With one arm wrapped around his shy bride-to-be, Rudy Rodriguez, 24, of Chino wanders among the aisles of engagement rings at Robbins Bros. jewelry store in Fullerton hunting down the perfect diamond ring.
"I want it to stand out, to shine," Rudy says.
His fiancee, 21-year-old Veronica Rodriguez ("no relation--yet," jokes Rudy) silently squeezes his hand while the two pore over a glass case filled with diamond-studded gold settings.
After trying on half a dozen rings, Veronica slips on an elaborate setting with rows of channel-set baguettes.
Stefani Hodges, a design consultant at Robbins, takes a tweezer and carefully drops a half-carat diamond into the center of the setting.
"That's pretty," Veronica says, gingerly balancing the ring on her finger. Rudy wraps his arm around her.
Yet before they put a down payment on the $6,000 beauty, they examine the diamond from every angle. They peer at it under a microscope, on a diamond scale, against a white backdrop and under various kinds of lighting to study its four Cs--cut, carat, color and clarity.
Rudy and Veronica are typical of diamond buyers today: In the wake of the recession, they're paying extra attention to the quality of the stones they buy, but they still want their diamonds to "stand out."
Orange County is a diamond seller's dream, a place where many residents not only can afford the precious rocks, but aren't afraid to flaunt them.
In other areas, such as New York City and Los Angeles, people often don't like to call attention to themselves by flashing large diamonds, for reasons that have more to do with security than style.
"The pleasant thing about Orange County is that people enjoy wearing jewelry and they do wear jewelry," says Sergio Baril, president of FRED Joaillier, USA--an international jeweler that opened a boutique in Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza in November. "People are more relaxed here than in Los Angeles. They still enjoy dressing up. It's refreshing."
FRED, which designed the scene-stealing ruby-and-diamond necklace worn by Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman," is just one in a long line of jewelers who have sought to mine Orange County's lucrative diamond market. Tiffany, Bulgari, Cartier and other exclusive jewelers that don't set up shop just any old place have all settled here.
They've made it their business to study Orange County's diamond-buying habits.
Because the holidays are a peak time to buy diamonds, Jo Ellen Qualls of Tiffany & Co. recently invited gemologist Richard Buonomo to conduct a seminar on how to select and buy them at the South Coast Plaza boutique in Costa Mesa.
Qualls has discovered that Orange County customers tend to favor higher-end designer pieces and one-of-a-kind custom settings.
Despite their reputation for excess, most Orange County diamond buyers don't want anything too flashy. Gaudy, "Dynasty"-style designs went out with the recession.
Says Baril: "In the '80s, we were into the big flash. People were making a lot of money and they wanted to show it off. Today, they're more subdued."
They're choosing diamonds in styles that are less froufrou than in the past. Instead of cluster diamond earrings, people are wearing simple diamond studs, Baril says.
Princess Di-style rings, featuring a stone surrounded by a glut of diamonds, are out of favor. People now prefer to highlight a single round-cut diamond by placing a smaller triangular stone or baguette on each side of the center stone.
Diamond shapes change with the times. There are always traditional buyers who want the round, brilliant-cut stone, but more avant-garde buyers now want the starburst cut, Baril says. The starburst has the shape of an emerald cut, but with extra facets to reflect more light.
Five or six years ago, those same avant-garde types were buying pear-shaped stones and, before that, marquise-cut diamonds, he says.
Most people want colorless diamonds rather than sparklers, which come in yellow, pink, blue, green, orange and green. The Tiffany Diamond is canary yellow, and the Hope Diamond is blue. Some well-heeled buyers prefer the colored diamonds, particularly the fancy yellow stones.
"A few customers want the pink and blue diamonds, but they're rare and extremely expensive--between $100,000 and $300,000 per carat," Baril says.
Once cut, a diamond is placed in a setting, usually platinum since its silvery color doesn't detract from the stone, Qualls says. A six-prong setting holds the diamond away from the band, making it appear larger and more brilliant.
Channel-set diamonds, in which the stone is supported by two pieces of metal instead of prongs, are also trendy.
"The stone looks like it's floating on air," says Steve Robbins, co-president of Robbins Bros. "The rings are elegant and tailored."
Though they might want simpler, subtler diamond designs, Orange County buyers still like their diamonds big. Most people choose engagement rings with diamonds that weigh in at one-half to one carat.
But says Qualls, size isn't the most important element. She says a one-carat, round, near colorless diamond with very small inclusions in a knife-edged Tiffany mounting would sell for $7,620. If the size remained the same but color were upgraded to colorless and the clarity to internally flawless, the value would be $24,210.
