From bright white to mellow yellow
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Diamond color, like our hair color or any thing in the natural world, is subject to variation. And where there’s variation, there are some characteristics that are more desirable than others.
As one of the 4Cs, diamond color is one of the variables you’ll need to decide on when finding the balance of the different quality attributes with your diamond. It can also be one of the most difficult to get right, as the difference between different grades can be so small.
In this article, you’ll learn exactly what diamond color is (and what it’s not!), and how to find the color that strikes the right balance for your diamond shape, ring setting metal and your budget.
What is diamond color?
If you look at a well cut diamond, you should see light refracted and split into all the colors of the rainbow as it sparkles:
Although, yep, there are a lot of colors to be seen here, this isn’t what we mean when we talk about a diamond’s color. The range of colors visible in a diamond’s ‘fire’ are actually due to the rock’s cut, and how well it refracts white light into difference colors of the rainbow as it reflects light back to your eye.
When we talk about diamond color, what we’re actually talking about is the color of the stone itself, which ranges from pure white through to yellow, with some rare examples of diamonds being found in pink, blue, orange and just about any other color out there.
What causes diamond color?
A diamond’s color is the result of other minerals being present in the carbon when the diamond was formed, millions of years ago. These minerals trap and filter some of the light that is passing through the stone, giving it color.
It only takes a tiny amount another material to make a significant difference to the color. A tiny bit of nitrogen makes a diamond appear yellow, while boron makes it appear blue.
How is diamond color measured?
The most common scale for rating diamond color was developed by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in the ’50s. Each stone is assessed for color and given a letter score letter, from D – Z, with D being the whitest.
As one of the 4Cs, each diamond’s color is recorded on its grading report:
Starting at D may seem a bit odd, but GIA decided to do so because there were other, older diamond color grading scales that already existed when the GIA created its scale.
The other scales weren’t strictly adhered to, and too many stones were graded as ‘A’ or ‘AA’ class, meaning that they should have been top quality, even if they actually weren’t. So, to ensure that the GIA’s grading of a stone couldn’t be confused with the slapdash standards of the other scales, they got rid of A, B and C completely from their scale.
Stones graded on the GIA’s scale can be grouped into five main groups:
The rarest and most expensive colors, apart from ‘fancy’ colors (more on those later), only around 1% of stones will be graded D or E. Although they are rare, most stores and websites will have a selection of colorless D or E graded stones.
All diamonds in the ‘colorless’ range will look completely white to anyone who isn’t a gemologist. In fact, even a trained gemologist with years of experience examining diamonds under bright jewelers’ lights may have trouble distinguishing between and D and an E graded stone.
Stones graded F will show a tiny hint of color to a gemologist, but to the average person they would still appear absolutely colorless.
G-H-I: Near colorless
Although known as ‘near colorless’, the difference between these stones and the colorless diamonds is very slight, especially when they are mounted in a ring.
However, near colorless stones they do offer significantly more value that the colorless, so if you are looking for a high quality stone then the Near Colorless diamonds are a good compromise between excellent color and budget.
J-K-L-M: Faint yellow
The warmer yellow tones are more noticeable when the stone is examined closely, but this is mainly when the stone is examined from the bottom or from the side.
A well cut stone mounted in a ring shouldn’t be noticeably yellow when viewed from the top.
N P Q R: Very light yellow
Stones in this group will appear yellow when mounted in a ring, so are priced more cheaply because of this.
S T U V W X Y Z: Light yellow
Stones show significant yellow color either when viewed loose or when mounted in a ring.
Stones from S – W will all have the same price and are the cheapest of all colors. Interestingly, stones below W are actually prized as their ‘canary yellow’ color becomes an asset. In fact, the stronger the yellow, the higher the price and diamonds with a particularly strong hue can even be more expensive than the purest D colorless stones.
Have a play with the tool below from the GIA to see how colors actually compare to each other:
Rotate the slider slowly and you should hopefully be able to see that the difference between any two grades that sit next to each other is very slight.
