|Michael Fried||Visit Site||Overall Score:4.67||Price:4.5||Selection:4.5||Customer Service:5||Pros||Cons|
Bottom Line: James Allen is the best place to buy diamonds, period. Before you shop for your ring, check out their Inspiration Gallery for real images of rings people have recently purchased to help you choose the perfect setting and diamond.
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.
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, the site grew rapidly and very quickly established itself as one of the premier online engagement ring stores.
Rebranding to JamesAllen.com
In 2005, they relaunched their site as JamesAllen.com. The old name simply didn’t reflect the direction the site was moving in – higher quality GIA and AGS certified true ideal cut diamonds.
They also started to take their engagement ring line very seriously. They started to offer some stunning settings like this delicate crossover pave setting. They also started to partner with established designers so they can bring you something like this gorgeous Verragio setting.
Even though I now have a number of 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 that 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.
Similarities Between James Allen and 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.
James Allen also attempts to secure exclusivity agreements with their vendors so that the same diamonds on James Allen will not be found on other diamond sites.
1) Differences Between James Allen and Blue Nile
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:
While Blue Nile prides itself on the size of its massive inventory and is continuously striving to expand it, James Allen focuses more on the user experience relating to the diamonds in their inventory.
James Allen has invested millions in their imaging technology. They have installed the high-tech setup in all of their New York based suppliers and require a high-quality interactive video of each diamond to be taken before it is allowed to be listed on their site. In India, they have opened an office that photographs their suppliers’ diamonds 24/7.
2) Inventory Quality vs Quantity
As of the writing of this article, James Allen had 115,424 diamonds listed in their inventory, while Blue Nile had 151,925 diamonds listed in their inventory.
Those are both certainly impressive numbers, 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 inventories becomes more cumbersome and counter-productive than helpful – unless you have access to high quality images that can help you navigate the flood of inventory.
I’ve had many email conversations with customers who simply feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of diamonds on Blue Nile and have no real way to tell them apart. This can also be intimidating here. Feel free to contact us and we’ll help pick out the best diamond for you.
3) Setting Selection and Quality
As with all the reputable online retailers, James Allen has a wide and varied collection of settings. Multiple secret shoppings I’ve done (for this review, follow up testing and when my partner Ira shot the video in Times Square for the color and clarity articles) left us very impressed with the quality and craftsmanship of James Allen’s settings.
One useful tool James Allen has is their Inspiration Gallery. Often we have readers ask us for guidance on setting and shape choice. This helps people experience different styles and see the combination of diamond and ring.
4) Photographic Evaluation
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 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.
With their fantastic videos, you are able to compare these diamonds properly. Take a look at these two diamonds. This perfect oval cut is absolutely stunning. On the other, using their technology, you know you can avoid this oval cut with ugly windowing.
5) Fancy Shapes Require Photography
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.
6) James Allen’s Packaging Compared to Others
(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.
7) First Class Presentation
Underneath the foam lies a drawer containing the accompanying documentation – in my case, an appraisal, a GIA certificate, and an envelope containing the invoice and other documentation. Also included is a polishing cloth and a Hearts & Arrows scope (for those who order their True Hearts diamonds).
The box is meant to be kept as a handsome and functional jewelry box for this ring and other jewelry you may have.
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).
8) Unique Online Vendor Qualities
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 best 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.
9) Accurate Portrayal
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.
10) Exclusive CanadaMark Supplier
In mid-2017, James Allen signed a contract to be the exclusive online distributor of CanadaMark Diamonds. This has been a huge addition for them. Many of our readers are looking for a diamond with a traceable link back to a specific mine.
While the diamond industry on a whole has made great strides combating conflict-diamonds and have made their own pipelines more secure, CanadaMark diamonds have the highest regard for ethical and environmental standards.
11) Marked Improvement in Jewelry Line
One area where we used to struggle when recommending James Allen was non-engagement jewelry. To be sure, their jewelry was gorgeous, their craftsmanship was impeccable and their diamond quality was spot on. But for several years James Allen was focusing on expanding their engagement ring line while their non-bridal options were limited. That is no longer the case.
After seeing significant improvements in the breadth of their jewelry lines, I felt compelled to add this section in the review. Not only is their quality still top notch, but they have a significantly expanded and varied jewelry line on their site.
For the purpose of this review, I focused on three major non-engagement sectors. We are going to look at tennis bracelets, eternity bands and diamond pendants.
I was helping a reader of ours pick out a tennis bracelet when I stumbled across this stunner. I loved the style and was very impressed with the craftsmanship and diamonds. I wanted to take a closer look for myself, so we decided to secret shop James Allen one more time.
Up close, the bracelet looked even more impressive. It’s never easy to match so many diamonds but they all fit perfectly. The prongs were also very well made and each diamond was perfectly secure in the bracelet. This bracelet is an incredible value for the price they were offering at.
The eternity bands did not disappoint as well. Despite being on the lower end in price, the brilliance and sparkle were amazing on this ring. The quality grades were spot on and the ring seemed to be a perfect complement to an engagement ring.
The pendants were a bit trickier. As we mention in our pendant buying guide, you have to be a little more careful when selecting a center diamond. We have already reviewed selecting a diamond from James Allen, so we just asked for a pendant with a CZ in it so we can judge the quality of the mounting. The design and craftsmanship on this one was stunning as well.
How to buy a diamond ring on James Allen
Despite all of our educational content, it still may be a bit confusing to navigate the diamond buying process. The easiest way to find the perfect diamond is to contact us. One of our diamond consultants will be happy to guide you through the process personally and make specific recommendations for you.
When buying a diamond, there are three questions to answer that will determine which diamond is best for you. These are questions we can’t answer for you. What is your budget, what shape diamond you want as your center stone and what type of setting will you be putting it in.
The first question you need to answer is how much do you want to spend. No one can help you with this one. DeBeers has run some fantastic marketing campaigns implying that you should spend two months salary. We’ve even had readers ask us whether the rule changed and it’s now three months. Well there is no rule. That is just marketing. You should spend what you are comfortable spending.
The next question is what shape do you prefer. This is another one that we can’t really help you with. There are general principles. A round diamond will always be the most brilliant. It will also be the most expensive per carat weight (you should read our size article to see why that is a bit deceiving). But we can’t really choose a shape for you as that depends on personal style and preference.
The last one is what style setting do you want. This is important to know before selecting the diamond for two reasons. First, you have to have a general idea how much the setting will eat into your overall budget. You don’t want to select a diamond only to find that there is no way to fit that diamond and the setting you want in your budget. Second, the setting style can affect which color grade you should be searching for in your diamond as we explain here.
If you are having trouble settling on a setting style, check out James Allen’s inspiration gallery. That is a fantastic page to give you ideas and help you make a decision.
Once you have the answer to these three questions, all that is left is to put the proper filters in James Allen’s diamond search. Be sure to follow our cut, certificate and fluorescence guidelines as a mistake here will negatively impact the look of your diamond.
Once you have the search filters put in, the final step is pick out the cheapest eye-clean diamond in your range. This is the most difficult part of the process and is more of an art than a science. Our diamond consultants have selected tens of thousands of diamonds each and there is still a little bit of grey area for them. If you are unsure about your selection, don’t hesitate to contact us and we can confirm if the diamond is eye-clean or not.
Since creating this site, 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 The Diamond Pro.”)
Until this review, 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 engagement rings.
James Allen provided a superior experience and a much better diamond than Blue Nile – all at a better price.
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