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Article updated: 2/7/2013 5:06 AM

Sure of wife choice, guys still fret about engagement ring

The "engagement season" is said to run from Thanksgiving through Valentine's Day, but Candice Milstein, owner of Wyatt Austin Jewelry in Schaumburg, says she sells lots of custom-made engagement rings during the summer after dating couples attend friends' weddings.

By Burt Constable

When superstar performing artist Justin Timberlake asked actress Jessica Biel to be his wife, he presented her with a custom-made diamond engagement ring he designed himself. Biel gushed to celebrity magazines about Timberlake's artistic flair with jewelry, said yes and married him.

Most men are not Justin Timberlake.

When a guy enters Wyatt Austin Jewelers in Schaumburg to buy an engagement ring, he generally doesn't have Timberlake's confidence.

"A lot of times it's hard for a guy to just walk into a jewelry store. He's very nervous about getting the wrong ring," says owner Candice Milstein. In the 29 years since she launched the business with her husband, Jeff, who died in 2011, engagement rings have dominated sales. But she's noticed that the typical man has no faith in his ability to pick out a ring on his own.

"I just had one guy bring in his future sister-in-law," Milstein says. "And just yesterday we had a guy bring in his parents. Sometimes we get a whole family in here. We have had occasions when he'll bring in her family."

Sometimes, the girlfriend drops plenty of not-too-subtle hints or even points out a ring she'd want if someone just happened to be proposing to her on Valentine's Day.

"If they have been told she already likes it, it makes it a lot easier," Milstein says. If not, Wyatt Austin has a CAD for that — a computer-assisted design computer program that lets shoppers design a virtual ring on a computer screen.

"They all come in with some idea of what she wants," Wyatt Austin jewelry designer Amy Rugg says of the men she helps. "Our job is to take it, their idea, and make it beautiful."

One man planning a surprise engagement sat with Rugg at her computer, hoping to come up with the perfect ring.

"He wanted a classic design, but he wanted to make it special," says Rugg, who asked him about the woman's favorite things.

"She's crazy about dolphins," the man said, "but I don't want to get her a dolphin ring."

The result was a ring that looked very much like a classic diamond engagement ring. But if you studied it closely, you'd see that the supports in the diamond setting were shaped like dolphin tails.

"She loved it," Rugg says, adding, "They were one of two couples we had that got engaged in front of the dolphin tank at Brookfield Zoo that day."

Who knew?

Rugg won a design award for a ring that looks like a miniature baseball and features real diamonds on a baseball diamond. That, you won't be surprised to hear, was a ring a guy had made for himself, not a bride-to-be. Some of Wyatt Austin's best work is rarely seen by anyone except the happy couple.

One man's tradition of texting a "You Are My Sunshine" message to his future bride's phone each morning resulted in an engagement ring featuring a gold sunshine icon embedded in the band under the diamond and hidden unless the woman removed the ring. Some wedding rings have the date carved into the band, which comes in handy for spouses who can't remember their anniversary, Milstein says.

Of the thousands of engagement rings she's sold, Milstein says she remembers only two cases when the woman said no. Of course, not everyone who gets engaged buys a ring.

Celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary next month, my wife and I remain happy with our decision to spend money on our honeymoon instead of on a diamond ring. But the absence of a ring did create some awkward moments. When we announced our engagement, people responded by saying, "Ooh, let's see." Expecting to see something sparkly on a finger, friends seemed disappointed when we just got all doe-eyed and gazed lovingly at each other.

But the adage about spending two or three months' salary on a setting isn't set in stone, Milstein says. "There are a lot of variables," she says.

While her typical customer might spend $4,000 to $6,000 on an engagement ring, a solitaire diamond ring starts at less than $200, and the most-expensive ring Wyatt Austin has crafted sold for six-figures. Which brings us back to Justin Timberlake and the typical suburban guy's chances of garnering a yes to his proposal on Valentine's Day. In addition to designing a personalized ring, you might follow another of Timberlake's leads: Build the ring around an 18-carat diamond.

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