In the Little Black Box

Believe it or not, the perfect engagement ring is out there

When I was a freshman in college, I worked at the jewelry counter of a suburban department store that sold everything from electronics to glassware to toys.

I knew very little about the commercial-jewelry business, and though I was not surprised to learn that the markup on jewelry—particularly on diamonds—was insanely high, I was surprised to learn that the quality of the diamonds being sold at a 100 percent markup was often disappointingly low.

So at times, it bothered me to see a newly engaged couple come into the store looking for their rings.

They'd make their way around the counters to look at the selection, which at the low end consisted of $200 rings containing teeny diamond chips of negligible quality, clustered together to create the illusion of a quarter-carat of bright, sparkly, shiny diamond. At the higher end were rings ranging from $1,000 to $2,500—thin gold bands with hulking diamonds dropped into flimsy settings, designed to make the stone look as big as possible.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that most of the rings were probably only worth a fraction of what people paid for them, or maybe it was that I found it supremely depressing to watch people buy their engagement and wedding rings—things they ought to be considering with some dignity, and preferably with some privacy—just 20 feet from a wall of car stereos blasting the local classic-rock station, but the jewelry-selling experience colored my perspective on the notion of an "engagement ring."

To the point that, were I to become engaged, I thought I'd prefer not to have one at all. Maybe I could get an engagement puppy or something instead.

I didn't really have to worry much about it for a good, long time, fortunately. But in early 2009, when my fiancé (then boyfriend) and I—both of us holdouts at 36 on marriage, kids, family—started to consider getting married, it struck me that he might start thinking about buying me a ring.

"Don't," I remember telling him. "It's a waste of money to buy a diamond ring—let's think of something else instead."

We talked about engagement puppies, vacations and big-screen TVs, but everything sounded so ill-fitted for the purpose. A ring really is a simple, visible and (hopefully) tasteful way to signify that one is planning to get hitched.

So a ring it would be—but where to find the right one?

We looked at old rings—rings with history and character and filigree and craftsmanship. But none of them were quite right; the history and character of the ones I liked made them feel too much like they really belonged to somebody else.

We looked at cool rings for sale at boutique stores, but to be frank, the price tags were frightening. He's a photographer; I'm an editor; and it just didn't make sense to spend that much money on a piece of jewelry. A meaningful piece of jewelry, of course, but still.

After browsing websites and window-shopping and dropping into antique stores, I came full circle. "Let's think of something else instead," I told him.

In September, we were out hiking with some friends when we stopped near a ridiculously picturesque waterfall, and he broke out a little black box—the little black box. I felt a little unsettled. "You didn't," I said.

"Just open it," he said, and when I did, I realized it wasn't just a ring. It was the ring.

It was not old; it was not ornate; it was not a big clunky diamond set high on a shiny gold band. It was chunky; it was white gold (I have never been a fan of yellow gold); it was beautifully crafted; and it held a rounded, transparent stone in which there were a couple of dark flecks—a flawed, unfinished, uncut diamond.

After the formalities, I wanted to know where this ring had come from, and he told me that he had commissioned it from a local artist. He met with her one afternoon, and she asked him questions about me—what did I do for a living? What did I like to do in my spare time? What did I wear? He brought with him several pieces of jewelry I wear to show her. In a couple of weeks, she sent him some sketches to review, and when he picked the one he liked best, she invited him back to sort through dozens of uncut diamonds to find the one he thought suited me best.

Once he picked the stone—he wanted one that had visible flaws, which give the stone its character—the artist created a wax mold of the ring for him to inspect. When he signed off on it, she sand-cast it in white gold.

I'm not sure why it hadn't occurred to us before to have a one-of-a-kind ring made, because now it seems so obvious: We like to patronize local business, so doing it this way allows us to support both our local economy and our local artists. We both got to be part of the process of the ring's creation—for him, by interacting with the artist, and for me, by having a ring crafted based on information he had shared about me—making it more than just a piece of jewelry purchased to celebrate the occasion.

Best of all, the design of the ring represents both of us and our relationship: solidly crafted and carefully cast, well-rounded but still asymmetrical and unafraid to display that it has flaws.

And rather than seeing the ring for the first time at an impersonal diamond counter, just down the aisle from the deafening sounds of people testing out the big-screen TVs and car stereos, I got to see it in the afternoon sunlight, just down the trail from the deafening sounds of a roaring waterfall.

This story was originally published in Metroland, an alternative newsweekly in Albany, N.Y.