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Into every girl’s life, a little diamond should fall. – Elizabeth Taylor

No one knows exactly when the first diamond was extracted from the earth and deemed beautiful and valuable, but there is evidence that the gems were first actively mined in India nearly 2,500 years ago. Even with the primitive refining techniques available at that time, diamonds were prized for their hardness and ability to reflect light. Traders found them to be a valuable commodity, and the Silk Road made it possible to transport the shiny little stones to far-off places throughout Europe, Asia and the known world.

By the 13th century, diamonds were already beginning to appear in the regalia and accessories of Europe’s wealthy and elite, but they were used for more than just adornment. The hardest substance on earth, of course, made an excellent cutting tool. Some people and cultures employed them as talismans to ward off evil, while others ingested them in the belief that they had curative properties.

Although no one in today’s modern world would consider swallowing a diamond to be a good idea, the diamond jewelry industry is booming — to the tune of more than $80 billion worldwide each year. Before purchasing a diamond, however, it is important to have some knowledge of the stone’s properties as well as common terms that are used when describing them.

The Four C’s

As little as 70 years ago, there was still no globally agreed-upon system for describing and rating diamonds. The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) developed a way of doing so using “the four C’s” — carat, color, clarity and cut. The system is now used worldwide. This unbiased method of assessment means that diamond quality can be communicated in a universal language, and customers — regardless of what country they’re in — can be assured that what they’re buying has the same value everywhere.


This is likely the most often-used term when speaking about diamonds. The word carat simply describes a diamond’s size — or, more specifically, its weight. A carat is 0.2 grams (0.00643 troy ounces). Each carat can be divided into 100 units, called “points.” So, a jeweler may describe a diamond that weighs less than a carat by using points; a “twenty-five pointer” is 0.25 carat. A diamond weighing more than a carat, for example, 1.27, would be “one point two seven carats.”

On a side note, it’s easy to confuse carat with karat, but they are two very different things. While a carat is a measurement of weight, a karat is a measurement of purity, most often of gold. Because pure gold is too soft to make jewelry, it is mixed with other metals like copper or silver. The number 24 is the base that is used to express the ratio of the mixture; if it is, for example, 18 parts gold and six parts copper (a total of 24), it is called 18 karat gold. When speaking about diamonds, however, carat is the correct word.


The GIA diamond color scale uses the letters D-Z of the English alphabet. A chemically pure and structurally perfect diamond — a D on the scale has no hue. It is absolutely colorless, is the highest grade and is extremely rare. Diamonds rated D, E and F are all considered “colorless;” they look like a drop of pure water. Diamonds rated G-J are “near colorless;” the color is barely discernible, but they are less valuable than D-F diamonds. Moving on down the scale, K through M are classified as “faint,” N through R are “very light,” and S through Z diamonds are “light.” A “Z” diamond — the bottom of the scale — has a discernible light yellow or brown hue.

Before GIA developed this system, various other grading systems were employed that used the letters A-C, the numbers 0-3, the Roman numerals I, II and III and such descriptive terms as “gem blue” and “blue-white.” These systems were both inconsistent and highly inaccurate. In order to start fresh and avoid any confusion, the GIA decided to use the English alphabet but begin the scale from the letter D.


Diamonds may have small imperfections, such as inclusions (internal defects) and blemishes (external defects). The GIA clarity scale rates diamonds according to the defects they do or don’t contain. The scale is comprised of 11 grades, and these are based on what a skilled grader can see using 10x magnification:

  • Flawless (FL). A diamond that has no discernible inclusions or blemishes to a trained professional.
  • Internally Flawless (IF). Only a skilled grader can see imperfections in the stone.
  • Very, Very Slightly Included (VVS1 and VVS2). Inclusions are difficult to see.
  • Very Slightly Included (VS1 and VS2). Minor inclusions range from difficult to easy to see.
  • Slightly Included (S1 and S2). Inclusions are noticeable.
  • Included (I1, I2, I3). Inclusions are obvious and affect transparency and brilliance.


What people love most about diamonds is their incomparable ability to sparkle and reflect light. While the previous three C’s play a role in this, these properties — in other words, a diamond’s brilliance — depend more on the cut than anything else. The GIA’s grading system for a cut is comprised of seven different components. Three of them — brightness (the total light reflected from the stone), fire (the dispersion of light into the colors of the spectrum) and scintillation (the pattern of light & dark areas and the “sparkle” when the diamond is moved) — are all appearance-based aspects. The other four components — durability, polish, symmetry and weight ratio — have to do with the design and craftsmanship of the diamond.

Each of these components is assessed separately, and then an overall grade is given regarding the cut. A stone can be graded as excellent, very good, good, fair or poor.

A word of caution: the word “cut” is often used when describing a diamond’s shape, such as round, marquis, pear, oval, princess, heart, etc. While it isn’t necessarily incorrect to use “cut” and “shape” interchangeably, it should be noted that the GIA’s cut rating is not related to a diamond’s actual shape.

Can a Diamond Be Broken or Damaged?

Since diamonds are the hardest naturally occurring substance found on earth, it’s easy to think that it can’t be damaged. That isn’t true. There is one thing that can harm a diamond — another diamond. So it’s best to store pieces of diamond jewelry separately so they don’t come in contact with one another.

Diamonds have become synonymous with special occasions like engagements, weddings and anniversaries. Since high-quality diamond jewelry can be quite expensive and is often handed down from one generation to the next, it is well worth it to become educated before embarking on a venture to purchase one of the world’s most precious and beloved gemstones.