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Girls, put this under his nose before he flexes his credit card.
Boys, don't set foot in a jeweller's yet!

You're on bended knee and your beloved is smiling through tears of joy. With a flourish you open the tiny velvet box and ..... Does her face light up in delight, or freeze in bitter disappointment? Are you heading for happily ever after - or a night on the sofa? The proposal is a tricky time for an awkward silence, so make sure you've got the perfect ring to seal the deal. After all, she'll be wearing it every day for the rest of her life.

Many men are understandably nervous about laying themselves open to rejection and they often propose without the ring or with an inexpensive substitute. The couple then get together to make this once-in-a-lifetime purchase.

'In our experience, about 70% of men propose first, then bring their fiancee to the shop to help them choose the ring', says Danjat Pattni, owner of Mayfair Jewellers (020-7624 4175). 'It can be a wonderful experience. You should look for a ring to reflect the bride's personality. Men too often go by price rather than design, but in the end it's all about romance'.

If you're shopping on your own you may have discussed engagement rings in the past, or perhaps your girlfriend has dropped hints about what she likes, so you're not shopping completely in the dark.

'Sometimes the groom-to-be even brings along a piece of string he's used to measure her finger while she was asleep', says Sanjay. You could also bring a ring she wears often to check the size.

Whether you shop alone or together, make sure you know what you're looking for. Diamonds are the most popular stones for engagement rings, followed by sapphires, rubies and emeralds. A month's salary is the traditional budget guideline, but of course you can spend as much - or as little- as you wish.

'The rings are so important, so you should consider spending a bit more so that you don't compromise on quality or design', says Raoul Sagal, managing director of Bunz (020 8959 8018).

You can buy a ring 'off the shelf' or commission one. An off-the-shelf ring will be easier to return if it doesn't fit or if your fiancee hates it. A commissioned ring will take about six weeks to make, so allow for that time in your plans if you've yet to pop the question.

If you are buying a diamond ring, remember that the stone makes up about 75% of the cost, so don't forget the four C's: cut, colour, clarity and carat. The cut is the most important feature, as the better the cut, the more brilliant the diamond. Cut is valued from ideal - only 1% of all diamonds - to premium, very good, good, fair and poor. Premium and very good are still excellent stones.

The whiter and more colourless the diamond, the greater its value. Colour is graded from D (the whites) to Z (the most yellow). Most diamonds have yellow hues even if they aren't immediately apparent to the naked eye.

Clarity refers to the number of flaws or 'inclusions' in the stone, which reduce the sparkle. Even top quality diamonds have some inclusions, but fewer mean a more valuable stone. Clarity is ranked by the Gemological Institute of America (http://www.gia.org), so do some research on the internet before you go shopping to get an idea of how much it costs for the various levels of clarity.

Carat weight is the final criterion to take into consideration. A carat is 0.2 grams and is broken down into 100 points, so 50 points is half a carat. Remember that a heavier stone doesn't always mean a better diamond - value also depends on cut, colour and clarity.

In addition to white diamonds there are coloured diamonds called fancies, in hues including pale blue and pink or more intense tones. They're rare and expensive - remember J-Lo's £600,000 rock??

Once you've decided on a stone or stones, you need to consider the band, available in white, pink or yellow gold, platinum, titaniom or silver. 'Make sure that the colour suits your fiancee's skin tone', says Daoul. 'It will be on her finger for the rest of her life and any other jewellery she wears should match, so select the colour carefully. You should also consider the finish. There are wonderful textures, such as matt, which look more modern than a polished band and bring out a diamond well'.

You also need to select a setting.
The classic Tiffany setting has prongs or claws that clasp the stone.
It's a simple and secure design that holds the diamond high to catch the light, but the prongs can catch in hair or clothing.

'These days, you can find many great settings, such as tension or bezel,' says Raoul.

Tension settings show off more of the diamond, but can be expensive to resize, so be sure you get it right. Bezel-, flush- and channel-set rings are similarly sleek, though more of the diamond is covered up. It means less sparkle, but more protection for the stone. Bar, cluster and pave are other alternatives. Look at a variety of rings before you make your final decision.

'You should also select a wedding ring that will complement the engagement ring', says Raoul. 'The standard is just a plain band, but wedding rings should reflect the style and personality of the bride just as much as the engagement ring. There are some really interesting and beautiful designs around, many of them with diamonds incorporated in them. It's also nice to have the ring engraved inside, to make it really personal'.

Before you buy any ring, check the diamond certificate to ensure the quality. Make sure you know the weight of the central stone, not just a total carat weight if there are other stones in the ring too.

Check the colour grade on the certificate as retailers sometimes have special lighting in their shops to make the stones appear as less yellow. Buying from a reputable jeweller will also help ensure you get a quality ring.

Once you've bought the ring, don't forget to add it to your home contents insurance.

And if you plan to propose abroad, make sure the engagement ring is covered by your travel insurance policy, just in case it drops out of your pocket and into the sand or sea while you're down on one knee!

'You and Your Wedding' Jul/Aug 04

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