- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

A suitor seeking to steal his girlfriend's heart, and her hand in marriage, needs to remember one thing: Two carats are better than one. Of the 2.1 million women who received diamond engagement rings last year, 82 percent were disappointed by the size of the stone.

A 2- to 5-carat diamond was more their style, said the New York City-based Diamond Information Center.

The wish for a bigger chunk of ice is a recent phenomenon. From the 1960s to 1980s, the most common diamond size purchased was a half-carat, said Smyth Jewelers in Timonium, Md.

Nowadays, most men are spending less on birthday and Christmas presents and more on engagement rings, an indication that expensive diamonds have become a priority, said Darcy Miller, editorial director of Martha Stewart Weddings magazine.

"You would think that with the economy and everything else going on in the world that people wouldn't be spending more money on rings," Miss Miller says. "But when it comes to an engagement ring, they are relatively recession-proof."

Diane Ray Brown, vice president of Tiffany & Co. in Washington, says a classic Tiffany diamond engagement ring ranging from 2 to 5 carats and set in platinum can start around $20,000 and go up to $100,000.

Some big spenders say they make their purchases based on heartfelt decisions, but analysts wonder how much TV, radio and magazine messages play a role.

"People say they are buying bigger rings because it is a way of being more romantic," says Tom Smyth, president of Smyth Jewelers. "But they were brought up in the age of advertising, and the truth is, they can get financing now."

Mr. Smyth points out that even a recent college graduate can obtain financing up to $10,000 for a ring.

Miss Miller says advertising lures women to bigger stones. The trend toward more carats "is a sign that brides-to-be are responding to the advertisements," she says.

One would assume that women who buy bridal magazines already are wearing engagement rings, but that is not always true.

"The staggering statistic is that these women are buying bridal magazines before they get a boyfriend, before they get engaged or even after they get engaged," Miss Miller says.

No matter how much a woman may scoff at the hefty stones on celebrities' fingers, analysts say, these images play on the subconscious of otherwise practical ladies.

US Weekly's December issue, for example, twinkled with actresses dripping in diamonds: The magazine featured Catherine Zeta-Jones' 10-carat ring, Kate Hudson's 5-carat sparkler and Reese Witherspoon's 4½-carat piece.

Each of the stones was set in platinum, a metal similar to silver in color but not in price: Platinum costs around $587 an ounce, while silver costs a mere $5 per ounce. Fourteen-carat gold costs about $265 an ounce.

Songbird Jennifer Lopez's stunning engagement ring was popular with celebrity shutterbugs. The 6-carat pink diamond, designed by Manhattan jeweler-to-the-wealthy Harry Winston, cost actor Ben Affleck $1.2 million and created a firestorm of interest at jewelry counters nationwide.

"Jennifer Lopez's engagement ring has spurred the most interest at the [jewelry] counter, because colored diamonds are rare and expensive," says Brandee Dallow, spokeswoman for the Diamond Information Center.

Colored diamonds are available in a dreamlike palette of canary yellow, pink, blue and yellow-green.

Consumer exposure has much to do with increased interest in rare diamonds "because of the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and coverage in magazines," Miss Miller says. "When you watch on television or you see in magazines these big stones, all of a sudden a tiny diamond does not seem so exciting to you."

Attitudes of family and friends also influence women.

"The first thing someone says when you tell them you got engaged is, 'Let me see your finger,' so I think that is part of it," Miss Miller says.

Shopping for a ring traditionally is a man's chore and a weighty one. He feels the heat to pick the perfect ring for the woman he hopes will be his wife, and he must pull this off without her knowledge.

That presumption often is outdated, Miss Miller says. Women today are much more likely to voice their ring preferences before they become engaged.

Perhaps they are trying to avoid a "Sex in the City" moment. Carrie, played by Sarah Jessica Parker on the popular HBO series, was man-shopping and -hopping for several seasons before her beau, Aidan, got down on one knee in the middle of Manhattan. Her answer was a "yes" but the ring did not stay on her finger for long.

She said the ring was "wrong" and then began to draw stereotypically female conclusions: "What else does he not know about me?" Carrie ended up wearing the engagement ring on a necklace until Aidan went back to the drawing board this time with the guidance of his fiancee's friends.

Andre Cross, a Montreal-based dating specialist, emphasizes that men must do their homework before shopping for rings.

"You shouldn't blindly get something," Mr. Cross says. "Try to pay attention to what she likes. After all, this is just another test that you will have to go through."

The multiple pressures to please the woman, her parents and her friends, and not go broke in the process can lead to some ice-cold feet.

Amid all this worry are some cynics. Curt Smith, an advice columnist for AskMen.com an online site addressing issues like dating, women, fashion, money and fitness views the purchase of an engagement ring as a one-way ticket to bankruptcy.

"Between the cost of proposing, marriage, the ring and the honeymoon, you might as well file for Chapter 11," says Mr. Smith. "You are better off not going all out for the first ring given that over half of weddings end up in divorce, and then get her a nicer ring or an additional diamond for a 10th anniversary."

A man can keep his feet on the ground by reminding himself that a ring is a piece of jewelry and an important symbol of enduring love, but it does not need to be frighteningly expensive.

Alas, a relationship is all about compromise, says Ashkan Karbasfrooshan, vice president of advertising and public relations at AskMen.com, and with compromise comes sacrifice.

"There is nothing wrong with going all out for your woman," Mr. Karbasfrooshan said. "After all, idealistically a marriage should only happen once in a lifetime."

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