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The Four C's - A Guide to Buying Loose Cut Diamonds

Updated on February 18, 2011

The Four C's of Loose Diamonds

For many, diamonds might be some of the most expensive, yet least well-informed purchases made in a lifetime. The four C's are critical to being well informed when buying diamonds - they will describe most of what you need to know about the diamond. While they aren't absolutely everything you can learn about a diamond, they will be an easy filter for cutting out most of the diamonds you'll look at and they'll allow you narrow down on a choice. This article is meant to provide you with a brief introduction to some of the terms you'll see when your at the store or online and to answer questions and comments. However, before making any purchase you should be sure that you're getting exactly what you want. A jeweler may tell you a few trade 'secrets', but its very possible that your best interests are not foremost in his mind. Do the research on your own before you buy and I'm certain you'll feel better after your purchase.


Cut, Clarity, Color, and Carat

The four C's in a diamond buyer's vocabulary are Cut, Clarity, Color, and Carat. Some sources will also note a fifth C and that would be Certificates - I'll talk about those in a little bit. Balancing out the first 4 C's is a matter of preference, but typically your driving factor will be price with a little bit of quality thrown in, oh, and of course what she wants!

Cut is probably the most important when it comes to how brilliant the diamond will be and it's 'wow' factor. No, brilliance doesn't describe the IQ of the diamond! Rather, it describes how much fire and flash the diamond will have. The most well cut diamond will reflect the most incoming light back to the observer's eye; whereas, a poorly cut diamond will allow light to leak out and not return to the observer making it noticeably less flashy. So, if you want her to be impressed, try to get the best cut you can. Also, keep in mind that cut does not equal shape. Shapes (round, princess, emerald, etc) all have ideal cuts that make them most brilliant. Usually, Cuts ranked from best to worst are Ideal, Premium, Very Good, Good, Fair, and Poor. I myself purchased a round premium cut diamond which is probably one of the most traditional cuts you will find, but it will ultimately depend on what she likes or what you think she'll like - there are plenty of cuts out there to satisfy everyone!

Next comes Clarity. Nearly all diamonds have natural flaws in them ranging from impurities to air bubbles. They have flaws both internally (called inclusions) and externally (called blemishes), but diamond grades for clarity lump blemishes in with inclusions. Blemishes include things like scratches, pits, and chips and can occur during cutting, but not always. The key point is that the less inclusions a diamond has the better the chances that light will return to the observer and not get reflected away or absorbed. Typically, Clarity ranked from best to worst is Flawless (F), Internally Flawless (IF), Very Very Slightly Included (VVS1, VVS2), Very Slightly Included (VS1, VS2), Slightly Included (SI1, SI2), and Included (I1, I2, I3). Again finding the middle ground, I purchased a VS diamond. In the end, unless you really just have a lot of money to blow or you can only be satisfied by perfection, nobody will be able to tell the difference between an SI1 and a VVS1 at a glance with their naked eye - they may say they can, but they're probably lying!

Third we have Color. Now, some diamonds (called Fancy diamonds) are marketed specifically for their color be it yellow, blue, green, etc. However, Color when grading a diamond usually refers to the presence or absence of color in a white diamond. Again, we're looking for the most amount of light back from the diamond, so intuitively you would expect to get the greatest return from a colorless diamond just as you would expect when looking through colorless glass vice colored or tinted glass. Color is normally graded from best to worst as D, E, F, ..., X, Y, Z with D being completely colorless and Z being markedly yellowish or brownish. Another feature sometimes related to color is Fluorescence. Fluorescence describes how a diamond reacts in UV light - some diamonds will actually glow. The bottom line of fluorescence is that studies show that it does not have an observable effect on quality and is basically a matter of preference so don't let fluorescence be a deciding factor.

Rounding out the 4 C's we find Carat. Now, this will really depend on if you think bigger is truly better! Carat refers to the actual physical size of the diamond. The higher the carat the bigger the diamond - simple as that. While cut maybe the biggest factor in quality, carat weight probably has the most considerations. Can you afford it? Does she wear small or big jewelry? What type of setting do you want? What shape is your diamond? Personally, a huge tip that I learned while shopping was to watch out for specific weights. You will usually find that you can get a 0.99 carat diamond much cheaper than a 1.0 carat diamond with all other parameters the same. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for weights of 1.49 vs 1.50, 1.99 vs 2.0, and so on. The main point is to find a size that looks good and stays within your budget as pricing tends to grow exponentially as you increase in size. You'd have to open your wallet pretty wide if you wanted to buy the largest flawless diamond in the world - known as the Centenary Diamond its part of the British crown jewels and weighs in at a whopping 273.85 carats.

Finally, Certificates as promised. There are many jewelers out there carrying diamonds that are 'certified' by a wide range of labs. GIA (Gemological Institute of America) is probably the biggest name of all labs that you will see. In fact, many of the other labs tend to use grading scales descended from GIA. This does not mean they are the best, but they do have a pretty good reputation. Other more or less trustworthy names I've come across are AGS, EGL, IGI, HRD, and AGA. Keep in mind that they will likely all grade diamonds slightly different and this will drive the price you see. Two diamonds that appears to have the same characteristics among two different labs may differ in price by thousands of dollars. This is when you need to do your homework and compare the two labs and their grading scales and methods. Most of the above listed will be similar or will describe the differences in their system, but you should obviously check before you spend a good chunk of money!

Do the Research!

As with any purchase that is significantly going to affect your bank account, I'd do my homework before spending any money. This article is meant to start you off in the right direction and provide a space for comments and questions. Many places that sell loose diamonds online also have links to diamond education that you can find more information. Also, your local jeweler will likely attempt to give you the uber-secret that you can't tell the difference between and SI1 and a VS1, but still charge you the VS1 price. Unless you have someone that you can absolutely trust, I'd watch out for any salesman trying to teach you about diamonds - there are plenty of places you can go learn for yourself! Good luck in whatever you decide to buy!


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    • Mr. Smith profile image

      Mr. Smith 

      7 years ago from California

      Very well done.

    • Mr Tindle profile image

      Mr Tindle 

      7 years ago


      Nice basic information about loose diamonds.

    • MikeSyrSutton profile image


      7 years ago from An uncharted galaxy

      Wow. Very informative!


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