If you’re shopping for diamond jewelry or thinking about getting engaged, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the 4 Cs of diamonds: carat weight, color, clarity, and cut. But what does that actually mean? And how do you know what to choose?
You don’t need to be a diamond expert in order to select a high-quality diamond that’s perfect for you, so we’ve compiled this comprehensive guide to the 4 Cs of gemstones to help you out!
It’s helpful if we think of these parameters as descriptions, more so than indicators of a “good” or “bad” diamond, because, as you will see, a “good” diamond is perfect. After all, it’s perfect for you!
The first C in the 4 Cs is the carat weight of the stone. Although carat weight is most often associated with diamonds, it is used for all precious stones. Carat should not be confused with karat, which is used to tell the amount of gold in an alloy.
While it is a weight measurement, it’s important to remember that carat weight has little to do with the actual size of the stone. The other three Cs (especially cut), plus the overall design of the piece and even the wearer’s proportions, can make a stone appear larger or smaller for a given weight.
Also, depending on the stone, the color may be a more important factor for the overall appeal of the stone than the size. For instance, an emerald of a smaller size, but better color will look richer than a larger stone of lesser color quality.
Origin of the Term ‘Carat’
The word carat is derived from the carob seed. Previously, carob seeds were believed to have very uniform weights and sizes, and so were used for measuring against the weight of precious metals and stones. The seeds were placed on one side of a balance scale, and the stone was placed on the other side. The more seeds it took to balance the scale, the more valuable the stone was considered to be. These days, carat weight has nothing to do with seeds. A carat is equal to 1/5th of a gram, or 200 mg. A carat can then be divided up into 100 “points” to get finer gradations of weight. So, for example, a 50 point diamond weighs half a carat. Diamonds 20 points or smaller are usually used as accent diamonds, not as center diamonds.
Why is Carat Weight Important?
Due to how diamonds are produced in nature, larger sizes are naturally rarer than smaller sizes. A one carat, finished diamond is usually found in only one in a million raw diamonds. The rarity of larger sizes increases exponentially from there, with the largest diamonds often making national headlines when they are discovered. Thus, all other factors being equal, larger stones will be more expensive than smaller ones. Also, when the weight of a diamond crosses certain thresholds, usually every half carat, the price of the diamond will jump to reflect the change in rarity.
Most women want a diamond with a carat weight of at least one as part of their engagement ring or wedding band. Thus, stones of less than one-carat weight are often significantly cheaper than ones just over a one-carat weight. Thus, buying a ring with a ¾ carat or even a 98 “point” (98/100 carats) diamond weight will be less expensive, while still producing a stone that looks big enough for her dream ring. It’s also important to note that stones that are larger in size but have a lower cut or color will also be cheaper, highlighting the importance of considering all of the 4 C’s when making a decision.
What is Total Carat Weight?
Many pieces of jewelry may have more than one stone. Thus, a piece will also have a “total carat weight.” This is often confused with the weights of single stones. Therefore, if you are seeking a single stone with a large carat weight, you should ensure that you specify that with a jeweler when discussing your purchase. Also, paired pieces, such as earrings, may divide the total carat weight between the pieces.
The most important thing to take from this section is that higher carat weights will directly impact the price of each piece of jewelry. Heavier stones, as discussed, are rarer and therefore more expensive.
While carat weight may be important technical information or present itself as something to be proud of, indeed, carat weight alone has little impact on the overall beauty and awe-inspiring nature of your stone, so don’t get too caught up in this particular component! Blowing your budget on a bigger stone won’t feel as satisfying if it isn’t dazzling to YOU.
This may surprise you, but diamonds can actually appear in just about any color of the rainbow in nature. The rarest naturally colored diamond is a red one. The most common colors found are yellow or brown tones. These colors come from the presence of other minerals when the stones are forming.
Ultimately, colors are considered more or less expensive due to rarity instead of beauty. Depending on the other three C’s and the setting, a diamond with more color may create a more beautiful piece. And different colors can come in and out of fashion, impacting their value as well.
For historical reasons, color grades for diamonds are measured on a scale from D (best) to Z (worst). The steps in color between two stones that are just a letter or two apart are difficult to assess with an untrained eye. Gemologists actually have a set of master stones they use for color comparisons, as the variations can be very slight.
