How to Buy Jewelry

I’ve exchanged e-mail with many people about how to buy jewelry. And I always share the advice I’d give my best friend about how to buy jewelry and quality gems. Now, I’m sharing them with you. There are four parts:

  1. What’s it worth?
  2. Synthetic or Natural?
  3. How to Create a Custom Engagement Ring
  4. Precious Stone Rings (and rings in general)

How to Buy Jewelry:

What’s it worth?

That’s one of the most common questions about any gem or jewelry item. “Is a Sunstone worth it?” Of course, I’d have to know what “it” is…

Gems and Jewelry, like all things, are valued in some context. If one is lost at sea and treading water, a brick of gold would not be worth much.

A given gem or jewel is worth, in any context, exactly what someone will trade for it, right then. And, time is always a factor in such things.

The seller’s need to trade the gem sooner (e.g. jeweler’s rent is due tomorrow) will have a downward pressure on the price, while the buyer’s need to acquire jewelry sooner (e.g. on Christmas eve) will have an upward pressure on the price.

I know people who’ve traded their integrity, honor, and reputation for gems. And, that’s pretty expensive stuff, in my book. So, keep context in mind, and keep your senses about you.

The above is about perspective.

On the practical side, there’s a sparkle for every budget, lifestyle, and sensibility.

Personal adornment serves three purposes:

  1. psychological self-care and feeling good about yourself
  2. attracting and holding attention
  3. signaling affluence

While the entire goal of purpose 3 is to advertise the size of our budget, we can achieve purposes 1 and 2 within any budget. (macaroni colored with nail polish + dental floss will work, if that’s what you can afford).

For signaling affluence, any luxury-name-brand will do, no matter how ugly it may actually be. For the other goals, start with clarity about them, and reject sales pitches based on signaling affluence.

If your goals are A and B, be clear about that and C-purpose-based sales pitches. DEFINE YOUR BUDGET ecologically, and BEFORE shopping. Then, shop to your purpose within your budget. You’ll have more fun and be happier – and for longer.

If you’re concerned about the plight of workers around the world, then choose something mined AND CUT in an industrialized country like America, Canada, or Australia, where the workers usually also own a stake in the mining and cutting.

Buying direct from the artist will almost always get you better value for your investment. This usually also allows you to trace provenance of the stone. Get your jewelry appraised by someone who is NOT employed by the seller.

Synthetic or Natural?

Most of the people who ask are confused about why the question matters at all. They think it’s only about price, and they miss the boat about synthetics.

You should know that many stones are so commonly treated (and that this is so acceptable) that it’s industry practice to “assume treatment” unless certified otherwise. And, since treatment is “assumed”, then it’s not necessary to mention it to the average customer – at least not beyond the fine-print “treatment code” somewhere in the sale documents.

Also understand that it’s legit, for instance, to call a glass-filled, heat-treated Ruby “natural” – as long as the fine print notes it’s glass-filled and heat-treated. Part of the stone is literally GLASS, and yet the price is way above a laboratory-grown stone that’s pure Ruby, with top color, perfect clarity, and sound structural integrity (things the “natural” treated stone doesn’t have).

If you want big sparkle on a budget, you can get a HUGE synthetic for the price of a much smaller fair-quality stone that’s labeled “natural” (plus some cryptic “treatment codes”). “Natural” is a pretty loosely interpreted word in the jewelry business these days.

There may be reasons other than budget to consider synthetics.

If the piece will be worn by an avid surfer, or in a damage-prone environment like gardening, at the gym, or rock-climbing, then it may be a good idea to let a jewelry stunt double (synthetic) take the wear. When it gets lost or thrashed, it can be easily and affordably replaced.

If you want an investment-grade stone, search for a “certified untreated” gem from a reputable dealer or directly from a cutter. Then, be careful how and where you wear it (in a pendant).

How to Create a Custom Engagement Ring

I get lots of inquiries about custom engagement rings. These are some of my favorite projects. I consider an engagement ring to be a religious artifact. I am always flattered at an invitation to participate in perhaps the most important decisions and events of a couple’s life. Building a piece that someone will wear every day for the rest of their life is a serious undertaking to me.

