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Internet offers opportunities to customize a customary piece of jewelry

For all of the ways couples today change up custom wedding ring , one tradition that remains popular is the diamond engagement ring.  But thanks to the Internet, couples can inject a bit of individuality into the tradition by custom-designing their own engagement rings online.

("Champaigne Pave" design.  Currently available in 950 platinum.)

"Everybody's motivation with the engagement ring is to make something special," says John Pollard, director of education at online custom jeweler Whiteflash.com. "Customization is a way to send an additional symbolic message that [says] not only is this diamond special, but I put my heart and soul into creating this setting for you as well."

Custom settings tend to be more expensive than stock settings because they require extra work. But online jewelers often undersell larger retailers on diamonds because they don't have a bricks-and-mortar presence to support, says Sucharita Mulpuru, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

Plus, many online vendors compete to sell the exact same diamonds from the same wholesalers, and that competition drives down prices. So for the same budget, a customer can go to a local jeweler to get a cheaper stock setting and pricier diamond, or go online to get a more affordable diamond with a pricier but unique setting.

Also, someone who likes the look of a designer ring -- a distinctive style from Tiffany, perhaps -- can avoid shelling out money for the designer markup by asking an online jeweler to custom-create a similar style.

Emerald cut wedding ring

("Trapped Emerald," a collector's piece including 2.67 ct emerald cut diamond in platinum setting with two trapezoid diamonds of 0.60 ct apc., princess cut diamonds of 0.40 ctw and 1.3 mm Whiteflash A Cut Above melee on the sides, priced at $39,000)

Customizing online isn't for everybody, though. For example, someone who wants a simple solitaire setting can get it for a few hundred dollars online or at a local jewelry store. But custom settings tend to start at a higher price point -- typically around $1,500, says Mark Turnowski, president of New York-based EngagementRingsDirect.com. Another problem for some shoppers is that they may not be able to see their custom creation in person until it's finished and shipped to their door -- and at that point, it's possibly too late for a refund.

Mulpuru says despite the drawbacks, consumers are eating up online customization of jewelry and other items.

"We're tasting bits of it in other parts of retail, like the ability to customize your own shoes on Nike.com," Mulpuru says. "Consumers respond extremely enthusiastically to the ability to create something special. The Internet is made for that," especially with big-ticket items such as diamond rings, Mulpuru says.

Online ring customization sounded great to Donna Switzer, 41, of Haverhill, Mass., and her fiance. Her ring was customized after she e-mailed online jeweler Whiteflash.com photos of several other rings she had seen in stores and on Web sites.

"I couldn't go with any of the prefab settings to get the look I wanted," Switzer says. "I said, Here's a picture of something I like about this ring, here's what I like about that ring, and here's what I like about the prongs on that ring -- make those all go together for me."

(Custom design for Whiteflash client)

Switzer was e-mailed photos of a wax mold of her ring before it was made in metal and set with diamonds. That gave her peace of mind that she and the online jeweler had communicated to achieve the right look.

"As long as you can communicate clearly, I don't think it matters whether you sit across the table with them" or work over the computer, Switzer says. "Even though we'd never met face to face, it was just like working with my local jeweler."



Tips to keep in mind on a custom ring quest



If you think you'd like to custom-design an engagement ring online, follow these tips to help you get the most value -- and the exact ring you dream of.

("Pizzazz," a collector's piece set in platinum with a 6.02 ct pink sapphire, priced at $36,500.)

Get creative

If you can imagine it, you can probably create it. You can design a ring based on your grandmother's antique ring but with a modern twist or use sapphires instead of diamonds. Maybe you'd like to create a ring that borrows elements from four other rings. Or you can design something inspired by a celebrity's ring you saw in People magazine.

But if you fall in love with a Tiffany ring, don't expect to be able to create an exact copy. Most custom jewelers are careful not to infringe on other designers' trademarks, so it's necessary to make a ring sufficiently different from its original inspiration.

"If their heart is set on a piece by a certain designer, they really need to go ahead and get that piece," says Whiteflash.com's John Pollard.

"But you can only copyright a circle to a certain degree. So if somebody has a setting in mind and would like something that has tangible differences, they can submit their ideas. If it's not different enough, our jewelers will make some suggestions so it's not infringing on anybody else's intellectual property."

Know what you're buying



Don't trust that the online jeweler is envisioning the same ring you are. Make sure the jeweler will e-mail you a computer-aided design (CAD) file, sketch or photo of a wax mold of the ring you've designed. But be aware that as soon as you approve the drawing or wax, you'll probably be charged for later changes.


Also, most online jewelers don't offer refunds for custom settings after they're crafted.


Find out whether the jeweler offers a lifetime trade-up policy. Some online vendors will gladly take their diamonds back in stock and credit you the value of the diamond if you want to buy a more expensive stone later. But be aware that custom settings are generally made to fit a specific stone, so a new diamond could require a new setting.

Finally, if you want to avoid purchasing diamonds that finance global conflicts -- a popular wish in the wake of last year's movie "Blood Diamond" -- ask the online jeweler whether its suppliers are compliant with the Kimberley Process, an international certification system that aims to keep such diamonds off the market.

Do your homework

"Do some research on the person you're working with," says Mark Turnowski, of EngagementRingsDirect.com. "And make sure that other people have been satisfied with the product they received so you'll feel comfortable that you're going to be one of those people who's satisfied and happy."

--T.S.


 

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