Diamond Color Gradations
Here is a rough breakdown of diamond color gradations to help you choose the stone or stones that are right for you!
- D-F: These letter designations mark the most colorless diamonds you can get. Unless you’re a trained gemologist, you will not be able to discern the differences in this range. These diamonds are so clear and so rare that they have to be put against silver-colored materials to avoid spoiling their clarity.
- G-H: These will also look colorless to the untrained eye unless compared with higher quality diamonds outside of their settings.
- I-J: The barest hints of color can be seen. Some customers actually prefer this grade of diamond because it can add a special warmth to the stone. Grogan Jewelers can give you a demonstration of the difference so you can decide for yourself if you prefer a little warmth in your diamond!
Anything lower than K is going to have a color tint, usually yellow or brown. Some jewelers refuse to carry diamonds lower than J due to a lack of demand. Still, there are trends in the jewelry market that are bringing up the popularity of colored diamonds due to their uniqueness.
Colored diamonds are usually graded as having even more yellow or brown color than a Z-grade master stone or by having a distinct color all their own. Yellow, pink, black, and brown (chocolate) diamonds have all had their time in the spotlight, and demand for these colors rises and falls with trends and seasons.
Other precious stones don’t have as strict of a rating system as diamonds, but there are some scales. However, it really depends on the stone. Let’s take rubies as an example. The most important consideration for rarity will be the richness of the stone’s color. This is a combination of both the right color and the right tone, which is the lightness or darkness of the color.
There is a particular ruby red that is desired as the standard, but if a ruby looks more orange than red, then it will reduce the value. Some color gradations can only be seen by trained eyes or by comparing them to higher-quality stones that are considered to be of better color.
Other stones naturally come in different colors. In these cases, color won’t play a role in the price unless there is something extremely unusual about the color, such as a particular richness or rarity. This variation can present the buyer with a unique opportunity to select a stone (or stones) that are perfect for creating a custom piece that is truly one in a million.
The color of your stone is perhaps the second most important component to consider, as well as how any given color will interact with different settings, band materials, and other stones that may be in your setting.
When diamonds are naturally formed in the earth, they are typically exposed to other minerals, along with uneven pressures and temperatures. This causes stones to gain internal and external imperfections. The clarity of a diamond is a subjective measurement of how clear a diamond is based on the number of imperfections. The fewer imperfections there are, the better the clarity rating will be.
However, unless your friends are going to be looking at your diamond ring under 10x magnification, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to detect these imperfections with the naked eye. Clarity grading is all done at this magnification range. The little imperfections that can be seen under magnification can actually serve as a kind of fingerprint for the stone. A jeweler can give you a description of these “inclusions” or “internal features” in case you wish to insure your stone.
Most of the diamonds you are going to see in jewelry pieces are “eye-clear,” which means that the naked eye can’t see any imperfection. However, in low-grade stones, the imperfections can scatter so much light that the stone doesn’t appear as clear.
In very low-grade stones, the imperfections could even make the diamond structurally weak. However, this is only a concern if you’re buying loose stones on the market. By the time a stone makes it into a piece of jewelry, it’s probably already been assessed to be clear enough for that purpose and has already been deemed structurally sound enough to place into a setting.
Grades of Clarity
Higher grades of clarity do command higher prices, so if you plan to buy loose stones, it’s wise to understand what the different grades are beforehand.
- FL and IF: Flawless and Internally flawless. No internal blemishes even at 10x magnification. IF diamonds may have surface blemishes only visible at 10x. These are the rarest clarity grades, and you should be prepared to pay more accordingly.
- VVS: “Very very slightly” included. Only a few tiny internal blemishes. Divided into two grades: VVS1 and VVS2, where VVS1 is of a higher clarity than VVS2.
- VS: “Very slightly” included. A few more blemishes. Similar to VVS, this is also divided into two grades: VS1 and VS2.
- SI: “Slightly” included. Most of the stones you find in jewelry pieces fall into the two grades in this category: SI1 and SI2. You still can’t see imperfections with the naked eye, unless your eyes are especially good and you know what to look for. However, the imperfections are easily seen under magnification.