The mistakes most often made by people who want a custom engagement ring are: wanting the thing to be too large, designing it to be too elaborate, or wanting to use too-delicate materials.

While it’s possible to do a huge engagement ring, it may be a good idea to keep in mind that someone will be wearing it every day, forever.

Elaborate designs can be really great in the imagination, but remember that they must be realized in a relatively tiny space. I’ve had people who wanted all kinds of stars and symbols and hearts and diamonds and a river and a waterfall – the world in a ring. But, while the imagination is limitless, the goldsmith and gemcutter must work within a single scale.

Unusual shapes can be fun and exciting, although it’s a good idea to be aware that natural gems “grow” in certain patterns. For instance, rough Sapphires are easy to find in rounds – but less so in a Marquis shape, and it’s generally not feasible to cut-down a huge round Sapphire just to get a Marquis gem.

Remember that shapes like Marquis, with long points, are more prone to wearability issues like snagging sweaters, getting caught in things, or even getting broken.

Elaborate gold-work and lots of extra tiny stones have other drawbacks. All those small parts and spaces look great all new and clean and under the jeweler’s halogens. But, within minutes of wearing it, those spaces will start collecting lint and dirt and dead skin cells, all cemented together with sweat and hand-lotion and acidic skin oils into an rotting abrasive slurry that will grind away at the delicate features and tiny prongs of the soft metal. This will eventually cause loss of detail, and possibly loss of stones. It’s pretty icky, too, when you think about it. If someone wears it every day, that collection of grinding-goo will grow more quickly than you think. For these reasons, I recommend keeping the gold-work simple on everyday rings.

It’s possible to set nearly any species of stone into a ring. The question is how that stone will fare when worn every day. As a general rule, stones softer than Spinel won’t hold-up to even to careful daily wear over time. Remember that even diamonds will chip, scratch, or even split in-two if abused by activities many consider ordinary: washing dishes; going to the gym; or even bumping against a metal door handle.

I still get people every week who want to use Oregon Sunstone, Emerald, Aquamarine, or even odd things like Obsidian. It’s possible to use odd or softer stones, by “sapphire-armoring” them. That is, we attach a white synthetic Sapphire top to a bottom stone of their choice, and then the Sapphire will suffer the wear and tear – and is easy to re-polish later if not too badly damaged.

This strategy is VERY costly, due to the complexity and time involved. And, the stone will never be as strong as a single piece. And, you can’t use ultrasonic or steam cleaning on it – and it’ll be vulnerable to heat of the kind a jeweler could cause by re-tipping the prongs.

All in all, it’s really better, for many reasons, to go with a HARD and durable stone like Diamond, Sapphire, Chrysoberyl, or Spinel – the four hardest gem materials. Sapphire is available in almost any color or shade you can imagine – and Spinel offers a wide range of blues, pinks, and lavenders to choose from.

It’s pretty easy to avoid the three most common and troublesome errors in designing a custom engagement ring (or any custom ring):

Remember to consider the complexity of the design and the size of the ring – Don’t try to put too much on a single piece of jewelry or to make it too big.

Remember that frilly designs should generally be done in cloth (doilies, wedding dresses, or articles from Victoria’s Secret) – and the occasional “dress-up” jewelry. Don’t put frilly designs on an “every day for the rest of your life” ring.

Remember to use hard (or even hard synthetic) stones in rings for everyday wear.

Quality Custom Jewelry, By the Numbers:

I help lots of people design custom jewelry. And, I like designing as much as I like helping people create something they’ll be happy with forever. Over the years, I’ve developed a step-by-step process that seems to works very well. I hope you find it useful.

  1. Budget
  2. Style (and Lifestyle)
  3. Symbolism
  4. Construction


I like to start everyone out by establishing a budget because when people put the budget last, they wind up in a bind between their tolerance for debt and their tolerance for disappointment.That’s not the way to have a good time and build long-term happiness.

