Soft Gemstone Engagement Rings: Should They Be Avoided?

When couples want to incorporate gemstones into their custom engagement rings, they may encounter a wide range of advice regarding “softer” gemstones. Some jewelers outright refuse to set a softer stone in an engagement ring, while others say no problem, so what exactly is the truth about using soft gemstones in an engagement ring? Secrète Fine Jewelry in Bethesda, MD, and Washington, DC is here to clear up the story on what can be a confusing matter.

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This gorgeous emerald and diamond engagement right was hand-made in our Bethesda workshop. Even though emeralds aren't the hardest gems in the world, their intense green is irresistible. 

What does "hardness" mean in gemstones? 

First of all, it’s important to understand what it means when a gemstone is called “soft.” Gemstones are rocks (hard things), after all, but their hardness varies species to species. Hardness is often equated with durability, and that’s true in part, but durability can also depend on some other factors.

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This aquamarine and diamond engagement ring was made using heirloom gemstones from the groom's family. Even though aquamarines may not be hard-as-nails, as long as the bride treats the ring with respect, it should last for generations. 

To start, stones are graded for hardness based on the Mohs scale. The Mohs scale is a way of ranking relative hardness on a scale of 1 - 10; simply put, a material with a higher number will be able to scratch a material with a lower number. The Mohs scale is a relative scale, not an absolute measurement, so while diamonds are actually four times harder than sapphires and sapphires are almost twice as hard as topaz, diamonds are a 10, sapphires are a 9, and topaz is an 8, just because a diamond can scratch a sapphire and a sapphire can scratch a topaz.

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The Mohs Scale ranks stones on the basis of relative scratch-ability. Photo credit- GIA.

The basics of the Mohs scale are that diamonds are the hardest, corundum (sapphires and rubies) are the next hard, and the scale goes all the way down to talc (like talcum powder-- very soft!).

What does makes a gemstone tough? 

Hardness isn’t the only factor in durability. There’s also toughness, which refers to how securely the molecules are bonded to each other. For example, a tortilla chip is pretty hard, but it’s easy to break. Scientists use the fracture toughness scale to rate toughness-- nephrite jade is extremely tough at 225,000, diamonds range between 5,000 and 8,000, and corundum (sapphires) are a wimpy 600. So even though diamonds are really hard, it’s possible to break them at just the right angle, and even though sapphires and rubies are resistant to scratching, they’re not so immune to chipping.

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This delicate rose gold and diamond twisted rope engagement ring by Secrète is so feminine, it's surprising you can use the words "hard" and "tough" to describe it. Even weirder, it's not as tough as jade. 

What about the way a stone reacts of different conditions and substances?

Third, there’s gemstone stability, which refers to a stone’s resilience against environmental factors like temperature, chemicals, and light. Common sense tells us that no stone is fireproof, and even the strongest diamond can be damaged in a house fire, but some stones are even more sensitive. There is no scientific scale of stability for gems, because each unique stone can react in different ways. 

Light can cause many semi-precious gems like amethyst, citrine, or topaz to change colors. “Organic gems” (gems that came from living things like amber from tree resin, pearls from oysters, or coral from reefs) are also very sensitive to light and heat. Chlorine, cooking oil and ammonia can seep into porous gems and discolor or degrade them. Opals, being partially made of water, are extremely sensitive, even to changes in humidity.

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This beautiful pearl and diamond ring from Secrète Fine Jewelry's estate collection would make a lovely and unique engagement ring, but it's important to understand that pearls are actually organic artifacts from living creatures, not rocks mined from the ground. They require extra precautions because they are porous and can be damaged or discolored by oils and chemicals. 

We’ve seen tragic cases where beloved jewelry has been broken because of ignorance about gem stability. One woman dropped an 8ct heirloom sapphire ring into a pan of boiling water to clean it… while we were able to find a beautiful replacement, it was very sad for her to see her favorite gemstone shattered like glass.

