5 stars out of 5
Jamesallen.com was founded in 1998 by James Allen Schultz and his wife Michele. It’s easy to just throw out a year like that without paying attention to what that means, but if you think about it, 1998 truly is eons ago in Internet years. When they founded, they were then known at “dirtcheapdiamonds.com” and they were essentially one of the first successful diamond jewelry sites online. As with Blue Nile, JA was created because its founder was very dissatisfied with his personal search for an engagement ring. After their launch in 1998, DCD grew rapidly and very quickly established itself as one of the premier online engagement ring stores. In 2005, they relaunched their site as JamesAllen.com (a very welcome change, in my humble opinion). The old name simply didn’t reflect the direction the site was moving in – higher quality GIA and AGS certified true ideal cut diamonds.
This is precisely where the site has arrived today – the premier source online for ideal cut GIA and AGS certified diamonds.
Even though I now have a number of Diamond Vendor Site Review articles up on the site, I have decided to treat this James Allen review differently from the rest. The reason is simple – I believe these James Allen and Blue Nile exist in their own category. They are the titans of online diamond sales. There are several very high quality niche sites that I recommend, but for the average American consumer looking for an engagement ring, the answer in 95% of cases is one of these two sites. So in this review, you will read a lot of comparisons to Blue Nile.
JA’s business model is very similar to that of Blue Nile. Like BN, JA works with a group of wholesale diamond vendors that virtually list their diamonds on JA for JA to sell as their own. As with Blue Nile, this listing is seamless and fully integrated so that the consumer never really knows that the diamonds he’s browsing don’t actually belong to James Allen. Also like Blue Nile, James Allen attempts to secure exclusivity agreements with their vendors so that the same diamonds that will be found on James Allen will not be found on other diamond sites.
The similarities in business models, however, end there. There is one extremely crucial fundamental philosophical divergence between the two companies – and I believe this is what makes James Allen a superior company to Blue Nile. The difference is this: while Blue Nile prides itself on the size of its massive “inventory” and is continuously striving to expand it, James Allen prides itself on its closeness to its inventory.
You see, James Allen will only forge relationships with diamond vendors that have an office and a real diamond inventory within walking distance to James Allen’s New York diamond office. So while Blue Nile will pride themselves on having vendors all over the world that can ship diamonds directly to their customers, James Allen will pride themselves on the ability to touch every diamond in their inventory. You’ll notice that when I use the word “inventory” in reference to Blue Nile, it’s always in quotes and when I use it in reference to James Allen it’s not in quotes. I believe this usage is justified – while James Allen might not own all the diamonds they list, they most certainly have physical access to all the diamonds they list – and that’s really all that matters from the consumer’s perspective.
As of the writing of this article, James Allen had 27,262 diamonds listed in their inventory, while Blue Nile had 76,093 diamonds listed in their “inventory.” That’s certainly an impressive number, but when you think about it, someone going online to buy a diamond for an engagement ring is really only looking for one diamond. When the choices become that varied and numerous, the vast “inventory” becomes more cumbersome and counter-productive than helpful. I’ve had many email conversations with customers who simply feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of diamonds on Blue Nile. And the greatest irony is that since it’s Blue Nile and not JA with the massive “inventory,” there is no real way to distinguish between all those thousands of diamonds since Blue Nile is missing the single greatest advantage James Allen holds over them: high quality magnified photographs of their diamond inventory.
As you can now plainly see, Blue Nile’s business model precludes even the possibility of them ever having photographs on their site. They have simply spread their web too far and wide for them to have any meaningful control over their “inventory.”
Ironically, the one area where BlN seems to clearly have JA beat is in their “inventory” of the more off-the-beaten-path diamond shapes. At this moment, for example, James Allen only has 664 Oval shaped diamonds in their inventory, whereas Blue Nile has 2,553 Oval shapes in their “inventory.” Likewise in Marquise shapes, Blue Nile has James Allen beat 1,364 to 560. And in Heart Shapes, it’s 604 to 44. Herein lies the irony. It’s precisely with these shapes as opposed to the more popular shapes (like Round, Princess, Emerald, and Asscher) that the need for a photograph becomes an absolute necessity – even for a flawless diamond.
With Rounds and the various rectangular shaped diamonds, once you know the diameter or LxW, you pretty much know how the diamond looks (of course, you still need the pictures to evaluate clarity and proportions). But this is not so with these other shapes. There are no measurements on a certificate that will tell you how flat the shoulders are of a Heart Shape, or how boxy an oval is, or the slope of the curve around a Marquise shaped diamond. There are no numbers that will tell you whether or not the Oval you’re looking to buy has a bow-tie effect or not. Similarly, without a picture, you’ll never know if that Cushion cut you’re considering has a “crushed-ice” look or not. And the fact is regarding these fancy shapes that the vast majority of what’s out there is really and truly ugly. When I get requests for help finding Ovals or Pears, I always have to sift through at least 20 diamonds before I find one that I like.