Figuring out your budget first saves time and makes the process easier for everyone. It helps insure that my clients feel good every time they look at the piece for the rest of their life because I never sell them something they can’t afford – and they don’t have to “settle” for something less than what they want.

I advise clients to tell me their budget – and then how they want it to look – and it’s my job to make that happen, within their budget.

The old rule of thumb is to spend two months’ salary on an engagement ring. That may be appropriate, or not. I personally recommend the two month rule as a starting point, and I add that if one makes the purchase on credit it should not take more than six months to pay off.

Consider the natural versus synthetic issue. You can make drastic budgetary adjustments with this one factor, and I don’t recommend putting investment-level stones into rings intended for everyday wear. That’s not a good use of investment funds.

Style and Lifestyle:

After establishing a budget, I think it’s important to consider style and lifestyle – how the recipient of the ring dresses and how they’ll wear it. Do they usually wear jeans and sneakers? Will they be surfing or rock-climbing every weekend? Will they do dishes or garden regularly?

Consider both fashion and wearability. Will they be regularly involved in activities likely to cause loss or damage the ring?

Faceted gems are necessarily as deep as they are wide. So, if the stone is a pencil-eraser wide, it’ll stand-off the hand by about as much. Smaller stones will protrude less and larger stones proportionately more. It’s important to consider this factor – as well as shape, like the snagging points of a marquis stone – when you consider something designed for daily wear. How comfortable will it be for the wearer in the situations they are likely to wear it in?

Consider the natural versus synthetic issue. If the lifestyle is likely to be high-risk for the jewelry, I recommend using synthetic stones in the everyday rings, and reserving higher-quality natural stones for “dress-up” pieces.


People often consider custom design to incorporate meaningful religious, cultural, or personal symbols into their heirloom jewelry.

Many of my designs are based on symbolism, including: “Sacred Heart”, “I’ll be Around”, “I’ll Be Around Too”, “Howell’s Maltese Cross”, “The All-Seeing Eye”, “Left Eye”, “Right Eye”, “Gaijin”, “Mask of Mystery”, “Third Eye”, “Celestial Peace”, and others. This is an area of specialty for me.

When you contemplate symbolism in your piece, think about the amount of detail that can reasonably be built into a stone of the size you want. For instance, the “All Seeing Eye” design is so complex that it requires a very large stone (10mm or bigger), while the “Sacred Heart” design shows nicely in a one-carat Sapphire like the custom engagement ring I designed it for.

Don’t get too carried away with symbolism. The details may become impossible, and you want to remember that the ring itself contains a powerful set of symbols in the both the stone and the unbroken circle of gold.

Sometimes, simple ideas can be the most powerful. One of my favorites uses a standard three-stone ring, with a diamond or other center stone framed by two Sapphires or Spinels. I find an oblong crystal to cut into the two side stones – a single crystal, divided – and then reunited on the ring. This is a very popular theme with beautiful symbolism.

Whatever your ideas, work with an idea that has only one or two symbols at most. Then, put the symbolism on the stone or the gold-work, not both.

Consider the symbolism of the stones chosen – including whether the natural versus synthetic issue is meaningful. Also, the origin of the stones may be meaningful – Africa or China or Montana, for instance. Or, the color of the stones may be important to you…


Always allow plenty of lead-time. Finding the right rough could prove time-consuming. Generally, it’s easier to match gold to the shape of the stone, so the stone should usually be cut first. Though, it’s not all that uncommon to cut a stone to fit a specific setting.

If you are going to have custom gold-work it’s often a good idea to put the goldsmith in direct touch with the gem-cutter before either of them begin production on their component of the piece. It’s also a good idea to work with a gem-cutter / goldsmith team who already know each other. I have several world-class goldsmiths that I work with regularly, so whatever your ideas, we can probably help you realize them.

I hope this guide has been helpful to you. Please write me with any questions or comments that come to mind.

John Bailey, The Gemstone Artist