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In a world of diamonds, it is easy to become overwhelmed by technical terminologies, charts and scales. Although I often emphasize the absolute necessity of diamond grading, it is always important to remind yourself what these grades look like and mean, beyond words and letters on a certification.
A true understanding of clarity grading goes beyond choosing a VS1 because it’s a ‘good’ grade. In fact, an understanding of the differences between shapes, carat weight, color and the grades themselves will enable you to make better choices when buying a diamond. The information you will find here will set you ahead of sales staff and help you to find a better price and a higher quality diamond.
What is a Diamond Clarity Grading?
As diamonds are naturally formed within the earth’s surface and subject to intense heat and pressure, they form small, internal and external imperfections. These are known as blemishes (external) and inclusions (internal).
Almost all diamonds have inclusions but they range from extremely visible and heavy to entirely imperceptible to the naked eye. In order to better determine the quality of a diamond, the GIA created a scale of 11 grades.
The clarity is graded under a 10x magnification. The preliminary grader will note all visible inclusions and blemishes and plot their findings on a diamond inclusion plot. The diamond is then tested by several more graders who give their own findings and also note any clarity characteristics. The data from each independent grader is then collected and compared and a final grade is given.
It is a long and stringent process and this is just one of the many reasons that the GIA is one of the most widely respected gem laboratories in the world. Their grading are accurate and consistent and provide essential information for a diamond buyer.
What are the Diamond Clarity Grading?
The GIA determines the 11 clarity grading as follows:
- Flawless (FL) – No inclusions or blemishes are visible to a skilled grader using 10× magnification
- Internally Flawless (IF) – No inclusions and only blemishes are visible to a skilled grader using 10× magnification
- Very, Very Slightly Included (VVS1 and VVS2) – Inclusions are difficult for a skilled grader to see under 10× magnification
- Very Slightly Included (VS1 and VS2) – Inclusions are minor and range from difficult to somewhat easy for a skilled grader to see under 10x magnification
- Slightly Included (SI1 and SI2) – Inclusions are noticeable to a skilled grader under 10x magnification
- Included (I1, I2, and I3) – Inclusions are obvious under 10× magnification and may affect transparency and brilliance
Your GIA certified diamond will be issued with one of the above grades, and your paperwork will also include a diamond inclusions plot.
Despite the fantastic data offered by the GIA, your certificate will not give you a clear determination of how a diamond actually looks.
Whiteflash always lists if the diamond is eye-clean or not in their Diamond Details section. For example: 0.804ct I VS2 A CUT ABOVE® Heart and Arrows Diamond.
An eye-clean diamond describes a stone in which no inclusions or blemishes can be seen with the naked eye. Choosing a diamond with a clarity grading of IF, VVS1, VVS2 and VS1 will ensure an eye-clean stone, however be prepared to pay a huge percentage more for stones with these clarity grading.
A Closer Comparison of Diamond Clarity Grading
In the diamond world, seeing is believing. So, what do these clarity grading look like?
These diamonds are both an excellent cut, the same carat weight and color. The flawless diamond (left) is $11,630 while the internally flawless diamond (right) is $8,770. Neither diamonds have any inclusions detectable under a 10x magnification therefore would appear entirely identical, yet there is a price difference of $2,860.
This is why when I advise on the best clarity grading for your diamond, I never suggest an FL or IF grading. There comes a point with clarity grading where the price continues to rise with vigor, while the visual pay off remains the same. IF and FL graded diamonds make up a very small proportion of the diamond market (around 1%). They are stunning and they are rare but the naked eye, or even a jeweler’s 10x loupe, will not be able to detect where the thousands of dollars are being seen.
Sometimes referred to as ‘investment diamonds’, stones of this grade are generally ignored by the savvy consumer, who knows you can get an eye-clean diamond at a fraction of the price. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to appreciate the seemingly miraculous nature of a flawless diamond, and of their formation and existence within the diamond world.
The GIA grades diamonds all the way down to an I3, however you will find that most reputable vendors only go as low as an I1. Very few I1 diamonds are eye clean, and as you can see in the image above, most display heavy and obvious inclusions that greatly diminish brilliance and fire by limiting light return. I never recommend going this low with your clarity grading; once in a blue moon you may find a diamond that is close to eye-clean, but even if there are no inclusions directly in the table, the other inclusions at this grade will still inhibit sparkle. Furthermore, certain inclusions can greatly compromise the durability of the stone and the more inclusions present, the more likely it is that this will be an issue.
