What does diamond clarity really mean? For most of us, when we think of clarity we think of the opaqueness of glass. After all glass is all around us in our homes and at our place of work, and it wouldn’t be unusual to look out a window and notice that it’s dirty, spotty, or even frosted by design. However, those elements are NOT what we refer to when we talk about diamond clarity.
Diamond clarity refers to the internal crystal inclusions that exist in most diamonds, as well as surface blemishes that are caused by wear, cutting, and surface reaching crystal structures. These are commonly called “inclusions” and “blemishes.”
Throughout the site we use the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) system for diamond grading. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main one is that GIA is the most respected diamond grading lab in the world and the creator of the four C’s of Color, Cut, Clarity and Carat weight. Before 1953, the point where the GIA diamond grading system came into existence, there was a lot of confusion about diamonds and diamond grading. Instead of having 11 grading scales (discussed below) jewelers used terms like “clear” “less clear” “spotty” and “hazy” to describe clarity characteristics. But with the introduction of the GIA diamond grading system, the diamond market had a universal and accurate measure that captured the elements of clarity so that a jeweler in Montréal, can deliver a diamond to a buyer in Miami, and that buyer will be assured that the diamond purchased met the standards described to him/her before committing to buying the stone.
The GIA clarity scale uses an 11-point system broken down into six broad categories. The six categories are:
Throughout this article, we talk about two viewing methods, the naked eye and 10X magnification. The naked eye means just that, looking at the diamond with human, 20:20 vision. At a cocktail party, walking down the street in direct sunlight, under a special jewelry light to bring out the sparkle – in fact any light source at all. This makes sense because when traveling the planet, our diamond will be viewed under many different light sources, so when we talk about viewing the diamond with the naked eye, we’re talking about all of them. But why is the other standard measured using 10X magnification? Why not 25X or 40X or 5X or 2X? The reason comes down to tradition more than anything else. A jeweler’s loupe provides 10X magnification. This little device is portable and hasn’t changed much in 100 years. When the diamond grading labs started setting standards, they set them with existing technology in mind, i.e. a jeweler’s loupe.
Earlier we discussed clarity in terms of inclusions (crystals inside the diamond) and blemishes (surface markings created either by man, or surface reaching crystals). This section will discuss clarity characteristics in more detail.
there are five factors that determine the overall impact that an individual clarity characteristic has on a diamond’s appearance and grade:
Size has a lot to do with the visibility of an inclusion. Many are microscopic, others are far from it. The larger the size, more visible the inclusion becomes.
The more inclusions in a diamond, the greater the chance that you will see them face up, either under 10 X magnification, or with the unaided eye, depending on their size and placement. This is particularly true if they are clustered together.
Location refers to the position of the inclusion. Those directly under the table (the middle), have a greater likelihood that they will be seen.
Relief refers to the contrast between the inclusion and the diamond. Relief can vary from high, or more obvious, to low, or less obvious. Generally, the more the inclusion differs in brightness, darkness, or color from the diamond, the more visible it is, and the greater the impact on the clarity grade.
Nature refers to the type of characteristic. Inclusions generally have more impact on clarity than blemishes and certain types of inclusions have a greater impact than others.
The size, number, location, relief, and nature of the clarity factors can be quite confusing. Fortunately, the diamond owner does not need to be an expert in these matters, because the diamond grading lab that assigns the grade to the stone has trained staff to do this for you. The only thing that the buyer needs to decide is where they want to sit on the diamond grading scale using the broad categories of Flawless, Internally Flawless, Very Very Slightly Included, Very Slightly Included, Slightly Included, or Included. Then fine tuning with the subcategories contained within each category becomes easy.
Can most people tell the difference? Down to VS2 or SI1 not really. This means that if you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, you want either a VS2 or SI1 graded diamond. Our personal preference is VS2 because at the SI1 level inclusions and blemishes start to become more noticeable when looking at the diamond underside (the Pavilion). At the SI2 grade the blemishes and inclusions start to become noticeable to the naked eye when looking down upon the crown of the diamond.
Price in the diamond world is related to scarcity. A flawless diamond exists in 1/5000 stones. Yet, the average buyer looking down upon and SI1 stone, which is considerably more common, would not be able to tell the clarity difference from a Flawless grade diamond, all other things being equal. So, the trade-off is in the mind’s eye unless you are going to regularly view the stone under 10X magnification.
To give you an idea of the difference, we went to James Allen (our favorite online discount diamond dealer) and priced out a Flawless Clarity diamond, with the best Color (D), the best Cut (ideal), and 1 Carat total weight. The return on the James Allen search came back with 9 diamonds that ranged from $14-$19,000. See results here.
We ran the same exact search with the same exact parameters, changed “Flawless” to “VS2” and James Allen returned 245 stones that started at $6800. See results here.
In other words, for no change in the naked eye appearance, the starting price was less than half.
We then changed to the SI2 level, where inclusions and blemishes start to become noticeable with the naked eye. The price for the same sized diamond, with the same color and cut characteristics halved again to $3500. See results here.
How do you choose which diamond clarity grade is best for you? It comes down to how “perfect” you want the diamond to be. If you are a diamond aficionado, and clarity means more than what you see when you look at the stone, then you want to move closer to the “Flawless” or “Internally Flawless” grade. If you want a great diamond that shows well, then VS2 or SI1 are the grades that you should choose. If size is all that matters, then SI2 is probably the way to go. We don’t recommend anything below SI2.
It’s important to know that while clarity is a big determinant in the appearance of the diamond, it is not the only factor. The number 1 determinant of a diamond’s beauty, according to most people, is the diamond cut itself. Still, you can have a beautifully cut diamond but if it has a big black spot right in the center of the stone, that will detract from the overall appearance and give the wearer a less than optimal feeling about a very special gift. All else being equal, we recommend that you stick with a diamond that has a clarity grade of VS2 or better. Slipping down one is probably okay if the stone is mounted face up and the setting does not allow the wearer or her friends to see the diamond from the Pavilion.