ST. PETERSBURG — The first thing he saw was the flaw: a slender white swirl threading through the clear facets. "Almost every stone has one," explained the sales associate at Bond Diamonds.
Billy Young held the ring to the light. Squinting, he turned the diamond upside down. He admired the princess cut, the elegant white-gold band.
But that blemish . . .
He wanted this ring to be perfect. After three failed engagements, this one had to work.
He peered again at the 5/8-carat stone, fixated on that flaw. "It looks like an angel," he remembers telling the sales clerk. "Hold it this way, and she's flying. Tip it down, and — look — she's praying."
• • •
Young, 41, is tan and sinewy. A crown-of-thorns tattoo rings his left biceps. A gold crucifix the size of a money clip hangs from his thick neck.
He used to deliver furniture; now he lays tile. He owns a tidy bungalow that he shares with his son and daughter, both teenagers. Their mom, his first love, scours trash bins on the streets somewhere. "We've pretty much lost her," says his daughter, Tiffany.
Young lost the kids for a while too, back when he was drinking. His life was a country song, then the blues. Now it's gospel.
He has been sober for 11 years, he says. But he has never been lucky in love.
The mother of his kids pawned her diamond for drugs, he says. He bought his second fiancee a marquis diamond at Service Merchandise. But she didn't get along with his kids, he says. She kept the ring. Would-be wife No. 3, a dental hygienist, wanted to wear her mom's diamond, so he had it reset. A few months later, she gave him back the bare band.
Four months after meeting No. 4, he found that $1,800 princess-cut with the angel inside — and filled out papers to finance it.
• • •
It happens sometimes: A flaw becomes an asset. The thing that bothers us the most about someone — or even some thing — turns into what we admire most. The quirky tilt of the prom queen's nose only makes her more beautiful because she's real.
Young hoped No. 4 would see that his scars made him stronger. By the time he proposed, he had forgotten about his search for the ideal diamond — and fallen in love with the flaw.
"It was like I was giving her a guardian angel," he says. If only she could see it.
• • •
"I vaguely remember something about an angel. I remember Billy being really excited about it," says Anne Gagne, 38, who now lives in Boston. "But I couldn't see it. Not even when he took me to the jeweler to get it cleaned, and he tried to show me through the magnifying loupe."
Their engagement lasted six months. Young says he forgets what they fought about. Gagne remembers, but would "rather not have that in the paper."
She gave him back the ring.
• • •
For two years, his angel was inside its box, tucked into the rafters above his garage. Then he met No. 5.
"With her it was different," Young said. "We said we loved each other before we even had sex."
Five months after he met her, he gave her the ring and repeated what he'd said to No. 4: "There's an angel inside . . ." This time he added, "You're my angel. And this is only a friendship ring." He'd never propose, he said, with a ring he had bought for someone else.
No. 5 couldn't see the angel either. She didn't want to talk about that ring — or about Young. She didn't want her name in the paper. She says she hardly ever wore that ring.
In November he bought her another, a brilliant round diamond. They started planning their wedding.
"We were good through Christmas," Young says. "Then I lost my job and started going through hard times with my kids." The old refrain started echoing again. "She said she wanted to take a break. Please, I asked her, return the things that belong to me."
Now he knew: That angel was meant for him.
• • •
Young refuses to believe the diamond has brought bad luck. Oh no, he says, she has protected him. Maybe he wasn't meant to marry the last two fiancees.
Maybe that diamond was all he needed all along. "It's like God showed a piece of himself in there," Young says. "I guess you have to believe to see it."
For years, his daughter, Tiffany, couldn't see what her dad saw in that diamond. But over the past few months, the image has become clearer to her. "After that last breakup, he wanted to start drinking again," she says. "But somehow, having that angel showed my dad that God was still watching out for him. Whatever it takes, you know?"
• • •
Last week, Young drove the ring to Safety Harbor and showed it to Shaun Shea, president of Main Street Jewelry. Shea studied the diamond under a microscope. He didn't see an angel right off. But once Young showed him the wings, he was "a little bit moved."
Shea sketched three views of the image: rear angle, front view praying, side view flying. "Some people might see an insect or a bow tie," Shea says. "When you look into that diamond, you see what you want to see."
Sort of like falling in love.
• • •
Young insists he is a romantic, still searching for a woman who will appreciate him. But he won't give anyone else his angel.
"I want to sell it on eBay," he said last week on the porch of his St. Petersburg home. If a Florida woman can get $28,000 for a grilled cheese sandwich that looks like the Virgin Mary, who knows how much a twice-used, flawed diamond can fetch?
Young says he plans to give part of the proceeds to his church, Calvary Chapel. Ten percent of $1-million, he says, would build a mission in Nairobi.
Will it be hard to part with the angel that he feels has looked after him so long? "It depends how much I'm offered."
And where will he start the bidding?
"How much is a guardian angel worth?"
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.