As seen in the images above, VVS1 and VVS2 grading are barely distinguishable from one another. A skilled gemologist may be able to see their conclusions as a 10x magnification, but nothing is visible by eye. The difference between the two grading comes down to the positioning of any inclusions. If the inclusions can be seen from the pavilion, the diamond will be graded a VVS1, if they can be identified through the top half of the diamond, it is graded a VVS2.
A VVS grading may be chosen by someone who is particular about clarity but does not have the budget for a FL or IF diamond. Again, diamonds of this grade will carry a high price tag but, in many cases, will be indistinguishable from a VS1/VS2 or even an eye-clean SI1.
The difference between VS1 and VS2 grades can generally only be seen under a microscope. Inclusions will not be seen by eye; however, as the image on the right shows, some inclusions may still be positioned in less desirable areas. Again, this emphasizes the importance of viewing the diamond, as you may be able to find an SI1 graded diamond that does not feature an inclusion in the table.
Some experts will tell you to avoid a VS1/VS2 grading with the view that you can find an eye-clean SI1 for a lower price. For the most part, I agree, however, VS grading does have an important place. If you are considering a step cut diamond, my recommendation would always be to opt for a VS1 or VS2 grade, as these unforgiving cuts benefit from the additional step up in clarity grade. Similarly, if you are looking at diamonds of 1.50ct and above, a VS2 grading may be more appropriate, as inclusions are generally easier to spot in larger diamonds (more on this later).
Often hailed as the sweet-spot between quality and cost, an SI grading will have flaws visible by a 10x magnification loupe, but it is possible to find eye-clean diamonds at this grading.
All the images we are assessing are being viewed at 20x magnification. This gives you the best possible chance of finding the clearest diamond; if you can’t see any heavy inclusions at 20x magnification, you won’t see them by eye.
There are certain cases where searching for an eye-clean SI2 may be a good way to bring the budget of your diamond down, however, call me a purist, but I tend to advise people to start their search with an SI1 clarity grading. If you choose to start your search with an SI2, be sure to view the diamonds through high-res imaging as this is the only way you can determine whether the inclusions will diminish the sparkle of your stone.
Clarity Comparison – Diamond Shapes & Cuts
Each diamond cut will have different light handling properties and facet patterns. This means that some are more adept at concealing conclusions, while others are less forgiving.
Unlike brilliant cuts, step cuts are designed to flaunt the clarity and depth of a diamond, presenting clean, architectural lines that allow you to look deep into the center of the stone. For this reason, clarity is essential as step cuts will not conceal inclusions.
A VS2 round brilliant is extremely unlikely to have any flaws visible to the naked eye; however, if we look at this VS2 emerald cut, the dark inclusion is prominent and clear and would be visible by eye (particularly as this is a 1.00ct stone). Once you have identified a flaw within your diamond, it can be difficult to ‘un-see’ it, and this is particularly problematic in an engagement ring or any piece of jewelry that is worn every day.
For step cuts, begin your search at VS2 grade.
Clarity Comparison – Carat Weight
The larger the diamond, the more obvious inclusions can become. The table below is a rough guide for choosing a clarity grading for your weight of a diamond. The grading should be considered a starting point, with the objective being finding the best-looking diamond at this grade.
Clarity Comparison – Color
Color and clarity play equal importance in the overall beauty of a diamond. Color also has a big impact on how we perceive clarity, as a low color grade can emphasize the appearance of inclusions.
We want our diamonds to be clean and clear looking, and the combination of inclusions and low color can give a dirty appearance to a stone.
The yellow hue of the M color diamonds intensifies the appearance of the inclusions, and the overall presentation of the diamond is misty and unclean. By comparison, the I color diamond features white dot inclusions which are mostly concealed due to the cool, white color of the stone. Neither diamonds are heavily included, but it shows how much difference color can make.
The Final Word
Trusting your eyes, GIA or AGS certification and high-res imaging are the three magic ingredients when it comes to finding the best diamond clarity for the best price. Unfortunately, clarity is not a one size fits all concept. We consider SI1 – VS2 grades to be the sweet spot between quality and price, but ultimately it is all about how these grades display themselves in the diamond.
An inclusion is a birthmark; a characteristic that sets your diamond apart and makes it as unique as a fingerprint. For this reason, choosing clarity should be treated with the same singularity.
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