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Getting the ring she wants
Though traditionally the ring should be a surprise, having an idea of what your bride-to-be prefers is a good place to start. Take a look at her existing jewellery to assess whether to choose white gold, yellow gold or pricey platinum and determine whether modern or traditional is her style, as the setting for the diamond is also important.
Similarly, if you already have wedding rings in mind, it is worth buying an engagement ring that will match the metal and style you choose.
If she has friends or family that you can trust with the secret, get them involved to help you with likes and dislikes. And once you've decided on the style and stone, sneak out one of her rings so that you can get a good idea of the size needed (though the jeweller will be able to adjust this once you've popped the question).
Of course, sapphires, rubies and emeralds are all popular stones but diamonds are typically the precious stone of choice for brides. Any jeweller worth his salt will have an expert knowledge of the "Four Cs" - cut, colour, clarity and carat - but if it's a diamond you're looking for, it is worth knowing a little bit about them yourself.
The cut of a diamond can change the way light reflects, thereby making it more or less brilliant depending on the size and angle of the cuts. It also determines the shape - round cut is the most common but emerald, pear, marquise, princess, oval and heart shape are other options.
Unless you've got the cash to splash on a diamond with a strong colour (these are hard to come by), you will be looking at a white diamond for your ring. In fact, a white diamond is the colourless variety we are most familiar with and each stone is graded from "D" (absolutely colourless) through to "Z". Each letter on the scale displays a subtle colour.
Most diamonds have tiny flaws, known as "inclusions", but you will usually need a jeweller's eyeglass to see them. With this in mind, a stone that is graded SI1 (Slightly Included 1) means you're unlikely to see any flaws with the naked eye. If you can afford a pricey IF (Internally Flawless) you've got nothing to worry about but it may be worth avoiding I3 (Imperfect 3).
The carat is the measurement of weight for diamonds. The average engagement ring will feature a diamond between one carat and a half carat in weight.
Buying the ring
With the perfect ring in mind, it's time to splash the cash. First and foremost, don't get too flash - spend what you can realistically afford and don't be tempted to compete with other couples.
Your first port of call will likely be a jeweller and, though the prices are likely to be heavily marked up, it may be the safest option. Ensure that the staff are knowledgeable and, if possible, check whether the store is a member of a trade association. To be totally sure of what you are getting, ask for a "cert stone", which will have been properly assessed and graded... and it's always worth checking those guarantees and warranties, just to be on the safe side.
Good luck on your mission!