NEW YORK (AP) -- It's wedding season. And the Internet can be a busy jewelry buyer's best friend, if you know what to look for.
Engagement rings and wedding bands from online jewelers can cost more than 20 percent less, experts say. That's because you're not paying the extra overhead costs of traditional retailers. And online retailers, such as Blue Nile Inc. and James Allen, usually have more styles to choose from than their physical rivals.
More people are picking out their baubles online. The online jewelry and watch industry has grown to $9.8 billion, increasing an average of 2.9 percent a year for the past five years, according to IBISWorld, an industry research firm.
Rachel Hofstetter did most of her wedding planning and buying online, so she didn't think twice about buying her wedding band online too. The 28-year-old New Yorker bought a $210 14-karat rose-gold wedding ring for herself on BlueNile.com after doing an Internet search. "It's faster and easier," says Hofstetter, who founded Guesterly, which publishes glossy magazines for wedding guests.
Tom Brodeforth knew he would ultimately buy his fiancee's engagement ring online too, even though they browsed jewelry stores first. "I knew I could get a better deal online," says Brodeforth, a 41-year old bank vice president. Brodeforth, who lives in Old Bridge, N.J., bought a $25,000 2-carat diamond engagement ring that's set in platinum. He thinks he got a good deal. He had the ring appraised in New York the week he received it and was told it was worth more than $30,000. "I was blown away," says Brodeforth. He plans to buy wedding bands for himself and his future wife from James Allen for their September wedding.
If you plan to buy a wedding band or engagement ring online, here's what you need to know.
MAKE SURE YOU CAN RETURN IT
Before choosing an online store, read the store's return policy thoroughly. A diamond is hard to judge online, and you might not be happy with ring. The retailer should offer free shipping and a full refund. And it should allow you to send the ring back within at least 30 days.
Most returns or exchanges are easy. Before settling on the $25,000 ring for his fiancee, Brodeforth bought a $19,000 from James Allen that he wasn't happy with. The ring didn't have that sparkle he was looking for. "I wasn't in love with it," Brodeforth says. He sent it back, and with the help of a customer service representative upgraded the ring with a new diamond.
To limit returns, try buying from a website that features high definition photos. This will better enable you to clearly see any imperfections in the stone, says Ira Weissman, the founder of diamond shopping guide TruthAboutDiamonds.com. JamesAllen.com has high definition video for the diamonds it sells and Ritani.com has the same for some of its stones.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
If you want to get a feel for a ring before you purchase it, two websites offer that option. Ritani will send up to two rings of your choice to a local jeweler so you can compare them. Ritani works with about 100 stores around the country. It's free to have the rings sent to a store, and there is no obligation to buy one. But the online jewelry store does take credit card information in case you do want to purchase one after seeing it, says Kevin Flaherty, vice of president of marketing at Ritani.
Ocappi, a high-end online jeweler, will send to your home six replicas of the rings you are considering buying for free. The replicas are made with sterling silver and cubic zirconia, which looks like a diamond. You can keep the rings for five days, and then ship them back for free. (But you will be charged for them if they're not returned.) There's no obligation to buy the real diamond rings after sending the replicas back, says Shaya Tenenbaum, Ocappi's chief marketing officer.
DIAMONDS NEED TO BE CERTIFIED
If you're buying a diamond ring, it should come with paper work from either the Gemological Institute of America or the American Gem Society. The two organizations analyze diamonds for what's known as the four Cs: carat, color, clarity and cut. The certification will grade the stone, and the criteria will help determine its value.
Weissman says that other organizations certify diamonds too, but they are not as respected in the industry. Other organizations may grade a diamond higher than it is, and you could end up paying more than it's worth, says Weissman.
SAVING MONEY ON A DIAMOND
There are two tricks to saving money when buying a diamond: Buy it a little smaller but don't skimp on the cut.
Of the four Cs, the most important is the cut, says Russell Shor, a senior industry analyst at the Gemological Institute of America. The cut determines how well the stone will sparkle when light hits it. Even if the color or clarity is of an average grade, the diamond can still look great if it has an excellent cut, says Shor.
Another tip: Go a fraction of a carat smaller. A 1 carat diamond that costs $6,000 can be about 25 percent cheaper if you buy one that's 0.90 carat, says Jim Schultz, president of James Allen. It will be hard to tell any difference. "A fraction of a carat is the width of a few sheets of paper," says Schultz.
ONLINE JEWELRY RETAILERS:
Blue Nile: http://www.bluenile.com/
James Allen: http://www.jamesallen.com/
American Gem Society: http://www.americangemsociety.org/
Gemological Institute of America: http://www.gia.edu/
Truth About Diamonds: http://www.truthaboutdiamonds.com/
Follow Joseph Pisani at http://twitter.com/josephpisani