorfer, Christian Bernard, Charleston Alexander, and all the other heavyweights in the D.C. Metro area. Oohs and aahs followed me from display case to display case as the overly sycophantic (is that a word?) salespeople complemented me repeatedly on my "prize" and attempted to assist me in finding a worthy match. Along with the adoration came the shamless bald-faced lies and sales tricks. "The price of platinum has doubled this year!" Is that why you're selling it for 4 times the price of white gold? "You see, our diamonds come from a special mine where only the world's best diamonds are mined." And my intelligence comes from a special place where only smart people come from. "Sure I can make it work within your budget! What kind of monthly payments are you looking at?" I'm not buying a car, for heaven's sake.

Tired of all the B.S., desparate to make a decision, and armed with all the information I had accumulated -- and numerous printouts of actual diamond rings featured on websites for real prices -- I set out to diamond discounters. Not the pretend discounters who just reel you in with their false commercials then sell to you at full price, but actual middle-class peoples' jewelry stores. I found myself in the small retail space of a Zales, shoved away in the undesirable 3rd floor of a very fashionable mall, next to a tobacco shop and across from the clearly now unpopular Body Shop. "Zales. The Diamond Store" said their motto. For all I could tell, it could have said "Zales. The jewelry store for blue-collar, Jerry Springer-watching, NASCAR-obsessed, Hamburger Helper-eating underprivileged folks." Certainly not a place where an overly educated, champagne drinking, advertising exec society girl with a 2+ carat rock should be seen. Especially during prime weekend viewing hours.

After a long 5 minutes of my having announced my entrance into the store, no parade of store associates outfitted in sharp black miniskirt suits came to my aid. I was downright indignant as I ambled helplessly from case to case, waiting for my royal presence to be heralded. I mean, couldn't they tell from my Chanel bag and the boulder on my hand that I was here to drop some serious change? I had to actually demand attention, which finally came in the form of a rather scarcely clad salesperson who obviously did not bother to comb or style her hair before she came to work. A hot-pink tank top (from a package of 3 for $10) barely hid her white bra. She approached me in a manner that was neither aloof nor uncomfortably flattering. She spoke in a way that was devoid of excess enthusiasm, yet refreshingly up-front. No usless lingo or factoids meant to impress me. Just the facts, ma'am.

What was I looking for? Did I want a diamond or a classic wedding band? (Um, do you think I strolled into your inferior store to buy my first name carved in script on a yellow gold pendant emblazoned with fake rubies? Of course I'm here for the ice!) Prong set, preferably raised single prong, possibly channel set, no baguettes please. Out of the display case emerged 2 simple bands, a smaller sized stone band and a chunkier sized one. The diamonds shone like gleaming white lights. "They're nearly colorless," she said matter-of-factly. Indeed, I concurred, inspecting little round rows of stones in the bright overhead light. So colorless, that when I held them next to the shining beacon on my hand, they actually made mine look a little dimmer and slightly off-color. And I hadn't noticed these flaws before! So, I inquired, how much for these almost colorless beauties, as I steeled myself for the answer. Would she name her own price, blatantly inflating it 800 percent, or would she actually tell me the official store price? Was there an official price at this store? Some of the other stores didn't seem to have one.

"These just went on sale and are 40 percent off." Off of what, I inquired. The smaller one is now $380 and the larger one is $580. What? I nearly bellowed. You mean the same band that was quoted for $1000 more at Charleston Alexander, $800 more at Jarod, and a whopping $1200 more at Bailey Banks & Biddle is a mere $580 here? I didn't believe it. Was there something wrong with these diamonds? Were they stolen? Were they even real? Crazy thoughts spun through my mind. She showed me the certificate from the gemological institute. Nearly colorless, half-carat, barely any inclusions. The sparkle spoke for itself. Trying my best not to sound rude, I did a reverse impression of the long-running Hour Eyes commercial: "Why do your diamonds cost less than at all the other stores?" Without missing a beat, and without the slightest hint of offensiveness, she said, "We don't have the reputation of Tiffany." Right, and they probably don't spend millions of dollars a year marketing to the upper segments of the population. "With stores like that," she continued, "You're paying for the name. Here, you're just paying for the diamond."

Brushing away tears of joy, I fought the urge to hug her. "Are you sure I can't spend more money?" I implored. "Only if you want to buy a bigger ring," she retorted. As my brain raced through the numbers, I started to get naughty ideas. I'm ashamed to admit that my greed got the better of me. "Can I also see some diamond settings for my solitaire to match the wedding band?" And that's where it got dangerous, or so I feared. But as luck would have it, I got 2 beautiful bands on sale that day, plus a very nice men's classic band (no diamonds or embellishments, per my sweetie's request). All told, I walked away with 2 diamond bands and a sizeable white gold band for the price of 1 diamond band at a fancy diamond store.

Three weeks later, I had my exquisite 2+ carat stone reset in one of those bands. It looked even more beautiful than I could have imagined! I fell newly in love with my "engagement" ring. My fiance was right -- it took me less than 9 months to upgrade. But what a work of art I had created! A spectacular 2+ carat rectangular brilliant solitaire implanted in a row of individually pronged round brilliant stones. In a week-and-a-half I will add to my hand the stunning matching band of individually pronged round brilliant stones. And I'm happy to report that the service at Zales was impeccable! The jeweler did a great job inserting a prong into the new engagement band I had picked out, and, he took good care of my baby while resetting it.

One week later, I was back for more. No, not more diamonds for me. I'm not that addicted! After listening to the laments of my single, sassy, but diamondless maid-of-honor, I took it upon myself to reward her for her countless hours of hard work with a little bling she could call her own. Just a little something to say "thank you." I wanted to see her joy as she unwrapped the little velvet box and discovered a sparkly little trinket meant just for her, from moi. I will be giving it to her tomorrow, a couple of days before my bachelorette party, which she is busily organizing. And no, it won't be one of those cheap nights on the town where the bride-to-be has to wear a veil and a t-shirt with boobs drawn on it. It will be a very classy, total society girl gathering over an elegant afternoon tea at a posh D.C. hotel. Anyway, I hope she loves wearing
the bling as much as I enjoyed shopping for it!

It turns out that Zales and Bailey Banks & Biddle are owned by the same company! Chances are, they get their diamonds from the same mines. So I got the same beautiful merchandise as my snobbier (and less savvy) sisters for half the price!