Economic Reality: Scaled-Down Engagement Rings

When Priscilla Perez and Joe Nino got engaged in December, like countless other guys Nino showed his commitment with a ring.

But thanks to the recession, Perez didn't get a sparkling diamond engagement ring. Instead Nino gave her cubic zirconia.

"Like any girl I always dreamed of getting a big, beautiful engagement ring from Tiffany & Co., but as the recession started and we had started to talk about marriage I knew it would be too much to ask for," Perez, 23, said.

So now she has a ring, although not with a real diamond. It doesn't matter, Perez said, and "no one can tell the difference."

It's a story being repeated across the country as Americans have had to adjust to a new reality thanks to the prolonged recession. They are buying less, paying for items in cash and scaling back everything from meals out to the type of car they drive.

Of course, true love can't be held back by economic hard times -- and the number of engagement rings being sold appears to be holding steady -- but the size and price of those rings is shrinking along with Americans' wallets.

"It's not about how much the ring is worth, it's how much the ring is worth to you," Perez said.

Perez and Nino, 27, talked about marriage and what they could afford. Today, the Austin, Texas couple is not regretting the decision to save money on a ring.

"One of my co-workers also got engaged around the same time as me but she did get this big diamond ring. Her fiancé was recently let go from his job and now they are having to push the wedding to a later date," Perez said. "I think there is a lot of societal pressure to get a `real' diamond ring with so much advertising for diamonds, diamonds, diamonds and the perception that the bigger the diamond and the more it costs the more he loves you."

The money saved on a ring is now going the wedding and saving the couple from taking out costly loans for their celebration.

The economy also forced Nick Whitfield, 23, of Downingtown, Pa., to find a deal on an engagement ring.

"I was not going to postpone my engagement," Whitfield said. "After looking in 15 jewelers and not being able to find the ring I wanted for my allotted budget, I turned elsewhere. I went to Craigslist."

There he found a 2.5 carat, princess cut ring with a decorated band. He said jewelers were selling such a ring for at least $5,000. After a little negotiating, he was able to get this used ring for $1,300.

Whitfield said his fiancé Angela, 20, loves her ring and her family now thinks he is rich.

"I told her the story and how I got the ring. She was hesitant at first, thinking about how the ring was on another girl's finger," he said. After telling her that jewelers often end up with used rings, Whitfield said "she was more than okay with it."

The Diamond Information Center, an industry group that tracks sales, said that the number of engagement rings sold so far in 2009 had held steady. The group however was unable to say if the price of those rings has fallen, held the same or even risen.

The latest figures the group released were from 2006 when the average price of an engagement ring -- stone and setting -- was $3,200; the average diamond size is .75 to 1 carat. About 44 percent of rings sold cost less than $1,000 and just 1 percent more than $15,000, according to the Diamond Information Center.

Teresa Novellino, executive editor of National Jeweler, a trade magazine, said that anecdotally retail jewelers have told her that engagement ring sales are holding strong.

"In a recession people might not be buying a fancy diamond necklace or a sapphire cocktail ring, but they are still getting engaged," Novellino said in an e-mail. "Jewelers also say that customers are still willing to spend for quality diamonds and the price points have held pretty steady."

Helena Krodel, director of media for the Jewelry Information Center, another trade group, said that while some buyers won't downgrade the size of their diamond they might choose a stone with a lesser quality of color or clarity.

A lot of couples also look at the price of the metal ring.

"If they are thinking of platinum, they might opt down to white gold. Or they might go with a simpler setting," Krodel said.

Some couples have also decided to skip the diamond altogether, picking birthstones or no rock at all. Part of that is over ethical concerns about the source of diamonds and part of it is driven by the economy.

Some couples are also extending their engagement period to pay off the ring and save up for a wedding, she said.

By the way, June is the second most popular month to get engaged, she said, with 9.1 percent of engagements happening this month. (December is the most popular.)

On Friday luxury jeweler Tiffany & Co. reported that its first-quarter profit plunged 62 percent compared with the same period last year. Online diamond seller Blue Nile also had a bad quarter, with net sales down 11.4 percent.

"Consumer confidence in the United States remained at historically low levels and access to credit continued to be difficult to obtain. We believe these factors significantly impact the demand for luxury goods," Blue Nile said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

But it's not just big retailers that are suffering.

John Liss, owner of William H. Diller Jewelers in West Redding, Pa., said that people are sacrificing. He is seeing customers at his store -- in existence since 1914 – buying smaller stones.

"The magic number was 1 kart, now it's .75," Liss said.

He is now selling rings for $3,500 to $4,500, while before the recession, he was selling rings for "a couple of thousand of dollars more."

Liss also said more people are choosing white gold instead of platinum.

It's the same story for Nicolle Gorman, and the business her parents started in Washington D.C. , 30 years ago, I. Gorman Jewelers.

People are still getting married and coming in for rings.

"Their budget is much more clear than it used to be," she said. "We're still selling platinum, but we offer alternatives to help them with their budget."

Some people are also choosing to go with off-color diamonds to save money.

Gorman said the younger guys are spending up to 50 percent less on the ring. It hurts the store's bottom line, but at least they still have customers buying engagement rings. Other types of jewelry hasn't been selling as well.

"As a family, we said years ago we need to get into bridal to get younger people so we can have a relationship with them for their lives," Gorman said. "I think at this time, we are finding the benefit of that."