For purposes of this James Allen review, I decided to see what it would be like myself to order an engagement ring from them. As with my Blue Nile review, I ordered a J SI2 Excellent cut GIA certified diamond mounted in a basic white gold solitaire setting. Also with JA, I ordered using a pseudonym.
Since I had already reviewed James Allen’s customer support in my diamond stud earrings article, I simply placed the order online.
Of all the vendors I have reviewed to date (both in my product reviews and in the site reviews), James Allen stands head and shoulders above all of the competition when it comes to packaging.
When you peel open the Fedex box that the James Allen product is shipped in, a full sized thick board box slides out embossed with the name “James Allen” and the red butterfly James Allen logo (see Figure 1). This outer box is made to fit perfectly inside the Fedex box.
(Every other vendor either used basic package filler to make sure their pieces didn’t bounce around during shipping, or, in the case of Mazal and Blue Nile, they used special cut outs inside the basic brown cardboard box to hold the jewelry box secure.)
When you slide off the lid off this box, you’re faced with a full-sized foam insert with a space cut out of the very center for the polished hardwood jewelry box. On top of the foam lies the accompanying documentation – in my case, an appraisal, a GIA certificate, and an envelope containing the invoice and other documentation. Everything about this presentation is first class. This kind of attention to detail shows the consumer that James Allen has a deep commitment to quality and desires the highest level of service in every facet of the experience. And to top it all off, not only is James Allen’s packaging the classiest, it’s also by far the most secure.
The purpose of this review was to perform a head to head comparison between James Allen and Blue Nile. The reason is simply that these two companies exist in a class unto themselves. While there are now probably well over 50 sites on the internet selling loose diamonds, none come close to James Allen and Blue Nile in terms of market share. Furthermore, James Allen and Blue Nile both posses something completely unique – unlike every other online diamond vendor (none of which are completely unique in any way). James Allen is the only vendor to function on the “virtual listing” model that also offers magnified photos of their inventory (there are several online vendors that actually own a portion of their inventory that offer photographs, but they are significantly more expensive as a result). Blue Nile, on the other hand, is the reigning champion when it comes to the size and exclusivity of their “inventory.”
So for purposes of this head to head competition, I ordered what amounted to basically the same product (at least on paper) from both James Allen and Blue Nile. Since with Blue Nile, I didn’t have the option of choosing the cleanest J SI2 I could find, I decided to go with the strategy of choosing the cheapest J SI2 I could find over one carat. With James Allen, on the other hand, my strategy was to find the cleanest eye-clean J SI2 one carat stone I could find. With both sites, I limited my search to GIA certified diamonds with Excellent cut grades.
Figures 4 and 5 are of the diamond’s certificate and magnified picture, respectively. As expected, the picture from James Allen accurately portrayed the diamond’s appearance in real life. As you can see in figure 5, the diamond was exceptionally clean for an SI2. The inclusions were all very faint and could only be seen when I examined the stone through a 10x jewelers loupe. The cut was likewise exceptional. The diamond was brilliant and lively.
As of this review, I’ve been running this site for about a year and a half. From the very outset, I’ve been sending most of my readers to James Allen. The reasons were simple – their prices are great, readers continue to report positive experiences with them, and (most of all) their pictures allow me to apply my experience to help my readers find eye clean SI clarity stones. (By the way, if you’re thinking that I must work for James Allen or have some other kind of affiliation with them, then please see the article entitled “Truth about Diamonds.Pro.”) Until now, though, my only direct experience with them as a customer was through Dan’s investigative reporting while performing the Diamond Stud Earrings Review. I felt it was important for me to experience first hand exactly what I have been recommending to my readers all along.
Needless to say, my experiences with James Allen as a customer most definitely reinforced my long-standing position that James Allen is the best source online for build-your-own diamond engagement rings and pre-set engagement rings. James Allen provided a superior experience and a much better diamond than Blue Nile – all at a better price.
My one criticism of James Allen, which I have brought up with them on more than one occasion, is that their selection of engagement ring setting styles is inferior to that of Blue Nile. It happens several times a week that I will receive an email from a reader who desires to buy a diamond from James Allen, but the setting they like is only available on Blue Nile. In the past year and a half, I don’t think I have ever heard the same complaint in the reverse. In most of these cases, the reader winds up convinced that ordering a similar ring custom made from James Allen will still result in a significant savings and a more confident diamond purchase. But, understandably so, many people would rather not have to deal with getting a ring custom made when it is readily available from another vendor.
Reviewed By Michael Fried