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story.lead_photo.caption Zameer Kassam, a New York-based custom jeweler, sketches a custom wedding band for a client.

When Louis Hunt set out to find an engagement ring for his now-fiancé Kathryn Sundheim, he admits the process was unnerving. Rings at jewelry stores didn't seem like the right fit for her. Buying a diamond wholesale online, with his limited experience with jewelry, seemed risky. Finding a diamond broker who he could trust was equally time-consuming, especially since no one in his network "knew a guy." The whole process appeared rigged against the consumer. Would he really be getting a good value or not? As for a custom-made ring, that wasn't even on his radar.

"Between researching diamonds on my own and speaking with various brokers, the process of learning took surprisingly long to even achieve a baseline level of knowledge," said Hunt, 26, the chief operating officer at Beyond Better Foods. "I felt like I was making a hefty capital investment with very little information."

Hunt's problem is one that many people face when starting the engagement ring search. Though 95% of couples will have a ring to mark their engagement, according to WeddingWire's 2018 Newlywed Study, getting the actual ring can be a stressful journey. For one, it's a very costly purchase. Emotions run high. There is a huge learning curve.

Documentaries spout the flooded market of blood diamonds and the business practices of diamond companies, while most jewelry advice merely pushes the importance of the four C's -- cut, color, clarity and carat weight -- over anything else.

Traditional jewelry retailers have a business model that focuses on moving inventory, plus overhead costs from stores and marketing that they pass on to the consumer. Online retailers can be less expensive but pose other complications. Namely, you can't see and hold the ring before you buy.


Most proposers have no idea where to start. And most believe that a custom ring and personalized design service will incur a hefty premium.

Zameer Kassam, a New York-based custom jeweler, said that most custom options are not expensive and on par with the cost of predesigned rings. Plus, custom offers something online and traditional retailers cannot: a ring no one else has, specifically created to tell your love story. WeddingWire's study shows that 20% of couples opt for a custom ring.

Hunt ultimately bought a custom ring, a process he says was easier and more satisfying than he expected. In all his digital research, he happened upon Kassam. He designs engagement rings that focus on a couple's love story. He does this not only through inscriptions and settings but with the prongs, number of diamonds, colored gemstones and even engravings of the proposer's handwriting.

"The general assumption is that it's an expensive process that takes an enormous amount of time," he said. "In reality, it can also take far less time to make a custom ring -- as little as a week -- versus shopping for a generic ring."

What really persuaded Hunt was the value. "It affords the opportunity to embed tremendous emotion into the ring, which makes the ring far more valuable than the price paid," Hunt said, noting that it was not nearly as expensive as he expected. "I did not think that certain things, like inscribing one's own handwriting into the band, was an option."


Kassam's process works in three main steps. After an initial call on the basics, what he refers to as "intel," he discusses the couple's timeline, preferences and budget. He then starts with a tutorial on the dos and don'ts of choosing a stone.

"The goal is to teach the client about the 'sweet spots' where beauty and value are optimized at any budget level," Kassam said.

From there, he sits down with the proposer to learn about the love story. This includes specific questions on how they met, what the proposer sees in the partner, and even romantic notes from the relationship.

"This approach is a complete departure from the rest of the industry," he said, adding that for most jewelers, it's more about the carat weight and what the ring looks like than telling a story.

The last stage involves Kassam presenting the proposer with sketches, where he points out how the jewelry brings the couple's story to life. For example, Kassam included an airplane shape as the prongs to signify Jeff Zeller and Monika Niedzwiedzka's love of travel and 32 diamonds on the band for the number of months of their courtship.

"If you had asked me what a custom ring entailed, I never would have guessed those elements can be customized," said Zeller, 32, who works in digital strategy at Sony Music. "I was honestly shocked that he found a way to incorporate Monika's love of planes."

Although Kassam designs jewelry that costs $100,000-plus and works with Hollywood celebrities, he more often designs rings in the $10,000-$50,000 range.


"Everyone is on a budget," Kassam said. "Everyone is looking for value at their price point, even if that number seems high to someone else."

Other custom jewelers work in similar ways. Briony Raymond meets with couples at her atelier in Manhattan to discuss styles, materials and budgets for an engagement ring. Those budgets, she says, can range from $3,500 to hundreds of thousands; on average, rings are $30,000. No matter the price points, she really tries to nail what the proposer envisions for the ring, whether it's something designed from scratch or using parts of an heirloom ring. She often includes diamonds or other gemstones from family pieces into the ring, an element that makes custom a truly rewarding experience for the couple.

"Finding ways to blend two family cultures into a creation speaks to the couple and pays homage to their pasts," Raymond said. "There is no question that one gets far more value in the end when we are working closely with them and championing their vision."

Several traditional and online retailers have jumped on the bandwagon with semi-custom online products that help consumers craft a ring. Ritani launched its "Design Your Own Ring" feature online in 2012, allowing consumers to build a ring. The ring configurator showcases thousands of settings, filtered by style, metal, price and delivery time. It offers more than 75,000 different stones. Josh Marion, vice president of Ritani, explained that the buyer can refine his or her search beyond the four C's, looking at advanced options such as polish grade, symmetry and fluorescence, which often have greater impact on the final appearance and value.

Other popular online retailers, including Zales and Blue Nile, also offer digital tools. Zales claims more than 14 million available combinations from their 12 ways to customize on their site. Blue Nile's customization process can be completed in mere minutes, and there's even overnight shipping. Katie Zimmerman, the chief merchandising officer at Blue Nile, explained that the majority of their customers use the feature when buying, and their ready-to-ship rings are actually preset options based on the most popular combinations from their build-your-own-ring tool.

The process seems quick and simple in theory. But in actuality, the sheer number of options is what is just as overwhelming to the proposer as walking into a jewelry store. Marion, of Ritani, said that the online product is not for the faint of heart. "The feature is really geared toward buyers who have a general idea of the style of ring they are looking for," he said. "Technology has enabled us to offer this with little added cost."

For buyers beginning the process, he encourages a call or online chat with their certified gemologists to learn about the options instead of trying to navigate the site with little background in jewelry. "We allow them to do all the background research they need to feel confident about the decision," Marion added. The average price of Ritani's customized rings are between $5,000 and $6,000.


As for timing? Online retailers and private jewelers can make rings as quickly as one week, but most proposers take more time. Raymond and Kassam estimate that their average client takes about six weeks.

Kassam has made a surprising recent discovery: "They don't want to spend a week. They want it to take two months, and they really want to enjoy the process. They don't want the experience to be lost so quickly."

These challenges don't stop with the engagement ring. They extend to wedding bands, too. When Daniel Bernardo began searching for a ring before his marriage to his partner, Andrew Bernardo, he faced similar battles.

The pair had rings in hand, but they weren't what they wanted to represent their love. The rings Daniel Bernardo imagined, he believed to be out of his budget. He spent countless hours researching gemologists that he could trust and trying on dozens of rings.

"I just wasn't happy with them," said Daniel Bernardo, 28, who works in technical sales. When he decided on the custom route, he realized he could tailor a design to his budget while still getting the value he wanted. He feels confident about the quality of the diamonds and how true the ring looks to the initial sketches.

"I know that when I put my ring on, nobody has this ring," he added. "This is the most meaningful item I own."

High Profile on 08/18/2019

Print Headline: Design-your-own ring options abound


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