For queer couples, engagement rings with subversive stones

Salt-and-pepper diamonds used to be a hard sell, according to jewelry designer Lori Linkous Devine.

“They were the reject diamonds back in the day,” said Devine, founder of Lolide, who uses the gender-neutral courtesy title Mx. The stones’ gray color and mottled clarity were seen as flaws.

Devine, who lives in Seattle, has been making jewelry “for every gender and gender identity,” as she put it, since 2010. In 2016, she began to advertise her products specifically to LGBTQ customers. “It was after Trump was elected and I had a whole breakdown,” Devine said. “I started looking at what I can do with this business that will feel good.”

She soon noticed a trend among those clients, who she says now account for at least one-fourth of her business. When shopping for engagement rings, many want “the opposite of what a diamond is supposed to stand for,” she said, and are “seeking out the flawed.” As a result, Devine and other experts say once-overlooked stones such as salt-and-pepper diamonds, as well as other nontraditional varieties, have become more coveted.

“Gone are the days where we want to look like everybody else,” said Kristen Palladino, who with her spouse, Maria Palladino, runs Equally Wed, a digital magazine with a focus on LGBTQ weddings. “The trend among couples featured on Equally Wed is to wear jewelry that is special to them.”

Beyond the traditional

When Tim Bell, a human resources manager at Prudential Financial, and Joshua Farrar, a senior associate of client operations at Daybreak Health, became engaged in March, Bell, 30, proposed using an inexpensive ring knowing that Farrar, 29, wanted to pick out a proper engagement ring on his own.

For his actual ring, Farrar desired something unconventional. As a gay man, “I’ve been defying what I’ve been expected to do my whole life,” he said, adding, “The symbol of love that’s on my left hand, it needs to be a reflection of that.” Another requirement was that the ring have a stone.

Farrar, who lives with Bell in New York, said “the normal, clear, standard engagement diamond” did not interest him. He was instead drawn to cognac diamonds, which can have a range of gold, brown and amber hues that Farrar said “achieved the masculine and feminine quality” he sought in a center stone.

When Farrar met with some jewelers in New York’s diamond district, they questioned his preference for cognac diamonds, telling him that their saturated color makes them inferior in clarity, a traditional marker of diamond quality. “You don’t want that,” Farrar said of their advice. “But I do want that,” he told the jewelers in reply.

Farrar took his search to Automic Gold, a jewelry brand in New York that he had first encountered on Instagram. In emails with the line’s designer, AL Sandimirova, who is known for making inclusive jewelry, Farrar discussed his vision for his engagement ring.

Sandimirova presented Farrar with a selection of cognac diamonds as well as a salt-and-pepper diamond. Farrar said the latter stone “just spoke to him,” and he ultimately went with a salt-and-pepper diamond ring.

A salt-and-pepper diamond was also the stone chosen by Roxy Valle, a 31-year-old a drag king performer who has worked in television production, when designing an engagement ring for Taylor Orci, 39, a television screenwriter and story editor. The couple, who live in Los Angeles, were married in July.

Valle, who is transgender and nonbinary, cited the stone’s unconventionality as one reason she chose to use it in the ring for Orci, who is nonbinary. Valle also liked how, compared with a clear diamond, the salt-and-pepper variety has a subtler sparkle.

“It has a great granitelike reflection on it, which is bright, but also rugged and rough,” said Valle, who paid $2,250 for the ring from Kris Averi, a jewelry line in New York.

Haley Biemiller, co-founder of the jewelry line Venvs, which specializes in “atypical” stones including salt-and-pepper diamonds, said another style favored by the brand’s queer clients was moissanite. Grown in labs, moissanite looks more like a clear diamond and is almost as durable, she explained, but “sparkles a little bit more like a rainbow.” A half-carat moissanite sells for around $400 at Venvs, while a 2.25-carat stone can cost $1,500, according to the line’s other co-founder, Sam Indelicato.

Biemiller and Indelicato started Venvs in Rochester, New York, in 2020, after Biemiller’s experience shopping for an engagement ring for her same-sex partner. At the jeweler she visited, Biemiller said she felt overlooked by the sales staff, a number of whom made a point to approach a male customer who walked in after she did.

“They assume that a woman is just window shopping,” Biemiller said. “So they don’t give you the time of day.”

Gender-neutral choices

Although salt-and-pepper diamonds and moissanite have become popular, jewelers including Kris Harvey, the designer of Kris Averi, say most of their LGBTQ customers seeking engagement rings with stones prefer varieties that neither are related to diamonds nor bear resemblance to them. Those clients tend to choose sapphires — and often Montana sapphires.

While sapphires are known for their blue color, Montana sapphires can be yellow, pink, gray or teal. Like traditional sapphires, the Montana variety can be bicolor, meaning an individual stone has two hues, and some can change colors depending on the light, said Emily Chelsea, who designs a namesake line of jewelry in Philadelphia.

“The Montana sapphires that I’m drawn to usually show three colors,” Chelsea said, adding that Montana-sapphire rings from her line start at $1,500 and can cost as much as $8,500.

LGBTQ clients account for 65% of Chelsea’s customers and are generally not interested in following heteronormative traditions. “We aren’t seeing that,” Chelsea said. “We tell people all the time, do whatever the hell you want.”

Although they look different from diamonds, sapphires are nearly as durable. The same cannot be said for opal, a vibrant but softer stone that several jewelers say has become another diamond alternative. “Queer people really like all of the unique, shiny, colorful stones,” said Sandimirova, of Automic Gold, where 1-carat Ethiopian opals sell for around $180 and 1-carat Australian opals, which are of higher quality, cost $750.

Because opals are about twice as soft as diamonds, they are more susceptible to breaking and can start to deteriorate within two years, Sandimirova said. For these reasons, Devine, the Lolide designer, won’t make rings with opal and Biemiller urges clients to consider something sturdier.

Moss agate, which is slightly harder than opal, has also risen in demand. The stone can be clear or have a semitranslucent milky-white tone, and it features stringy green inclusions that give it a mossy appearance. Allison Ullmer said it was a popular choice among LGBTQ customers at Ringed, her business in Portland, Oregon, which leads workshops for couples who want to make their own engagement rings.

Ringed’s moss agates range from 2.5 to 3.5 in carat weight and retail for $240 to $400. Because the stone can also start to deteriorate within years, Ullmer requires customers who want to use it to purchase two versions of their ring (one is a backup).

Ullmer, who said LGBTQ clients accounted for almost 40% of her customers, attributed moss agate’s appeal to the stone being less flashy and more “gender neutral” than others used in engagement rings.

She added that when a customer came to Ringed looking to design jewelry that is gender neutral, she immediately asked them to define the term for her. “I’m not making one assumption about how they define that,” Ullmer said.

Harvey said defining gender-neutral jewelry could even be hard for some of her clients who asked for it. Which is why choosing an engagement ring, she added, is “about honoring your identity, from your presentation to your pronouns,” no matter the stone, cut or band.

At the Emily Chelsea jewelry store in Philadelphia and on the brand’s website, “We don’t call any of our rings ‘engagement rings’ or ‘wedding bands’ or men’s and women’s bands,” Chelsea said. Instead, her company uses the terms “wide bands,” “thin bands” and “rings with a center stone,” all of which recall the more inclusive language that some couples are using to define themselves and their unions.

As she put it, “anyone can wear any ring.”

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