In fact, it’s so slight that some trained gemologists struggle to differentiate between two stones sitting next to each other.
Warm vs. Cold
The last thing to know about the diamond color is the distinction that is sometimes made between ‘cold’ and ‘warm’ colors. Colorless diamonds are icy white and are known as ‘cold’, and although they are the rarest, most expensive and, according to the GIA scale, the ‘best’, they can leave some people cold. Some people prefer the slightly warmer tones of a stone a little bit further down the GIA scale.
Grading Diamond Color
Because the differences in color between the different grades are so small, a gemologist can’t just look at a stone and give it a grading – that would be way too incacurate and open to interpretation and abuse, with jewelers pumping up the color grade to be allow diamonds to be sold for more money.
Instead, there are two ways that diamonds are graded:
- Against a set of ‘master stones’
- Using a colorimeter
Grading diamond color using ‘master stones’
Master stones are either a set of diamonds that have been agreed to be the correct colors, or a set of cubic zirconia that have been artificially colored by lazers to match the natural variation in color of diamonds:
To grade a diamond, it is placed upside down on a white surface, and examined using special lighting.
The diamonds are inspected ‘face down’, rather than the ‘face up’ position that you would usually see them in a ring, because the color is more obvious when viewed this way.
When a stone is viewed from the top, the fire and scintillation of the stone (basically the sparkle) will obscure the natural color and make it more difficult to judge. But when viewed face down, there’s less sparkle, so it’s easier to judge the color.
The stone is compared to the master stones by a gemologist and a color chosen. This process is performed by 3 different gemologists before a color is agreed upon.
The second way that stones are graded for color is using a colorimeter, which looks at the light that travels through the stone and then gives supplies a color grading. This process is relatively new, but is becoming more common.
It’s fast and requires less discussion and agreement between gemologists than the above method, so is cheaper too.
Another piece of the diamond color puzzle that you may hear about is fluorescence, although it’s not something to get too concerned about. Fluorescence affects around 50% of diamonds, but the effect is mainly only visible when the stone is placed under a UV light, which causes it to glow:
Fluoresence can actually be a good thing for some stones. A stone that is graded in the faint yellow or very light yellow group for color but has strong fluorescence will actually look whiter than one without.
The one combination of color and fluorescence that you should avoid are colorless stones (D & E) with strong fluorescence, which can cause the stone to look a little hazy.
But fluorescence shouldn’t be an important contributing factor to your decision on a stone. It’s only worth looking at if the certificate says that it the stone has very strong fluorescence – if it’s graded as slight to medium then don’t worry about it.
If a stone does have strong fluorescence then examine the stone, or ask for pictures if you’re buying online. If the fluorescence makes the stone look hazy then avoid, but less than 1% of diamonds are affected negatively by fluorescence. If it looks good to you in normal light then go with it.
One thing to know is that if you are looking to upgrade your ring in the future and are looking to know where to sell a diamond ring, then a stone that has been graded as strong for fluorescence will probably need to be seenby a potential buyer in person, rather than being able to be sold sight-unseen online.
Diamond color and ring setting color
Diamonds are pretty much transparent, which means that the color that is underneath them will shine through, and actually be amplified to some extent. And, in the case of an engagement ring, this means that the color of the ring setting can be seen through a mounted stone.
This has a couple of effects:
A yellow gold colored setting will make even the most colorless stone appear slightly yellow.
If you’re going to go for a gold setting then it’s not worth spending the extra on a D, E or F colored diamond, as the purity of the color will be wasted.
All is not lost thought. To set a colorless stone on a gold band you can go for a yellow gold setting with a a white gold ‘head’ for the stone. This will ensure that the stone still looks incredible white but the ring looks predominantly gold.
This affect of the ring setting also works the other way too.
A yellow gold setting can actually make a diamond with yellower tones look whiter, as the rock is comparatively much more white than the setting around it.
A white setting (white gold or platinum), will do the opposite to a stone with a slight yellow tinge – it will amplify it and make it appear more yellow.
