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For Love & Money

Even in rough times, brides and grooms go for the big rocks

Maya Berge is unapologetic about her love of carats. 'I've always wanted a big diamond ring even when I was a little girl,' the Lake Oswego resident says. 'My mom would say, 'With that attitude, no one's going to want you.' But I didn't care.'

Now, eight years into her marriage to entrepreneur Cordell Berge, she has the ring she's always wanted.

'It's all baguettes with a 2 1/2 carat center stone,' she says of her ring, which weighs in at a total of 5 carats. 'It's exactly what I wanted; it's beautiful.'

Berge isn't alone; local women are digging big diamonds, eschewing the modest stone in favor of a statement-making piece.

On their side: the men who are purchasing supersize diamonds for their brides, in glittery defiance of a foundering economy and global instability.

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, the average size of an 'impressive' diamond is 2 or 3 carats, up from an average of 1 carat in the 1990s.

Those in the diamond industry attribute the bigger-is-better attitude to the fact that the average bride has grown up, and so has her taste level.

'Today's bride is older, they're more sophisticated, and many of them are getting remarried,' says Patti Warner, sales associate at Portland's Zell Bros Jewelers. 'When I started in this business 26 years ago, everyone was 18 years old, and they all wanted the same two-ring bridal set. Today, more women want one fabulous, unique ring with a diamond.'

Show and sell

Local retailers say that larger diamonds are practically selling themselves.

'I had a young man come in last weekend, wanting to look at only 4- and 5-carat diamonds,' Warner says. 'It's unbelievable; I don't even ask them what size anymore. I show them large, and they buy large. '

At Zell Bros, the average price of a 1.5 carat diamond wedding ring is $15,000. 'That's based on the fact that the price of a high-quality carat today is $10,000,' Warner says.

'In the past decade, we've had some of the most significant sales that we've ever had, many in the 5- to 10-carat range,' says Tim Greve, president of Greve Jewelers in downtown Portland, which has been in business for 80 years. He estimates the average price of bridal rings sold at his store to be between $7,000 and $9,000.

Locally based Fred Meyer Jewelers has 451 stores nationwide and is the largest seller of diamond engagement rings in the Northwest. President Ed Dayoob says the jewelry chain also is benefiting from the demand for bigger rocks.

'We sell a lot of 1 1/2- to 3-carat stones in Portland and Seattle,' he says. 'We're catching up with New Jersey and New York, which is where we sell our largest stones.'

A 1-carat engagement ring at Fred Meyer Jewelers sells for about $3,000. 'We specialize in the SI (slightly imperfect) range,' Dayoob says. 'These are stones that have slight imperfections but still have high color.'

David Margulis, owner of Margulis Jewelers, also has seen the attitude change within his downtown Portland store.

'There's been a big shift over the last 10 years,' Margulis says. 'I've been shocked at what young people will spend and achieve with their choice of rings.'

He recalls the recent sale of rings to the Los Angeles-based fiances of two native Portland women.

'They each purchased 'important'-size diamonds a word I use to describe anything over 2 carats,' he says. 'The men wanted to make them happy.'

Margulis estimates that 40 percent of men still choose the engagement ring themselves, a figure he says is getting smaller as women become more educated and outspoken about the jewelry they want.

'It's not uncommon to have a man start looking and then say, 'You know, I better get her involved in this,' ' he says, adding that a fellow hell-bent on the element of surprise might consider presenting the stone on a simple band. It can then be switched to the setting of her choice assuming that she accepts.

Diamonds are tougher

Ironically, it was a major tragedy that led to the surge in diamond sales.

'We saw a big increase in engagement ring purchases after9-11,' Greve says. 'People seemed to have re-evaluated their priorities. We sold a lot of rings in October and November of 2001.'

He attributes the increase to a need for symbolism.

'Celebrating marriage with the purchase of fine jewelry is a symbolic act,' he says. 'It reaffirms our values and emotions especially when things are unsure.'

Warner of Zell Bros concurs, adding that hope and hormones spring eternal.

'The economy may be really bad, but people still get married; there's no question that our business is good,' she says. 'And when guys see that look in a woman's eyes when she's trying on rings É well, there's nothing like it.'

Fred Meyer Jewelers also saw a big increase in business after Sept. 11.

'People started making more commitment to marriage,' Dayoob says. 'But judging by the 3 and 4 carats they're buying now, I guess they should have asked the girl to get married earlier they could have got her a 1-carat stone before she wised up and waited!'

Not that diamonds are a bad investment; the stones generally hold their value. 'With the exception of a dip in the late '80s, we've actually seen diamonds slowly increase in value,' Warner says. 'Last year they went up 6 percent.'

Diamond life

Portlander Jillian Cain didn't ask for the 5-plus carat diamond and platinum wedding ring given to her by her husband of three years, Ron Cain, but she's glad to have it.

'My husband picked it out for me; it's very sentimental,' she says of the radiant cut (slightly rectangular) in a platinum setting that she says 'goes with everything.'

'I shower in it and work out in it,' says Cain, 37. 'I never take it off, so I don't risk losing it; it's a part of me.'

Cain has learned to handle the attention that the breathtaking ring inevitably attracts.

'When people ask how many carats it is, I just smile and tell them nicely and politely that my husband picked it out for me it's a gift.'

Not every woman craves carats, says internationally renowned jewelry designer Cathy Waterman, known for her delicate designs made up of pavŽ stones.

'I can't relate to the women who want big diamonds,' Waterman says. 'For my customers, it's not about carat size, it's about the emotions behind the piece.'

But for women like Berge, who estimates that half of her friends wear a large stone, big diamonds do evoke emotions.

'I love it,' she says of her ring. 'And surprisingly, it's mostly men who comment on it. They say, 'Wow, your husband must really love you,' and I say, 'Yes, he does!' '

Contact Jill Spitznass at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .