Newlyweds today spend one-fifth of their wedding budget on the perfect engagement ring, which, at an average price of $5,855, is four times what the typical bride will spend on her own wedding gown and second only to the venue as the most expensive part of their big day.
But some couples are bucking this trend, looking for affordable alternatives to the traditional diamond engagement ring on Etsy (ETSY). The online marketplace, which went public in April, is probably better known for crafty wares like handknit scarves and small batch soaps than its growing legion of independent jewelers. A company spokesperson declined to share exact figures on its jewelry market, but a search of the site turned up 1.2 million results for “handmade rings,” which made up about 13% of all jewelry listings.
Etsy’s jewelry business is likely nowhere near as strong as that of leading online jeweler Blue Nile, which banked $473.5 million in net sales last year and currently owns around 8% of the $4.7 billion online jewelry market in the U.S. Ebay, long seen as a treasure trove for people looking to buy used and vintage rings at a steep discount, is a stiff competitor as well. But Etsy has a different kind of appeal altogether, especially for a younger generation that is just as concerned with thrift as they are with personalization. “Etsy is a place to shop for unique designs,” says Etsy merchandising expert Emily Bidwell. “You can talk to the seller and ask for specific aspects you want in your ring.”
Jillian and Dane Henze were in their mid-20s when they became engaged in 2011. Jillian was a reporter at a local newspaper; Dane worked for a nonprofit focused on the environment. “We were really poor,” Jillian says. Together, they casually browsed the velvet-lined ring cases at several local jewelers near their hometown of Turnwater, Wash., to find a ring that suited Jillian’s tastes and Dane’s budget. The one ring that caught her eye — a white-gold band with a yellow diamond perched at its center — turned out to cost $13,000. “I just about died,” Jillian says. “We had been saving but we didn’t want to have this huge debt.”
After watching several friends get engaged, she knew she wanted something unique. Inspired by the idea of a colored stone, she started browsing bridal blogs and came across a link to an Etsy shop that featured rings with different hued sapphires. The idea of purchasing a ring online was a non-issue. “We’re young and we had already purchased so much online,” she says. “It was normal.”
It was also significantly more affordable. The ring Dane selected, a champagne-colored sapphire on a white gold band dotted with miniature diamonds, cost only $1,200. And other than a slight shipping hiccup — the seller, based in Canada, had to delay shipping by couple of weeks after the country’s postal workers went on strike — the process was smooth. Jillian was mostly worried getting the right size, but it fit her perfectly.
“People still compliment me on my ring all the time,” she says. “And I get to tell them, ‘Oh thank you, it was handmade by a woman in Canada!’ It’s kind of fun.”
The online jewelry market is small but growing. Online retailers make up more than 10% of jewelry and watch sales so far in 2015, up from 8.2% in 2010, according to market research firm IBIS World. (However, their data does not include sales figures from sites like Etsy and eBay).
Jane Strauss, 60, has been selling handmade wedding and engagement rings on Etsy since 2009. The Morristown, N.J., sales analyst runs the business on the side with her older brother, a longtime gemologist. Strauss works with customers to design and customize their rings to their tastes — they mostly work with sapphire and topaz — while her brother sources the stones and cuts them to their customers’ liking. Their prices range from a couple of hundred bucks up to $6,000, but people rarely purchase items over $1,500, she says (Etsy makes 20 cents off each listing and takes 3.5% of the transaction price). Like many jewelers who sell on the site, they patent their designs, which serves the dual purpose of thwarting copycats and giving customers peace of mind that what they are buying truly is unique.
Strauss, who once owned a boutique jewelry store in the 1980s, admits she’s still secretly surprised every time she makes a sale. “It’s hard for me to fathom people will buy jewelry online, especially an engagement ring, but they do,” she says, which is why she goes out of her way to make customers comfortable. “I’m big on educating my customers and we’ll send them pictures during the whole process. Sometimes it takes 15 [e-mails back and forth] to close the sale.”
While Strauss runs her Etsy shop as more of a side gig — she sells only a few rings per month — Petra Hein, 32, has turned her Etsy business, Beautiful Petra, into a six-figure juggernaut. Since opening in 2009, she and her husband/business partner now sell 60 to 90 diamond engagement rings a month. Some of those sales come from Pinterest and Facebook. Hein is one of few sellers on Etsy to sell mostly diamond rings, and, as such, her wares come on the pricier side, ranging from $3,000 to $10,000. She offers customer payment plans and also suggests diamond alternatives like cubic zirconia or moissanite, which can slash the price by hundreds of dollars.
