Kay Jewelers Diamond Review: Why You’ll Get Ripped Off

Michael Fried
Michael Fried

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Kay Jewlers
Overall Score:1.33
Kay Jewelers
1.5 Rating
Price:11 Rating Selection:22 Rating Customer Service:11 Rating
  • Nothing

  • Terrible quality
  • Inflated prices
  • Poor service
Other Recommended Retailers

Bottom Line Recommendation

Kay Jewelers offers incredibly poor quality and even worse value. As I was updating this review, a reader asked me about this ring from Kay. I was stunned at the inferior quality and thought it would be a perfect example to highlight. This ring comes without proper certification (so the quality may be even lower than they claim). The beauty and price of the ring do not match up.

For comparison, take this 1.00 ct diamond from James Allen (with legitimate certification) and pair it with this beautiful solitaire setting.  The diamond has GIA certification and the cut is fantastic.

The clarity grade is a whopping seven grades higher and the ring will still cost you almost 20% less than the Kay ring. I was so happy this reader decided to contact us before pulling the trigger on that Kay engagement ring purchase.

Kay Jewelers History

Kay Jewelers was founded in 1916 by Edmund and Sol Kaufmann in the corner of their father’s furniture store in Reading, Pennsylvania.  That original store, of course, bears no resemblance to the corporate giant the company is today.

In the USA, Kay Jewelers is the second largest mall-based jewelry store chain (in terms of the number of stores) after their major competitor Zales. Kay Jewelers is owned by Sterling Jewelers, Inc. (which is owned by Signet Corporation) which also owns the national off-mall higher-end chain store, Jared Galleria of Jewelry.

Additional Regional Chains

In addition to these two national brands, Sterling (the owner of Kay’s) also owns a number of regional chains (JB Robinson Jewelers, Marks & Morgan Jewelers, Belden Jewelers, Osterman Jewelers, Shaw’s Jewelers, Weisfield Jewelers, LeRoy’s Jewelers, Rogers Jewelers, Goodman Jewelers, and Friedlander’s Jewelers).

All of these regional brands operate similarly to and target the same type of customer as Kay does. Jared is Sterling Jewelers only off-mall store brand. Altogether, the Sterling group of stores is the largest jewelry store conglomerate in the USA.

Sterling Jewelers, Inc. is likewise wholly owned by their UK based parent company, Signet Jewelers Limited. Signet also owns a number of successful UK based jewelry chain stores targeting different levels of the market. Sterling Jewelers is the largest jewelry store conglomerate in the world.

Kay Jewelers vs. Online-only

A) Price

Kay Jewelers is primarily a “bricks & mortar” (B&M) jewelry store chain. As such, there are certain hurdles they face in competing with the broader modern jewelry market that seems insurmountable.

In recent years, Kay has expanded their web presence, but they still can’t undercut their own B&M operations by lowering their prices online to compete with the other online-only stores.

As you can read in my article “Evolution of the Diamond Market“—which presents a brief history of the evolution of the diamond jewelry business over the past century—bricks & mortar diamond jewelry stores have several built-in handicaps when compared to online-only diamond sites.

There simply is no way a retailer like Kay can offer a stunning diamond like this 0.70ct for such a cheap price ($1,400).

1) Online-Only Overview

Let’s take a moment to briefly discuss the issues:

Online-only diamond sites (like James Allen for example) carry almost no inventory. The diamonds they sell are listed virtually by diamond wholesalers and manufacturers and presented by the online store as their own.

The online stores are happy because they don’t have to invest in inventory, and the wholesalers are happy because now they can tap into the retail market without any opportunity cost.

The wholesalers are still free to sell their diamonds to whomever they please—all they need to do is update their diamond feed to the online store when they sell one of their stones elsewhere.

Because of this arrangement with the wholesalers, online-only retailers offer incredible diamonds at a superb price. Take this stunning 1.20ct round diamond, for example. For $5,850 this diamond is a steal. As we explain below, it’s impossible for a brick and mortars retailer to compete with this price.

Ringo Approved Eye Clean Diamonds

2) Bricks & Mortar Overview

Inventory is by far the single greatest expense when running a jewelry business. The need to provide many options and styles to customers make a physical inventory a costly endeavor.

For a jewelry store to have 200 diamonds available for purchase, they probably have to invest well over a million dollars. Almost no store has that kind of cash lying around, so they need to take on major loans to carry even a small inventory.

This creates serious levels of debt that online stores don’t experience.