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This beautiful sapphire halo engagement ring is Secrète's updated take on the famous Princess Diana/Kate Middleton sapphire. This gorgeous gemstone is a 9 on the Mohs hardness scale, but it doesn't mean it's fireproof or unbreakable. 

Craftsmanship and Durability

Finally, there’s the actual jewelry part of durability. An engagement ring can be constructed in infinite ways, so there are ways to bulk up the durability of a softer, less tough, or less stable stone. The first way to do this is to consider cut-- sharp corners are the easiest to break off, so consider rounds, ovals, and cushions over princesses or emeralds.

Next, consider the setting style. For very soft stones, bezel-setting is a good option. Bezels are frames of gold or platinum that surround a stone, holding it in place instead of prongs. A skilled custom jeweler can make a very thin bezel-setting that almost disappears around the edge of a stone.

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This ring uses bezel-settings around the tapered baguette emerald side stones to create bold, Art Deco style frames which also protect the gems.

Halos also can protect a fragile center stone. Halos are diamonds or other gemstones that encircle a center stone like an angel’s halo. This classic and versatile style provides protection around the girdle of a stone, which is often one of the most vulnerable places on a gem because the gem thins to a point.

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We custom-made this vintage-inspired emerald engagement ring in white and rose gold in our Bethesda workshop. We bezel-set the emerald to keep it safe with the added protection of a halo. The contrast-color shank adds a lovely antique charm. 

Most importantly, a piece of jewelry should be well-made, regardless of the style or types of stones used. Prefabricated and machine-made engagement settings are designed to be light and low-cost so that big chain companies can maximize profit. Choosing a small jeweler who handcrafts jewelry is important to guarantee heirloom-quality craftsmanship. At Secrète Fine Jewelry, we’re committed to making every piece of jewelry with the finest quality, whether it’s a simple birthstone ring or the most lavish diamond engagement ring in Washington, DC, we treat each project with respect and with the highest quality craftsmanship.

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This antique opal engagement ring from Secrète's estate collection is fragile, but it has survived beautifully for over 100 years, proving that with the right care and craftsmanship, even the most fragile stones can stand the test of time. 

So when it comes down to it, is it a good idea to choose a less durable stone for an engagement ring?

The answer is up to you. We believe that while it’s good to be informed, you should choose what you love. A few years ago, a couple at Secrète DuPont Circle chose a pearl engagement ring, knowing that the pearl would likely have to be replaced periodically over the years; to them, the need to maintain the ring was worth having the delicate, soft, feminine look she’d been dreaming of since she was a little girl.

Other couples will find creative compromises. Recently, a couple looking at aquamarine engagement rings ended up choosing a light teal sapphire instead for its increased hardness. We’ve helped emerald-lovers find green sapphires and citrine-lovers find honey-gold colored sapphires.

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This honey sapphire in our DuPont Circle store is a lovely example of a durable gemstone in an unexpected color. 

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This colorful engagement ring features a fancy vivid blue diamond. We created this pretty ring for a cool young couple who wanted the beauty of a colorful gem and the hardness of a diamond. 

Other brides compromise by choosing the colorful (and less durable) gemstone they love for the engagement ring and simply decide to not wear it every day. A beautifully-designed diamond wedding band can offer the day-to-day sparkle and durability a bride can wear forever, and she can save her engagement ring for date nights, parties, and special occasions.

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This tourmaline engagement ring from our DC showcase has such a sophisticated, moody green color, it would be hard to find another stone with its personality.

Just like everything else about marriage, there is no single piece of advice that will be right for every couple. You have to make an informed decision for yourself with the guidance of a jeweler you trust. As long as you love your engagement ring, we think it’s a good choice.

To start designing your perfect engagement ring today, contact us or visit us in our Bethesda store at Wildwood Shopping Center or our Washington, DC, store in DuPont Circle. 

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There's a rainbow of gemstones to love. If classic white diamonds aren't fun enough for you, don't worry. Your engagement ring can be whatever you want it to be!

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