Jewelry, however, should not be thought of as an investment because the value rarely appreciates.
"We recommend that a person buy the best quality his or her budget will allow. When it comes to decision making, we recommend the cut be the priority, then color and clarity, then size," says Qualls, who has worked in the jewelry business for 25 years.
"If you're blessed and you have all the money in the world, go for size too, but you can always opt later in life to go to something larger, and Tiffany and most other jewelers honor a trade-up policy."
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Romancing the Stone
Despite what they say at those hoity-toity social gatherings, the value of the diamond is not based on size. A small, round-cut, nearly flawless diamond with brilliant color will cost more than a bigger rock of poor color and visible imperfections.
Diamonds are traditionally shapped in one of six ways: round brilliant, marquis, heart-shaped, oval, emerald cut and pear-shaped. The various facets, or faces, must be in geometric propostion to one another in order to achieve maximum brilliance. The classic round- brilliantt cut includes 58 facets.
* Diamonds are the only gem mineral composed of one element, carbon.
* It is the hardest known transparent substance and can only be cut with another diamond.
* A diamond will not dissolve in acid but can be destroyed by intense heat (1,290 Fahrenheit).
* The word diamond comes from a Greek word meaning invincible.
* The largest diamond ever found, the Cullinan from South Africa, weighs 3,106 carats (about 1.3 pounds).
* The largest cut diamond, a pear-shaped stone from the Cullinan, weighs 530.2 carats with 74 facets.
* The smallest diamond weighs .0001022 carats.
* The rarest diamond color is blood red.
* The highest-priced diamond sold at auction (as of May): $16.5 million for the 101-carat Star of the Season.
* Countries producing the most natural diamonds include Australia, Botswana and South Africa; the United States has no commerical mines.
Four criteria set a diamond's value: clarity, color, cut and carat weight. Each variable isa factor on the stone's worth:
* Clarity: Rates on a scale of flawless (FL) to imperfect (I1-I2-I3). Flaws are called inclusions, and include --tiny crystals, feathers, clouds or blemishes.
FL: No blemishes can be seen under magnification.
IF: Internally flawless, minor surface blemishes.
VVS1-VVS2: Very, very small inclusions that are difficult to detect under magnification.
VS1-VS2: Very small inclusions noticeable when magnified 10 times.
SI1-SI2-SI3: Small inclusions easily seen whem magnified.
I1-I2-I3: Imperfect; inclusions visible, sometimes to naked eye, that affect the stone's beauty or durability.
* Color: Colorless diamonds are traditionally the most desirable, but even these have traces of yellow or brown. Color grades are rated alphabetically in descending order from most valuable to least. Anything above J is considered good:
Colorless (D, E, F)
Near colorless (G, H, I, J)
Faint yellow (K, L, M)
Very light yellow (N, O, P, Q, R)
Light yellow (S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z).
* Cut: The shape of a stone's pavilion determines brilliance. If the pavilion is cut to maximize weight and left too shallow or too deep, light will be improperly diffused:
Normal pavilion--Perfect cut allows light to reflect off sides, bottom.
Shallow pavilion--Wide cut maintains high weight; light leaks out bottom.
Deep pavilion--Narrow cut creates high weight; light seeps out sides.
* Weight: The carat is the standard measure of diamond size:
One carat equals .007 ounce
One ounce equals 140 carats.
Most people buy fine cut diamonds, but there are other grades. Premier cuts cost 10% to 20% more than average prices, while inferior cuts cost less; poor cuts can cost up to 60% less than fine cut. These average prices show how color and clarity affect the value of a one-carat, round diamond.
Grade and Value
D, IF: $15,000
F, VVS2: 7,800
H, VS2: 5,700
I, SI2: 5,200
K, I1: 3,600
Here's how to protect your diamond investment:
- Select a reputable dealer. Compare the quality of products, prices and services and ask if there is a staff gemologist . Check to see if the Better Business Bureau has received any complaints on the store.
- Investigate the legitimacy of sales. A "50% off" banner may lure you into the store, but is the regular price in line with what you've been seeing elsewhere?
* Retail markup from wholesale ranges from 20% for a high-grade to 100% for poor-grade stones.
- Insist on a certificate authenticating the carat weight, color and flaw grades.
- Get an independent appraisal. Besides verifying facts about the diamond, an appraisal is needed for insurance.
- Buy insurance. Check your homeowner's policy to see if the full value of your jewelry would be covered in the event of a loss.
Sources: Tiffany & Co., Gemological Institute of America, Guinness Book of Records, The World Book Encyclopedia.
Researched by MARK CHALON SMITH / For The Times