3) The Memo Alternative

Jewelry stores have another alternative to buying on credit or taking out a loan, and that’s what’s referred to in the industry as “memo.” Memo is diamond jargon for consignment. While memo inventories are becoming less prevalent in the industry, it’s still relatively common.

Basically, a wholesaler or manufacturer will loan inventory to a store and only bill them when a stone is sold. The catch, however, is that memo prices are always significantly higher than purchase prices.

Even though they have no interest expenses with a memo arrangement, the B&M stores still need to charge a higher price than the online stores because their cost is significantly higher.

4) Wholesaler Opportunity Costs

The reason, by the way, for the higher memo cost is the opportunity cost to the wholesaler. Once a diamond is “on memo” at a store, they can’t easily sell it to anyone else.

So, the bricks and mortar store needs to pay a premium for having that diamond tied up.  Of course, this isn’t the case online, so wholesalers are happy to give the online retailers their lower possible price because they’ve lost no opportunities having the stones listed online.

5) Excessive Overheads

The overhead of B&M stores is astronomically greater than online stores. Think about it: for every mall store in the Kay Jewelers chain, they have to employ a team of employees and pay for utilities, insurance and rent.

Each one of those stores only services a few thousand people in the local geographical location. James Allen services the entire world with only two offices (one in NY to handle the diamonds and one in MD to handle customer service) and about 100 employees.

These four points (inventory, memo, wholesale opportunity costs and excessive overhead) address the primary reasons why B&M operations can’t compete with online-only stores in terms of price.  But the inferiority of Kays Jewelers to the major online stores is most definitely not limited to price.

B) Quality

Twenty years ago, a typical diamond jewelry customer would walk into a jewelry store and receive a quick education in diamonds by the very person selling him the diamond.

Obviously, the direction of the lesson was to convince the buyer that the products sold at that store are better and offer more value than the products sold at other stores—without any real measure of objectivity.

6) Kay Jeweler’s Uninformed Customers

The best customer for Kay Jewelers is an uninformed customer—a blank slate waiting to be taught that Kay is what’s best for you.

Of course, now with plenty of information on the internet about engagement rings, the number of uninformed customers is dwindling by a greater margin every year.

A customer who educates himself on the various issues that are central to evaluating diamonds can tell rather quickly that what’s being offered at Kay Jewelers is most certainly not the best value available.

7) Certification Differences

The online vendors we recommend (such as James Allen and Brian Gavin Diamonds.), deal almost exclusively with GIA and AGS diamond certificates. Kay Jewelers deals almost exclusively in looser certifying labs such as IGI.

An uninformed customer might see that an IGI certified diamond is priced the same as a GIA certified diamond and think that the stone is competitively priced. An educated customer knows that the IGI certified stone is probably two to three grades upgraded from what it would receive at GIA. In other words, you’re not comparing apples to apples with IGI and GIA certified diamonds.

An uneducated consumer might think that the light performance certificates that Kay offers on their premium branded stones tell you how brilliant a diamond is. On the other hand, an informed customer knows that it is the diamond’s proportions and angles that matter (as assessed by GIA or AGS)—not a light performance certificate.

C) Head to Head Comparison

In this review, we’ll conduct some direct comparisons to see what you get for your money at Kay Jewelers. Kay is often regarded as the premier B&M jewelry store chain in the USA. We’ll compare the offerings at Kay with James Allen, the premier online store in the world for diamond jewelry.

We’ll compare a one carat round diamond ring from Kay’s two main lines: generic and Tolkowsky.

Generic Diamond

Check out the relevant generic Kay Jeweler’s one-carat solitaire ring here: http://www.kay.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/product1%7C10101%7C10001%7C-1%7C150884702%7C15051%7C15051.15057.15106

Screenshot of Generic 1 Carat Ring at Kay Jewelers

This engagement ring is a generic non-branded 1 carat round diamond set in a basic 14K White Gold solitaire ring.

One important piece to remember regarding Kay Jewelers and their carat weights is that they go according to the table presented on their site here.

8) Receiving Less

You might be shocked as a customer to find out that when you order a “1 carat” diamond from Kay that you might actually receive a 0.95ct diamond.

To drive the point home about Kay Jewelers’ value, we will assume for this exercise that the diamond is actually over 1 carat. Informed readers of this site already know that diamond prices jump drastically at the major carat levels (ie, 0.50, 0.70, 0.90, and 1.00ct).

