Like many single women, Nicole Hypolite often dreamed about the ideal engagement ring. She even jokingly told her boyfriend, Luis Barbosa, that if he ever gave her a diamond, she wanted five carats.
Mr. Barbosa rose to the occasion. On her birthday he handed her a small box, beautifully wrapped. Opening it, she found five baby carrots tied with a ribbon. Not a diamond in sight.
Eighteen months later, the Boston couple went to an upscale restaurant for dinner. "I thought I was getting dessert, and the waiter brought out a plate with chocolate," Ms. Hypolite says. "In white chocolate it said, 'Will you marry me?'" She also found a platinum ring with a large marquis diamond in the center, flanked by two baguettes.
Carats - the nonedible kind - figure prominently in any discussion of engagement rings these days. So do cut, color, and clarity, the traditional four "C's" of diamond-buying. As prices and choices increase, hand-holding couples are taking time to become better-informed.
Barbosa says he "did a lot of homework." Tom Soohoo of Boston turned to the Internet. "It tells you what to look for in a diamond. There are literally hundreds of sites. If you go to a good store, they explain it too."
"Consumers in general are much more educated about diamonds," says Melvyn Kirtley, general manager of Tiffany & Co. in New York. "Women do have an idea of basically what shape they like and what style of setting they would like. Over time they relay this information to their boyfriend in various ways, subliminally and otherwise."
Although September, October, November, and December remain prime months for men to buy engagement rings, jewelers note a small increase in sales around Valentine's Day, according to James Lowry, chairman of the marketing department at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
A majority of couples, Mr. Kirtley says, do some "preshopping" together. Then, based on the information the man gathers about what stone the bride would like, "he'll come back and purchase it alone and decide on a romantic way to present it."
In prosperous times, expectations can run high. Terri Herman, a bride-to-be in Boston, says, "Some people are like, 'It has to be a carat or more.'" Christine Downey of Melrose, Mass., adds, "There are friends of mine who wouldn't settle for anything less than two carats." One unofficial formula in some circles suggests that men spend three months' salary on a ring.
"Some diamonds are too big," says Jody McGill of Billerica, Mass., who chose a marquis cut for Kimberly Harrington. "Once you get into 1-3/4, 2, 2-1/2 carats, it becomes burdensome."
In earlier generations, Mr. McGill adds, people "were more worried about food and housing than material things. Today you've got crazy financing companies that will do anything as long as you pay them 30 percent interest. Plastic - that's what it's all about for some people."
Although the solitaire remains one of the most popular settings, some active women prefer a more contemporary ring with a wider band. Four or five years ago, Kirtley says, Tiffany's introduced a bezel-set mounting. With no prongs, the stone sits lower on the finger.
Some couples favor a family heirloom. Danielle Evans and Alex Cole of Arlington, Mass., used his grandmother's ring, buying a new diamond for the center and retaining the original smaller diamonds on both sides.
Other couples head for antiques shops. "There are quite a number looking for antique and estate rings - noticeably so," says Tania Langerman, owner of Antique Company estate jewelers in Brookline, Mass. "About 20 years ago, I don't think I ever got a request for an engagement ring." Interest has grown in the past 10 years.
Platinum is popular, Ms. Langerman finds, along with filigree settings, mostly from the 1920s. Diamonds are typically mine cut, European cut, and cushion cut. "Couples don't necessarily know the cut, but they like the looks."
Sometimes cultural issues influence choices. David Pflug of Charlestown, Mass., planned to buy a classic diamond solitaire for Patricia Robledo, a native of Colombia. She had other ideas.
"I wanted it different from the classic style that all Americans have," she says. "I'm not American. In Colombia we wear big rings and a lot of stones."
The couple eventually chose a 0.99-carat diamond with three smaller diamonds on each side. "We looked at everything up to 1-1/2 carats, but they were flawed," says Mr. Pflug. "The color and clarity on this are much better."
That emphasis on quality echoes through the comments of many men and women. "I never cared how big it was," says Ms. Harrington. "It was just the thought." And as Ms. Downey's friends have married in recent years, she says, most "were just happy to get a ring. It was a sign of their love. It's not so much the size, how big or small the ring is, it's the whole combination of being engaged and married."