Diamond Buying and the Four Cs, Part 2: Diamond Color
For most gem buyers, color is probably the most well known of the Four Cs of gem grading. However, diamond color grading can be confusing. Learn about the GIA color grading scale and how fluorescence and metal settings can impact diamond colors, as well as which combinations of color, clarity, cut, and carat to look for.
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Learn about the GIA color grading scale and how fluorescence and metal settings can impact the appearance of diamond colors. Since the Four Cs aren’t as distinct as they may seem, we’ll also recommend the combinations of color, clarity, cut, and carat to look for when buying a diamond.
The GIA Diamond Color Scale
The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) color scale for white or colorless diamonds ranges from grades D to Z. Any stone within that range falls within the “normal color range.”
The most highly valued diamonds have no color. Thus, the more color a stone has (yellow or brown), the lower the grade. Yellow or brown diamonds that make it past the Z grade, however, instantly go up in price. Such diamonds have enough color to be considered “fancy,” along with pink, green, and blue diamonds. (Once these diamonds have enough saturation to show these colors, they are automatically considered fancy).
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This article is also a part of our Diamond Fundamentals Mini Course, in the unit The Four Cs of Diamond Grading.
As with other diamond grading scales, diamond value goes up exponentially with each increase in grade. (Conversely, value goes down exponentially as the color grade decreases). Whereas diamonds of any carat size hold value and find use, diamonds between L and V color grades appear less often in jewelry.
The GIA D-Z scale is divided into five categories:
- Colorless — D, E, F.
- Near Colorless — G, H, I, J.
- Faint — K, L, M.
- Very Light — N, O, P, Q, R.
- Light — S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.
Of course, the most valuable diamond color is D. A diamond of this grade commands a premium simply because of its complete colorlessness.
You are probably familiar with the idea of diamonds being white. However, 98% of gem-quality diamonds actually contain some amount of yellow due to nitrogen impurities within the diamond.
All faintly yellow diamonds (not colorless and not fancy yellow) are called “Cape diamonds.” However, some jewelry lines will specifically market only stones of lower color grades, K to Z, as “Cape diamonds” in order to promote them as affordable alternatives to “non-Cape” diamonds.
Sometimes, vendors market W-Z color grade diamonds specifically as “lemonade” or near-fancy yellow diamonds.
Diamond Color Grades as Ranges
Consumers and vendors pay a great deal of attention to specific color grades when a stone sits on the high end of the scale. Once colors move past K, however, the grades are often given as ranges, such as U-V, W-X, and Y-Z.
Diamond Color Grades and Price Jumps
You’ll find an enormous price difference between a D and an E color diamond. The next biggest price difference lies between an F and a G color diamond. That’s understandable, as G falls into the “near colorless” rather than “colorless” category.
Just as diamonds have “magic number” carat sizes, they also have “magic letter” color grades. You can find great deals just below them. For example, G and H stones make great value choices. Although they’re not much darker than F, they’re much more affordable.
Stones with I, J, and K color are commercial quality. You’ll commonly see them in most jewelry stores, but high-end stores can carry them, too.
The Effect of Gold Colors on Diamond Color
Stones in the I, J, and K range start to look faintly yellow or brown, especially in larger carat sizes. Jewelers can disguise these colors, however, by setting the gems in yellow or rose gold. The color of the metal can make lower grade stones look whiter in contrast.
Use White Gold Settings for High Diamond Color Stones
Interestingly enough, yellow or rose gold settings do the opposite for stones of higher color grades. For stones G and above, the reflections of yellow or rose gold colors make the diamonds look warmer in tone. Therefore, a high-color grade diamond, if set in yellow or rose gold, is wasted. This will make the diamond appear to have the same tone as a stone with a lower color grade.
- For a yellow or rose gold setting, purchase a lower color grade stone.
- For a white gold setting, purchase a higher color grade stone.
Settings with Multiple Gold Colors
Of course, jewelers have become very conscious of the effect of metal colors on gems. As a result, rings with shanks of one color and bridges or prongs of another have become increasingly popular. For example, someone who wants to enhance or preserve the white color of a stone can set it with a white gold bridge and prongs, while using yellow or rose gold for the shank. This way, stones will appear whiter, whether high or low-colored, due to the white gold base beneath the stone, while the darker yellow or rose gold color of the shank will make the stones appear even whiter in contrast.