9) Lack of Color and Clarity Grades

Kay Jewelers doesn’t offer a specific color and clarity grade for their rings. It’s always presented as a range. In the case of our example ring, the range is H-I in color and SI2-I1 in clarity.

We will assume, to be on the safe side, that in our test case the diamond in question is over 1.00ct and is also at the top end of the range of color and clarity (ie. an H SI2).

In reality, you’d probably find many more I I1s in their inventory mix than H SI2s and likewise, you’d probably find many more stones under 1.00ct than over it. But let’s see how the prices compare even if we assume the best case scenario.

10) Comparing IGI Certified Stones

Is $4500 a good price for an IGI certified H SI2 solitaire ring?  James Allen does carry a small amount of IGI certified stones, so in this particular case, we’ll be able to compare apples to apples.

We found a similar diamond listed on James Allen. Here is a comparable 1.00ct H color, SI2 clarity round cut diamond. To be clear, I am not a fan of this diamond, especially the inclusions, but this is one reason why we do not recommend IGI certified diamonds.

There are a few important things to note about this stone. Firstly, and most obviously, the price. The stone is listed for $2840. I found a gorgeous 18kt white gold solitaire setting to pair with the diamond, making the total bill $3260. That’s compared to $4500 at Kay Jewelers! Kay Jewelers is 50% more expensive!

Please don’t take our comparisons here as recommendations for what you should buy. We are only trying to find similar diamonds so we compare apples to apples. If you are looking for help buying an engagement ring, contact us and we will make personal recommendations for you.

11) Overall Poor Clarity 

The second important thing to note is the poor clarity of the diamond. The stone still received an SI2 grade from IGI. Admittedly, this particular diamond is worse than most IGI graded SI2s, but it’s certainly not the first SI2 graded stone I’ve seen that is included this much. A stone like this would never receive an SI2 grade from GIA.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Hold on a second. That’s not a fair comparison! You’ve picked a terrible stone with a giant black inclusion in the center. The diamond buyers at Kay would never allow a stone like that to enter their inventory.” That might very well be true.  So let’s take another example just to be sure:

Here is a far better 1.00ct F SI2 round diamond for $2,920.

12) Higher Grade Comparison

This second comparable stone is a grade higher than the highest grade available for this ring on Kay. The diamond and ring combination should, in theory, cost more than the ring on Kay because it’s a higher grade.

But, in reality, that’s not the case at all. This stone is listed for $2,920 on James Allen. With the setting above (with the discount code applied), the total price comes to $3,280.

As you can see in the magnified picture of the stone above, it’s a fantastic SI2—as nice as possible for an IGI SI2. Still, with getting much more in beauty and value from James Allen in this case, Kay is still almost 20% more!

13) Comparing Prices 

Don’t forget many diamonds in this category will be below 1.00ct which would drastically drop the comparative price on James Allen.

Tolkowsky Cut

Next, we will compare a Kay Jewelers’ Tolkowsky diamond to a similar diamond at James Allen. The Tolkowsky ring we will use for comparison can be found here:  http://www.kay.com/en/kaystore/r6-rings-101488–1/tolkowsky-solitaire-ring-1-carat-round-diamond-14k-white-gold/101488/101488.101495

Screenshot of 1 Carat Tolkowsky Cut Diamond Ring at Kay Jewelers

This diamond is a 1 carat Tolkowsky Diamond set in a basic 14K White Gold solitaire setting. The same rule applies to the Tolkowsky Diamond regarding Kay Jewelers’ diamond weights as mentioned above (ie. that the actual diamond weight begins at 0.95ct for a one carat diamond).

Also, as mentioned above, a range of clarity and color grades are provided instead of a specific grade. Let’s assume for stringency’s sake that the diamond we’re comparing is actually the top combination offered: in this case, an H SI1.

In reality, most likely you’d find that the percentages are always skewed to the lower end of the spectrum (ie. there will be many more I SI2s in Kay’s inventory than H SI1s).  Furthermore, you’ll also most likely find that there are usually many more “1 carat” stones under 1.00ct than there are above it.

14) Using James Allen as a Comparison

Is $8,000 a good price for a 1 carat H color SI1 clarity diamond mounted in a 14K White Gold solitaire?  Let’s have a look at James Allen for comparison.

This James Allen diamond is a GIA certified 1.00ct H color SI1 clarity diamond with an Excellent cut grade and Polish and Symmetry grades of Excellent.  The stone is cut just as nicely as the Tolkowsky, which is a classic ideal cut.

