Everybody must get stones

A rite of passage: boy to man; girl to woman. Ah, the pressures of prospective marriage can be just as daunting as they are exciting.

Shopping for that special engagement ring, for instance, can be about as much fun as sticking your head in a bag full of angry squirrels. For the rookie, visions of love can become suddenly mired in numeric and alphabetical grading systems, paths of lights and tough-to-spot blemishes — plus the requisite two-whole-months’ worth of salary, of course. Love is grand — maybe even two or three grand.

Still, buying that diamond is something you don’t want to screw up. When you drop to your knees in front of 50 witnesses, you definitely want that special someone to say yes. For those truly in love — and you know who you are — maybe little things like rings shouldn’t matter; even so, you don’t want to take a chance on anything obstructing marital bliss.

To help readers grasp the challenge at hand, we tagged along on several outings with young Benjamin Townes (not his real name, because he hasn’t popped the question yet) as he delved into the dizzying business of cut, color and clarity. “I probably spent the last five weeks actively shopping for a ring,” he notes, pointing out the evolving inventories, sales and special promotions he’s recently tackled at more than 15 local jewelry stores.

“I’d say the range was from the kind of down-home, sort of Southern-neighborly approach to selling — like the Karat Patch in Weaverville — to the formal approach, the epitome of [which] was Wick & Greene, where they had the security guard,” Townes elaborates. “It sort of made you feel like you were doing something really important — a ‘let’s open up the vault’ kind of feeling.”

From the beginning, Townes showed a marked preference for stores that showed him loose diamonds (as opposed to those already set).

“Select[ing] your own settings … opens it up to your imagination,” he explains. “And the mounting and the stone are really two separate items, anyway, and they can mount any stone to any setting. Jewels That Dance is probably a good place for that.”

The search was intimidating, Townes admits, revealing that getting used to handling the “hot rocks” was particularly nerve-shattering.

“I was worried I was going to drop them,” he confesses. “I would get nervous while comparing, say, three or four diamonds, and you realize that you have a year’s worth of salary in your hands.”

And why are they so costly, anyway? Paul Greene, of the venerable Wick & Greene Jewelers, explains that to find a one-carat diamond, you have to cut and sift through 52 tons of stone. Here’s a man who knows a little something about precious stones: When he got out of the Navy in 1947, Greene rode a motorcycle from San Francisco to Asheville, where he began an apprenticeship in engraving and jewelry making. He’s still here (he has missed only seven days of work in his entire career), and his myriad accomplishments include making a gift from then-North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford to the president of Mexico in 1961 — as well as crafting the Rev. Billy Graham’s 50th-anniversary gift to his wife.

“Each article I sell, I get excited about,” says the soft-spoken Greene. “I love my business. Otherwise, I couldn’t have been here for 50 years.”

To be sure, he’s unhanded a lot of diamonds during all that time, but there’s one sale Greene remembers as particularly special: In 1975, he received a telephone order from a man living in Hawaii. The fellow requested an engagement ring to be made for his fiancee, Tracy Chandler, a weather forecaster on an Asheville television station.

“When he came into the store to pick it up, she was with him, and he proposed to her right here,” Greene recalls fondly.

The Wick & Greene experience is one of ambiance and professionalism, an eccentric mixture of classical music and lab coats. One senses it’s maybe not the place for amateurs, but if you’re in the right tax bracket, you can purchase what Greene says are some of the finest diamonds in the world here — Hearts On Fire diamonds. They range in price from $10,000 to $100,000.

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