When you decide to propose, one of the first things to do is buy an engagement ring. If you’re thinking about getting a ring with a white diamond, understanding the 4Cs is a great place to start.

The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) established the 4Cs of diamond quality in the mid-20th century. Before this system, it was difficult to discern the distinctions of one diamond over another, especially since these differences were hard to see with the naked eye. Today, the 4Cs is the universal standard for judging the quality of a white diamond and determining its value.

The 4 Cs of diamond quality are carat, clarity, color, and cut. Each C has its own grading scale for evaluating quality and is completely independent of the other three Cs.

Please note that beauty is still in the eye of the beholder. There is no right or wrong set of specifications. When a diamond hits the top of every scale, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is prettier than another diamond, just that it’s likely to be more expensive. You can use the 4Cs as a tool to determine which factors are most important to you in order to find the best diamond within your budget.

Carat

Carat is often thought of as a diamond’s size, but it actually refers to how much a diamond weighs. One carat weighs ⅕ of a gram. Diamonds are also measured in points: 100 points equals 1 carat. This allows very precise measurements to the hundredth decimal place.

As the carat size increases, so does its rarity and, in turn, its price tag. But a diamond that has a bigger carat weight doesn’t necessarily mean it will look bigger. A diamond with a smaller carat size but a shallow cut may look larger than a diamond with a bigger carat size and a deeper cut. The appearance of size is also affected by the shape and crown you choose. For instance, a halo will make a smaller stone appear larger, and so will a shape with more surface area, like a pear or emerald.

One way to save is by looking at a diamond 10 or 15 points less than a diamond you like. For example, if you love a 1.20-carat (1 1/5 carat) diamond, see what it looks like next to a 1.10-carat (1 1/10 carat) diamond of the same quality. You probably won’t notice a big difference, but may save hundreds of dollars.

Clarity

Natural diamonds are the result of carbon exposed to tremendous heat and pressure deep in the earth. Like anything made in nature, diamonds contain flaws called inclusions or blemishes. Inclusions are trapped minerals, breaks, or growth marks confined to the inside of a diamond or that start from the inside and break through its surface. Blemishes are characteristics such as scratches located on the surface of the diamond.

Diamond cutters try to cut and polish a diamond to hide these inclusions or work around them, but they are still present and the clarity grade measures them. The scale ranges from flawless to heavily included:

FL – Flawless: No blemishes or inclusions when examined by a skilled grader using 10X magnification.

IF – Internally Flawless: No inclusions and only insignificant blemishes when examined by a skilled grader using 10X magnification.

VVS1, VVS2 – Very, Very Slightly Included: Minute inclusions that are difficult for even a skilled grader to locate under 10X magnification.

VS1, VS2 – Very Slightly Included: Minor inclusions ranging from difficult to somewhat easy for a trainer grader to see under 10X.

SI1, SI2 – Slightly Included: Noticeable inclusions which are easy or very easy to see under 10X. In some instances, even, inclusions can be spotted with the unaided eye.

I1, I2, I3 – Included: Inclusions which are obvious to a trained grader under 10X magnification, can often be seen face up with the unaided eye, and could potentially affect durability or beauty.

Imperfect: obvious inclusions when viewed under 10X magnification.

Color

Diamonds come in many different colors, however the market values white diamonds, or diamonds without any color, higher than others and the grading scale reflects that. Diamond colors fall under a D-Z scale. A D grade means the diamond is completely colorless, which is very rare and expensive. Going down from D to Z, diamonds become progressively more yellow, brown, or gray.

D, E, F – Colorless

G, H, I, J – Near Colorless

K, L, M – Faint Yellow

N, O, P, Q, R – Very Light Yellow

S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z – Light Yellow

The shape of the diamond also influences its spot on the color scale. With round, emerald, and asscher shapes, you can typically go low as a J grade without seeing any incredibly noticeable color. However, longer diamond shapes reveal color much easier. Oval, cushion, radiant, pear, princess, marquise, and heart shaped diamonds often require a grade of G or higher to not detect any color.

Diamonds are made out of 95% carbon. Color is the result of other minerals in the diamond. Nitrogen is responsible for turning a diamond more yellow. Color is a personal preference and doesn’t affect the quality of a stone. As a general rule, a colorless diamond will cost more than a colored stone. However, color diamonds have increased in value with popularity. Diamond colors that are rarely found naturally such as green or red are more costly, but diamond color treatments can help you get these coveted colors for less.

Cut

Contrary to popular belief, a diamond’s cut is not the shape, but the angles, proportions, and reflective quality of the stone. This is the only one of the 4Cs not determined by nature and is often argued to be the most important quality to consider. Diamond cutters determine how to shape, facet, and polish each stone. Sometimes, diamonds are cut to hide or minimize inclusions. Other times, diamonds are cut to be heavier so they have more carat weight. Overall, diamond cutters are focused on how to let the most light shine through each stone. If a diamond is cut properly, it will reflect the light up through the center of the stone and have an amazing sparkle.

A full cut diamond has 57 or 58 facets or cuts, which act as mirrors. If the facets are positioned properly, light enters the diamond, bounces across the various facets, and eventually leaves at the viewer’s eye. If a single facet is not positioned properly, light leaks out of the diamond, never maximizing the diamond’s full potential.

When grading the cut of a diamond, laboratories evaluate the diamond’s:

Brightness: Internal and external white light reflected from a diamond.

Fire: How the light scatters through the diamond to create a rainbow of light, like a prism.

Scintillation: The amount of sparkle a diamond produces as it moves under light.

Diamond cuts are often evaluated as ideal or near ideal, excellent, very good, good, fair, and poor.

Making the 4Cs Work for You

Now that you understand the 4Cs of diamond quality, we hope it will be easier to compare one diamond over another to eventually find the right stone for the love of your life. The 4Cs will reassure you that you’re buying a quality diamond and getting what you pay for, but remember that jewelry is a personal preference. Ultimately, the grade of each C doesn’t matter as long as you and, most importantly, your sweetie think the diamond is beautiful.

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