The stone from James Allen would most definitely pass as a Kay Jewelers Tolkowsky cut.  The diamond costs $5,500. One can match this stone with a setting such as this 18K white gold solitaire ring.

15) Miles Apart in Price and Value

The cost of the ring is $465.  Keep in mind that the James Allen’s ring is 18K gold whereas the Kay ring is 14K gold. So, the total cost of this diamond ring is $5,895.  The price for the Tolkowsky ring was $8,000. The two prices aren’t even close.  When you consider the following, they’re even farther apart:

1) We made the best assumptions regarding the quality of the specific Kay Jewelers diamond into account (ie. the highest color and clarity within their range and that the diamond is over 1.00cts).

Had we assumed the diamond was an I SI2 instead of H SI1, we could have found a comparable diamond ring on James Allen for about $4,750 total.

2) We are not comparing apples to apples.  The Tolkowsky is certified by IGI which is consistently looser than the grading given by GIA.

From personal experience of selecting thousands of stones to be sold into diamond programs with a minimum grade of I SI2, I can say with confidence that most IGI certified I SI2s would most likely receive J color and I1 clarity grades from GIA.

If we were to assume a GIA level J I1, we could find a comparable ring on James Allen for much much less than Kay’s price. So even in the best possible case imaginable, you’re still overpaying at Kay Jewelers by about 30%. Most likely, however, you’d be overpaying by much more than that.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does Kay Jewelers Buy Rings Back? Unfortunately Kay Jewelers does not have a buyback policy. This is common for most large retail chains, but disappointing nonetheless.
  • Does Kay Jewelers have a trade-in or upgrade policy? There are some caveats, but Kay Jewelers does have a trade-in policy. If you are purchasing a ring double the value of your original purchase, you will get credit for the full purchase price of your original ring.

D) In Conclusion

For my other reviews, I felt I needed to actually order something to undergo the full customer experience for each store. With James Allen, for example, we are simply looking at the details of each ring and diamond.

They carry high-quality products that are certified by reliable labs. They carry high-quality fine jewelry.  And they are competitively priced. Therefore, in order to discover any significant differences, I needed to immerse myself in the store as a typical customer.

16) Review Online Feedback

For Kay Jewelers, though, there was no need to move beyond an initial comparison (besides, there’s already a plethora of feedback online detailing people’s experiences with Kay Jewelers).

I invite you to google “Kay Jewelers Review” and see for yourself. The differences in quality and price are so glaring that it’s difficult to justify buying from them.

17) Consider the Different Aspects

As I mention in my article on clarity, you should consider your diamond budget to be a pie.  Different slices in the pie represent different aspects of the purchase that your budget goes toward.

I argue in the Clarity article that one should assign the largest portions of his budget to the slices that will be visible to your eye (color and carats) and minimize the slices that are not visible to your eye (clarity, but within reason, of course).

There’s another (often hidden) piece in the pie. And that’s the store’s markup. If the store selling you the diamond makes more profit, that definitely does not make your stone sparkle more.

18) Retailer’s Profit Slices

The store’s markup and increased earnings eat up a larger percentage of your budget that could (and should) be used for things that will make your diamond more beautiful, such as carat weight and color.

In conclusion, what kind of pie would you rather buy? One whose invisible profit slice is 14% of the pie, or one whose invisible profit slice is 30-50% of the pie? Consider this when looking at Kay Jewelers, as much of your budget will go to their pockets, not the beauty of your ring.

Mother’s Day Gifts

Several jewelers, including Kay Jeweler’s, offer seemingly excellent gift options for Mother’s Day. Their advertisements usually target a particular line or even a specific item. While these can appear as great gifts for mom, the jewelry is often poorly made and of low quality.

Instead of going with a sub par jeweler, choose a reliable vendor that promises high-quality diamonds and settings, like James Allen. For remarkable jewelry options for Mother’s Day, check out our Mother’s Day gift ideas.

James Allen James Allen is the leader in online diamond sales. Their imaging technology is the same as inspecting a diamond with a jeweler's loupe. They have the largest exclusive loose diamond inventory online and fantastic prices. They also have the nicest collection of lab created diamonds online. Save 25% on studs and earrings! and  Save 10% off Lab Created Diamonds during limited time sale!
What we love about them:
  • No questions asked returns within 30 days of shipment. James Allen will send you a paid shipping label to return the ring.
  • Lifetime Warranty
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  • Provide insurance appraisals
  • One free resizing within 60 days of purchase
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  • Best-in-class high quality imagery of all diamonds in stock
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