NEW YORK (AP) -- As Valentine's Day approaches, many Americans are looking to buy a diamond or other gemstone for that special someone.
Selecting a precious stone can be intimidating, especially if you're shopping with your heart instead of your head. And, of course, it can involve an investment significantly greater than that for a card and a box of chocolates.
''It's a blind item,'' said Rennie Ellen, whose shop is in the center of New York's diamond district. ''Consumers often don't know what they're doing, and unscrupulous retailers can take advantage of that.''
The key is doing your homework before you buy, whether it's a diamond or the increasingly popular precious stones such as rubies, emeralds and sapphires.
In the past, young couples have generally been the primary market for Valentine's Day gems.
''Now we're also seeing people entering second or third marriages, or renewing their marriages,'' said Amy Curran, the diamond engagement ring buyer for the Fortunoff retail chain.
Round, brilliant cut colorless or near-colorless diamonds remain the most popular for engagements, she said. But they're not for everyone.
''You really need to think about lifestyle,'' Curran said. ''Does she garden or does she do lunch, does she like modern art or antiques? That can play a part in the style of the mounting and the shape and look of the diamond.''
Price is based on ''the four Cs'' of color, clarity, carat (weight) and cut. Curran likes to add a fifth C for confidence, which she argues is ''an informed consumer with somebody very good behind the counter helping you.''
You'll want to become familiar with how diamonds are graded. Color is graded by letters, with D through H considered the best quality. Clarity, which deals with the number of flaws in a diamond, is graded with a combination of letters and numbers such as VS2, for very slightly included.
You can find information on grading at the Web site of the International Gemmological Institute, www.igiworldwide.com.
Experts stress that the very best thing you can do to ensure you get a good stone at a good price is to find a reputable jeweler.
Rennie Ellen, who has been in the business for more than 35 years, urges consumers to ''ask for references from your friends, check the Better Business Bureau, find out how long the jeweler has been around.''
Then, she said, set a firm budget and shop around to educate yourself before you buy.
''There are a lot of gimmicks to avoid,'' she said. ''If the salesman asks for $11,000 and you hesitate and he goes to $9,000 and you start walking out and he goes to $4,000, keep walking. Something is very wrong.''
Ellen also warned against sales pitches such as ''I can offer you a great price because I need to raise cash to cover a bill that's coming due.''
When it comes to executing the purchase, she advises:
-- Get everything in writing. Don't settle for a bill of sale that says ''one diamond ring.'' It should give the carat weight of the diamonds, the color, the type of gold in which it's set and any special design features.
-- Insist on a money back guarantee.
''Say you bought a diamond bracelet and she doesn't like it,'' Ellen said. ''You should be able to exchange it for a piece of her choosing or get your money back.''
Another safeguard is to insist on a certificate issued by the International Gemmological Institute or other independent laboratory, said Jerry Ehrenwald, president of the New York-based institute.
''If you're considering a diamond without certification, at least get it independently appraised by a gemmologist accredited by the American Society of Appraisers,'' Ehrenwald said.
If you're purchasing an expensive diamond or gem, you might also want to contact your insurance agent immediately to determine if it's covered by your homeowners policy or if you need to purchase an insurance rider, he said.
After all, Ehrenwald points out, ''It's a work of art you can wear, look at and admire, but if you need to liquidate it, it's always got value.''
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