Buying Diamonds Below J Color
Before purchasing a diamond below J in color, keep in mind that the brown or yellow color will be fairly noticeable. Generally, buying diamonds below J isn’t advised.
Nevertheless, some people prefer the soft, mellow look of a faintly yellow diamond as opposed to the hard, icy brilliance of a white diamond. Perhaps for these consumers, the pale yellow color has pleasant associations, such as candlelight. If this describes you, you still shouldn’t pay too much for diamonds of this color, despite the positive vibes they give.
If you’re considering a diamond below I in color for budget reasons, fluorescence may be your friend.
The Aurora Butterfly of Peace diamond collection contains 240 natural, fancy colored diamonds, total weight 167 cts. Some of the stones are fluorescent. The collection is shown in daylight and under ultraviolet light. Photos by Abronsteinwiki. Licensed under CC By-SA 3.0. (Slide show created to highlight fluorescence).
A third of all diamonds fluoresce, and 90% of fluorescent diamonds fluoresce blue. In diamonds with high color grades, especially D-F, strong fluorescence is undesirable since it can make them appear milky.
Fluorescent diamonds with higher color grades cost 15% less than non-fluorescent diamonds. On the other hand, diamonds of I color and below actually increase slightly in price if fluorescent. Since blue is complementary to yellow, medium to strong blue fluorescence can cancel out some of the yellow color.
This price boost is limited to blue fluorescence because, needless to say, yellow or green fluorescence will increase a stone's yellow color. However, when a stone reaches the fancy color range, yellow fluorescence becomes desirable.
Professional Diamond Color Grading
For the average consumer, differentiating diamonds with color G and above proves difficult. (Try it for yourself in this diamond color sorting quiz!) So, how do professional diamond graders tell the difference? They use a master set of diamonds. These include stones representing the lightest possible color for each diamond color grade.
Color Master Sets
When grading a diamond, professionals compare it with different stones in the master set. First, they identify the two master stones between which the test stone’s color lies. One is lighter than the test stone, the other darker. They then assign the test stone the color grade of the lighter master stone. For example, if a test diamond’s color lies between G and H, it’s a G color stone. (G is lighter than H. Remember that the master stone shows the lightest possible color for its grade. So, G has many slightly darker gradations before the color reaches H).
Table Down or Table Up?
When evaluating diamonds in the normal color range, professionals place the stones table or face down. They do this because color looks more concentrated through the pavilion, and graders look for lack of color in these diamonds. In contrast, they grade fancy colored diamonds table or face up. In these stones, graders look for a maximum amount of color.
White Light and Neutral Colors
The master set diamonds sit in a white tray shaped like an angular trough that can rock backwards and forwards. The white tray itself sits in a gray light box that shines white light on the diamonds. Neutral colors are always used during diamond grading, because diamonds reflect the colors around them. Even wearing red, yellow, blue, or other bright colors while grading will throw off accuracy.
Diamond Color and Recommendations for Other Diamond Qualities
- Ideally, pair diamond colors of D, E, or F with clarity grades of F (flawless), IF, VVS1, or VVS2, especially if the diamond matches or exceeds one carat in size.
- Diamond color of G, H, or I should be paired with VVS2, VS1, or VS2 clarity. Pair J, K, and L with SI1 or lower.
- A stone smaller than one carat can have a color grade of I, J, or maybe even K without appearing too yellow.
Assessing Diamond Color Online
Just like clarity and cut, it's essential to see the diamond's color before you buy. Since color grades of colorless diamonds are based on body color, these grades can be misleading. What's important is the face-up color, which you can only judge in accurate pictures or videos.
Better yet, James Allen has hundreds of examples of different color diamonds in different ring settings. If you're not sure whether the color will show, see what others have used in the same setting.
Phoebe Shang, GG
A gem lover and writer, Phoebe holds a graduate gemologist degree from the Gemological Institute of America and masters in writing from Columbia University. She got her start in gemology translating and editing Colored Stone and Mineral Highlights for a professor based in Shanghai. Whether in LA, Taipei, or New York, Phoebe spends her time searching for gems to design and being lost in good books.
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