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Diamond Shopping: The 4 C's

Everyone who’s had to go shopping for an engagement ring has heard of the 4 C’s: Color, Cut, Clarity, and Carat weight. They are the 4 most important characteristics of a diamond but what exactly do they mean? Let’s take it from the easiest to understand to the most difficult. The simplest C of diamonds is the Cut. It’s the easiest to figure out because it’s basically the shape of the diamond. Everyone knows what a circle and a square are. There are many other shapes a diamond can be such as an oval, a kite, or even a heart. In the diamond world, it’s that easy but some of the shapes have fancy industry names. Square diamonds are princess cut, circular diamonds are round cut, triangular diamonds are trillion cut. Within each cut, there might be several specific makes but as long as you know what basic shape you want for a diamond, you’re good to go.

A classic engagement ring and eternity band with assorted diamond shapes

The next easiest C of diamonds to grasp is carat weight. As you probably guessed, this is the diamond’s weight expressed in a very special unit called the carat. A carat is equivalent to 200 milligrams. Carat weight can be a little tricky to surmise when you’re just looking at a diamond. As a diamond gets larger, its carat weight will naturally increase along with it. Jewelers usually measure diamonds with calipers to estimate their weight. This works because for any shape of diamond, the facets should be cut the same exact way so each diamond is just a scaled up or down version of any diamond of the same make. If a jeweler was the one to set the diamond, they make note of the exact carat weight before it gets placed into a mounting. However, if a ring comes in secondhand, the weight can be estimated by measuring the stone’s diameter but to get a truly accurate weight, the stone must be removed and weighed by itself.

A variety of diamond cuts or shapes

Next up is Clarity and this one takes some research and practice to accurately grade a diamond for. A diamond’s clarity grade indicates how much the diamond’s internal flaws impact the overall look of the diamond. The very top of the scale is FL or Flawless where there are no inclusions or blemishes within the diamond at all. The very bottom of the clarity grades is I3 where the inclusions are so large or numerous, the stone offers almost none of a typical diamond’s brilliance or fire. The full spectrum of clarity grades is as follows: FL > IF > VVS1 > VVS2 > VS1 > VS2 > SI1> SI2 > I1 > I2 > I3. After Flawless comes IF or Internally Flawless where there are no visible inclusions under 10x magnification. From the VVS1 range down to the SI2 range, the inclusions become easier and easier to identify with 10x magnification. When you get into the I1 to I3 range, no magnification is needed and the flaws of the diamond can be seen with the naked eye.

Different clarity grades as displayed on diamond reports

And last but certainly not least is Color. An ideal diamond has no coloring to it at all and would land a D on the color scale but most diamonds will have just a hint of yellow or brown to them. The GIA color scale concerns itself with how yellow a diamond is. This scale goes from D where the diamond is colorless all the way down to Z where the yellow coloring is a light yellow coloring. Now what makes grading color in a diamond so difficult? Unlike the first 2 Cs discussed where the cut was identifying the shape and carat weight was simply weighing the diamond, color is graded on a very wide scale. And for Clarity, there was a spectrum with distinct grades but in total, only 11 grades ranging from a stunningly perfect diamond to one so included you might have doubts it’s a diamond at all. With color grading, there is still the same progressive scale but with 23 grades. The difference between a D color and a Z color diamond in the eyes of the typical person probably isn’t much but considering there’s another 21 grades in between them, you can start to see why grading color is such a challenge.There are also environmental factors at play. If you, like me, spend most of your day in front of a computer monitor, the cool blue light being emitted from the screen will make diamonds appear more yellow than they actually are. On the other hand, if you spend all day outside in the sun and come inside to grade diamonds for color, the diamonds will appear whiter than they actually are. There are a couple of ways to combat the effects of eye strain. The easiest method is to hold the diamond up to a sheet of specialty color grading paper. The paper provides a perfectly neutral backdrop for you to compare the diamond’s color to. GIA’s method is much more extensive and reliable. The graders are placed into a standardized viewing environment determined to have minimal effect on the graders’ color perception. GIA also has put together a set of masterstones, a series of similarly sized diamonds, one for each color grade to make grading color a little easier. An additional step GIA takes to standardize color grading is to have 2 color graders independently submit their own grades. If the grades don’t match, the stone is sent to another pair of graders until a consensus is reached.

A set of master stones used by GIA to get consistent and accurate color grades