Should you be at this stage in your life, you might be thinking — what if that happens to me? Calm down. You can avoid a catastrophe of symbolic proportions rather easily. A few careful observations — from your girlfriend's personal tastes to her genetic makeup — will guide you to purchasing the perfect ring.
The best way to choose your ring's style is to observe your girlfriend's personal jewelry choices. If she wears a certain necklace or bracelet everyday, you're in luck. Its style will be the unequivocal key to what she'd want to wear on her finger for (let's hope) the rest of her life. If she doesn't wear jewelry regularly, look at the jewelry that she owns and use it for style cues and inspiration.
For example, if she wears a string of pearls, that's a good indication that she would want a classic, blue blood ring. (A simple, silver necklace or set of stud earrings would also suggest this style.) Jewelry that looks antique or aged would suggest a vintage (pictured) or heirloom ring, while ornate jewelry, like chandelier earrings or intricately-designed baubles, might indicate she'd prefer a more complex design. Finer details — like tiny supporting diamonds, filigree along the band, or a raised setting — would be ideal characteristics if she prefers the latter. Or, if she goes for big and bold, like a wide, solid cuff bracelet, chances are she won't like a skinny-banded ring. Look carefully at her personal choices, be thoughtful about what they mean, and let her style guide your selections. If you're completely lost at translating her choices, bring your observations to a jewelry specialist.
The first concrete decision you'll have to make is what gem shape your girlfriend would want. Round is the most popular by far, and thus, it's the safest option. If you want something a bit more unique without straying too far from this comfort zone, try something that's similarly symmetric like an oval or emerald shape. Take it a step further by making these simple styles a bit fancier with more facets, which create more internal interplay of light, and, ergo, brilliance. Asscher, radiant, or princess cuts (pictured) all fall under this category; they are simple shapes with more intricate cuts that make them catch more light. Generally speaking, most women would love a gem with tons of sparkle, but if your girlfriend is particularly modest in her aesthetic, consider sticking to the simpler cuts.
Pear and marquise shapes use pointed ends, and they can vary greatly in terms of width, making them rather unusual. Most women seem to have strong opinions on these pointed gems however (see: Sarah Jessica Parker throwing up), so be weary of choosing them if you've never seen her wearing a similar shape. Some examples include "tear drop" earrings and pendants.
Finally, there are hearts and other custom shapes, but these should be avoided unless you're absolutely certain she wants them.
The setting is another opportunity to incorporate your girlfriend's style. There are two types of settings for the main stone: pronged (pictured) and bezel. Prongs are the standard for engagement rings as they allow the maximum amount of light to enter the gem. There are a variety of styles for the prong shape, but anything that isn't smooth will become a nuisance because it will snag on clothing.
Conversely, a bezel setting is a metal rim that runs along the entire edge of the stone, thus holding it in. A bezel is more contemporary and can be a good way to give a traditional shape an interesting update. If you're unsure about the setting, some men will buy the loose diamond and present that at the time of proposal, and then customize it as a couple. But if you're set on giving her the whole kit-and-caboodle, try sticking with the prongs; they're traditional without being dated.
The setting can also incorporate intricate embellishments. Filigree (or wire work) and milgrain (metal "beading") are both vintage-inspired details, while additional diamonds channeled around the band are more modern. The latter style has become quite popular in recent years. You can also find a ring with a raised setting, which elevates the stone and makes for a more grandiose style, great if your girl has a flair for the dramatic.
The metal selection for the ring will be your easiest decision to make, as it should be simple to tell from her current jewelry what color she prefers. If she wears silver, she'll gravitate towards platinum or white gold. Like rounded diamonds, platinum (pictured) is the most popular choice for engagement rings. It's extremely durable, albeit expensive. If you're on a budget, white gold is an ideal and cheaper alternative. Yellow gold is not as popular because the color is not as versatile, but if your girlfriend consistently wears yellow gold, she may prefer it. Ultimately, the white options are the best choices for enhancing and complimenting the luster of the diamond.
One of the final style issues to take into consideration is a subtle one. Just like certain clothing styles work best for different body types, so too do certain ring styles. If she has short or (dare I say it?) chubby fingers, a thick band would accentuate them. Conversely, if she has long, slender fingers, a thin band might look comically small, making her gigantic. Proportion is key. You needn't worry about exact band sizes; just compare and contrast among the different sizes available. Additionally, a short-fingered woman could benefit from a slightly elongated gemstone — oval (pictured) as opposed to round — because the visual trick pulls the eye along the length of the finger. Similarly, if your girlfriend is self-conscious about how skinny her fingers are (perhaps she calls them boney), the same gem turned horizontally will give some width, as will multiple stones.
This fine-tuning eliminates the potential for an apathetic reaction from your girlfriend. Sometimes we try an item of clothing, and it can look beautiful on the hanger and fit our body in the technical sense, but if it doesn't work for our particular shape and proportions, then it'll just seem "OK" and we'll have a hard time grasping why. This is not the reaction you want. An item is transcendent when it's beautiful, it fits, and it suits the wearer. Buying a ring that accommodates her proportions will eliminate this intangible reservation she may have about the ring.
Finally, it all comes down to the ring size. Don't lose too much sleep over this, because a ring can easily be resized (as long as there aren't diamonds around the entire band). But to get that "meant to be" feeling when the ring slides perfectly onto her finger, you'll have to be stealthy. Try swiping one of her rings for a few hours and get it measured at the jeweler. If the ring is from her pointer finger, go down a half-size. Alternatively, if you can only snag the ring for a few seconds (like when she forgets to put it back on after a shower), then print off this paper sizer to measure the ring at home. When in doubt, go slightly larger. There's nothing worse in a woman's eyes than trying something on that's too tight, even if it's just a ring.
In the end, there's no way to scientifically predict exactly what your girlfriend is looking for in an engagement ring. But with some careful observation, you can improve your odds of finding it, which lets you worry about more important things — like her answer.
—Lindsay Sakraida, exclusive to dealnews