“Most people are interested in our unique ring designs, not the diamond,” Hein says. “Instead of financing a diamond, they can put a CZ and they can replace it in a year or five or 10.”
Mike Neumayer, a 26-year-old from Vermont, purchased his fiancee’s ring from Hein’s Etsy shop last year (he noticed his fiancee had pinned several of Hein’s designs to her Pinterest board). Neumayer liked the idea of supporting an independent jeweler but wasn’t sold on buying the ring online. He ended up purchasing his fiancee’s engagement ring from Hein’s shop with only the setting and picked out the diamond, in person, at a local jeweler. Hein worked with him to ensure the setting would fit the diamond.
“It blows my mind that I was able to order something online, handmade, and be on a first-name basis with the creator while I called her cellphone to discuss product options,” he says. “It’s nice to know that the majority of the money you're spending on the item goes to the people creating and selling it.”
If you’re thinking about buying an engagement ring — or jewelry in general — from Etsy or elsewhere online, there are some best practices to follow. “There’s always a challenge of buying online when you don’t actually see something,” says Celia Gardner, president and CEO of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, an independent organization that regulates independent jewelers. “You need to have a sense of who you’re buying from, make sure they are reputable and that they will be there tomorrow.”
Read the reviews. There’s a special team at Etsy dedicated to following up on user complaints and ensuring sellers abide by guidelines. But overall, Etsy customers rely heavily on user feedback. For sellers like Strauss who only sell a few rings per month, even one bad review can hurt business.
Check return/refund policy. Etsy sellers are free to use whatever exchange policy they deem fit, a spokesperson says. Many sellers don’t allow returns for custom orders, however. Petra gives most customers five days to return rings they aren’t happy with. Strauss doesn’t allow returns on custom orders but will take returns on items she had in stock already. A good repair policy is important, too. Jillian Henze’s seller offers a two-year warranty. When one of the tiny decorative diamonds on her band popped out of its setting, the seller sent a replacement free of charge.
Ask for an itemized receipt. Amanda Gizzi, spokesperson for Jewelers of America, suggests asking for an itemized receipt that shows the cut, clarity, carat, and type of metal the gem is set in, as well as the total purchase price. “That way, when you do get an independent appraisal, which you’ll need for insurance purposes, you’ll be able to know exactly what you paid for.”
Ask about resizing. Some Etsy jewelers may not offer to resize rings, so check the fine print first. It pays to get fitted for a ring before shopping online. Neumayer’s fiancee realized her engagement ring was too large and they had an independent jeweler resize it.
Get it appraised and insured. It’s highly recommended to insure your engagement and wedding rings, which requires an appraisal. Strauss recommends going to an independent certified jewelry appraiser. It’s a smart idea to get the appraisal during your seller’s return/exchange window, too. If the appraiser raises any issues with the stone’s quality, you may have a better chance of getting the seller to rectify the matter. Etsy doesn’t require sellers to send certificates of authentication with its jewelry, so it’s up to buyers to read the fine print or ask the seller what their policy is. A good sellers should be happy to have an independent certified gemologist check the ring out or send it directly to the Gemological Institute of America for certification. Just be prepared to pay an additional fee, generally $200 to $400, Strauss says.
Use your credit card. Like any major purchase, it’s safer to use your credit card when buying a ring online than your debit card. Some credit cards have pretty liberal purchase protection policies. If the deal goes bad or you feel you’ve been wrongly charged and the seller won’t refund you, there’s a good chance your credit card will. Review your credit card policy beforehand.
Keep an eye out for fraud. All Etsy sellers, whether U.S.-based or international, have to adhere to Etsy’s strict seller policies. Reselling — purchasing something from a store and passing it off as “handmade” — is arguably the biggest no-no of all. Etsy has a special team dedicated to weeding out bad actors, but the company has faced criticism on that front for some time, even driving some long-time sellers to abandon their shops in protest. The biggest clue that a product has been mass produced is the price tag. Dirt cheap and handmade rarely go hand in hand.