If you’re going with a white setting and don’t want your stone to appear yellow then I’d recommend going with color H and above.
Diamond shape and diamond color
Much of the information on this page post relates to round brilliant diamonds. They’re the most common diamond shape and are often used as the base for developing scales of cut, color etc.
Round brilliants have the greatest sparkle of any diamond shape out there – their shape was calculated by a mathmetician to reflect the most light possible back to your eye.
Because there is so much scintillation and ‘fire’ reflected back to you, the round brilliant can get away with being a slightly lower color grade, without the yellow being noticeable
However, for other diamond shapes that aren’t optimized to reflect quite so much light back, a lower color grading will be more noticeable. This most affects ‘step’ cuts like emerald cut (below) or Asscher cut.
With stone shapes like this you should go at least one color grade up than the minimum color grade for brilliant-cut stones. Color grade G is the lowest I would recommend for step-cut diamonds if you want your diamond to look white once it is set in a ring.
Cuts with points
Stones with visible points like the marquise, pear or heart are also more likely to feature concentrations of color at the tip of the point.
Stones with visible points like the marquise, pear or heart are also more likely to feature concentrations of color at the tip of the point.
While with a round brilliant shaped stone the facet is hidden at the bottom of the setting, with a marquise or pear the point is much more visible. As with stepped cuts, for diamonds where a point is visible, I’d recommend not going any lower than G color to avoid yellow being visible.
Deciding on your color grade
Diamond color, like clarity, is one of those attributes of a diamond that it is easily to get overly caught up in, even if it doesn’t make much difference to the end result of the engagement ring.
Buyers in Asia are known to go for the purest stone, the clearest color etc as they equate this to the purity of their love. They don’t want to settle for anything less. However, with color, unless a stone is going to be examined out of a ring mounting and under specialised lighting, the difference between two colors that are a couple of places away from each other on the scale is pretty much academic. Color doesn’t affect how much a stone sparkles – that’s the cut.
Unless you go into the N P Q R ‘very light yellow’ range then it’s likely that any stone that you buy will not have a noticeable yellow tinge once set in a ring.
If you compared a mounted L stone to a mounted D stone then yes, you would probably be able to see a difference between them, but if you looked at just the L on its own then it would not be noticeably yellow.
It’s like comparing two white shirts together. If you took two white shirts from two different stores, held them right next to each other and compared the colors, then it’s likely one would be slightly whiter than the other. However, if you looked at them separately and didn’t hold them next to each other then you wouldn’t notice that there is a difference, they are both just white shirts.
Which color to go for?
As with everything related to the 4Cs of diamonds and engagement rings, it’s all about finding a compromise between your budget and what you place the most importance on. For me, the two most important things with a ring are ensuring that the ring setting is right (this is the most important factor in what a ring actually looks like), and the getting a high cut grade, because this is by far and away the biggest determining factor on how well a stone sparkles.
Unless you go quite far down the scale, diamond color will have a surprisingly small effect on the appearance of a finished ring. So if you don’t feel the need to tick a box to get the ‘best’ stone that you can, even if it doesn’t have much of an effect on the impressiveness of the finished ring, then you shouldn’t pay extra for a stone that scores super-igh on the color scale.
Colorless stones in the D and E range cost a hefty premium over those that sit just below them in the scale, although they will appear pretty much exactly the same when mounted. So, if you’re looking for a bright white stone then G color is a good bet.
If you want to save money but still want to get a stone that looks white then H or I will do the job pretty much just as well. If you are looking for a warmer tone (and some people do prefer this) then J – L could work.
As I mentioned, it’s the cut of the stone that affects how much it sparkles, not the color. Saving money on the color of your stone may mean that you have extra money to go towards a better cut, or even bump up the carat of the stone, both of which will make the ring more impressive to someone who is looking at it.
Learn about the rest of the 4Cs
Find out why biggest isn’t always best
How to avoid paying over the odds
The most important ‘C’