- I: Included. Divided into three grades: I1, I2, and I3. The only one worth it for jewelry is the I1 grade, which has visible imperfections but isn’t structurally compromised and will still refract light well. It’s possible you could find an I1 stone with a set of inclusions that are particularly striking to you. Anything less could be too cloudy or fragile for jewelry use.
Does Clarity Matter?
All in all, clarity is one of the four C’s you have to worry the least about as a jewelry consumer. For most unaided eyes, it’s hard to tell the differences between the higher levels of clarity. Thankfully, we don’t go around carrying jeweler loupes and inspecting each other’s engagement rings! As long as any imperfections don’t interfere with the stone’s beauty, perfection isn’t necessary, in order for it to be perfect for you.
While carat weight, color, and clarity are all-natural properties of diamonds, it is the cut that shows the jeweler’s skill. The cut is a measurement of how light interacts within a stone and is controlled largely by the number of facets, the angles of those facets, and their proportion to each other.
One confusing point is that the cut of a diamond is considered different than the diamond’s shape. It doesn’t help that many diamond marketing will refer to shapes as cuts, like a round cut or a princess cut. These are actually shapes that describe the outline of the stone.
But the cut measures how light interacts with the stone in three ways: brilliance, fire, and scintillation. Before describing these, we have to talk a bit about how light interacts with an uncut natural diamond.
The Shape of Natural Diamonds
In nature, a perfectly formed diamond is not in any of the traditional shapes we think of. It’s actually an octahedral crystal. If you took two four-sided pyramids and glued them together at the base, that would be an octahedral shape. These natural diamonds can look black because a lot of light that enters them doesn’t escape, which may surprise you!
Over time and with technological developments, jewelers learned how to cut this basic shape in different ways to allow light to escape from the diamond. Modern jewelry technology, such as laser cutting, allows diamonds to have cuts far superior than in times past. If you have vintage jewelry, this can be why your piece can seem to have less sparkle than modern pieces!
Dancing Light and Diamond Shape So, how can light interact within a stone? Let’s look at those three categories now.
- Brilliance: The amount of light that enters and exits the stone as observed from the top of the diamond.
- Fire: The number of colors besides white that reflects out of a stone due to the diamond acting like a prism and breaking up the white light.
- Scintillation: The amount of “sparkle” in a diamond, caused by creating reflection patterns of light within a stone to create both light and dark areas.
The jeweler controls these factors by creating cuts in that natural octahedral shape that are proportional to the stone size. A diamond with a good cut will have the proper balance of all three of these factors, though fashion trends and the preferences of an era may push one of these categories into a higher demand than the other. A few centuries ago, brilliance was the only cut factor that was truly prized. Today, fire is often prized by jewelry owners. But for rating a stone for the jewelry market, all three are used.
There are a lot of technical terms regarding how the different parts of a diamond are measured for proper cutting that is best left to the professionals, but here are a few to help!
- Precision: This is how the different angles and the size of the stone relate to each other overall, technically.
- Symmetry: This is a measure of how perfectly the angles align and intersect.
- Polish: The details of the facets and how they are shaped, as well as the stone’s outside finish.
How Is Cut Measured?
The GIA uses a five-step grading system for cuts, ranging from Excellent to Poor. They use round-shaped diamonds as their baseline. Because cut is so technically complex, other countries have developed their own systems for measuring cut quality, so be aware of this if you are shopping abroad.
The best way for the consumer to get an idea of different cuts is to ask their jeweler to show them examples of the grades and the differences between brilliance, fire, and scintillation. There are also images on diamond education sites that can show the difference. You might not be able to describe the technicalities of the cut, but you can definitely see how a bump in cut grade affects the beauty of a stone!
Of all the 4C’s, cut is perhaps the most important. A huge diamond with zero flaws and perfect color can be really uninspiring if the cut is wrong. And conversely, the most beautiful stone you’ve ever laid your eyes upon can be smaller, flawed, and have a yellow cast, but if it’s cut right, it can be dazzling!
Questions about the 4 C’s? Want to see for yourself how they interplay and interact with each other to give a stone its individual beauty and character? If you are looking for the perfect gemstone for yourself or someone you love, contact Grogan Jewelers today!