NEW YORK -- Shopping for jewelry for a loved one ahead of Valentine's Day can be stressful. But learning some tricks should help anyone have an easier time finding the perfect gift. That means understanding a partner's tastes, shopping at reputable jewelry stores and learning what the wording means in terms of how gemstones are graded.
And there's plenty of opportunity to haggle for the best price.
"It is a big time to buy jewelry," says Amanda Gizzi, a spokeswoman at the Jewelers of America, a trade association with more than 8,000 retail members. "There are some wonderful sales to be had. Look for the best pieces for your budget, but don't be dazzled by the discounts."
Above all, start researching with time to spare, figure out how much you want to spend, and shop to take advantage of post-holiday sales or limited-time Valentine's Day deals.
The median price for a piece of jewelry is $350, excluding engagement rings and wedding bands, the trade group says. But there's a wide range of jewelry sellers from Target to Tiffany. At Wal-Mart's Sam's Club, which says its jewelry is priced at a 25 to 40 percent discount over other jewelry retailers, Valentine's deals run from Jan. 25 to the holiday. Macy's jewelry sale, which includes 60 percent off 14-carat and 18-carat gold jewelry, starts Jan. 29 and ends Feb. 9.
"You really do need to shop early if you are budget-minded," said Benjamin Glaser, features editor at DealNews.com, an online deal comparison site. Here are some tips:
Know your loved one's taste
Look at what your partner is wearing and what's in the jewelry box. If your special someone likes small earrings, don't get big hoops. And if that person is active, don't buy rings with high settings, says Gizzi. Among the trends this year: updated classics like hoop earrings with diamond chips, or layering rings or bracelets. If you plan to buy diamonds, see if there's a way -- subtly! -- to find out if your partner would rather sacrifice size over quality or vice versa.
Do research and learn the lingo
Check out sites like Jewelers of America and online retail sites like Blue Nile for help understanding key terms like what clarity means when you are talking about diamonds, or want to know more about how gemstones are graded. Bluenile.com, which has also begun opening in-person showrooms, offers tools to compare prices from 150,000 independently graded diamonds.
Take precautions againt fraud
First, be cautious about a store always offering discounts of more than 50 percent. Consumers may find the discount price is actually the average retail price elsewhere, says the Jewelers of America. Buy from a trusted retailer. Ask friends for recommendations, or go to websites like the American Gem Society, which lets you search for reputable jewelry stores by ZIP code.
As for diamonds, consumers should insist a stone be accompanied by an independent grading report from a respected lab like the Gemological Institute of America, says Josh Holland, Blue Nile's director of brand experience.
Also, check out the return policy and find out whether you'd get your money back or would have to exchange an item for credit. And haggle -- it's a common practice in the jewelry business, Glaser says.
Consider synthetic diamonds
If you want something sparkly but want to avoid gems from conflict zones, synthetic or man-made diamonds are about 20 percent to 40 percent less expensive, according to DealNews. Produced in a laboratory, they are chemically the same as mined diamonds, as opposed to simulated diamonds, which are usually cubic zirconia or moissanite. Pure Grown Diamonds, the world's largest distributor of them, has a directory on its website of stores by zip code that offer lab-grown diamonds. While a gemologist wouldn't be able to tell the difference between mined and synthetic diamonds, a jeweler needs to tell buyers the origin.
Not interested in spending a lot but still want good quality? Consider estate sales. Or if you think your partner would want to try out pieces for a while, there's a rental jewelry subscription service called Rocksbox.com. It allows shoppers to get three items per month based on their tastes, delivered to their doors. Rocksbox.com offers memberships of three months, six months and 12 months with a gift card that can be applied to a purchase. For example, a three-month gift membership plus a $10 gift card is $49. The retail price on the jewelry ranges from $50 to $150 and includes such designers as Kate Spade and Rebecca Minkoff.