Love is in the air, with a scent as heady and enticing as a heart-shaped box of chocolates on sale at the local grocery store.

Yes, yes: February 14 is right around the corner — and the commercial world is making sure we know it. But before you drop a ton of coin on a super-fancy gift, know this: You don't have to spend big to buy your loved one a beautiful piece of jewelry.

Traditional jewelry is often very expensive. The "three months' salary rule" for engagement rings has been around since DeBeers came up with their ingenious marketing campaign over 50 years ago. A string of good pearls will set you back anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. And a diamond tennis bracelet? Fuggedaboutit.

Even if you aren't turned off by the moral issues plaguing the diamond industry, the costs of traditional jewelry just don't make sense for most couples. While the highly privileged may find some social return on investment by buying and flaunting expensive, flashy sparklers, the rest of us might just want to consider a more reasonable alternative: artisanal jewelry.

My own affinity for artisanal pieces is rooted in former poverty; as a young post-grad engaged in unpaid Bay Area internships, I could hardly afford to eat and dress myself. As for personal adornment? My sweet-16 string of pearls and earrings were not high on the "chic factor," and I couldn't afford anything else. So I started finding objects and wearing them around my neck on a leather cord. Rocks, shells, even pieces of broken pottery.

I liked them. They were pretty.

One evening, my boss asked me to attend an art gallery opening in Carmel. Having put on the one serviceable dress I owned, I perused my "collection" of "jewelry" and chose a singularly lovely clamshell, something I found on the beach, with a perfect worm-hole bored right through near its joint.

That night, the artist drew me aside and gushed: "I love your piece! Who did it?"

Mother Nature, I thought.

"It was a gift," I said.

Since then, I have always gravitated to the artisanal. When my now-husband proposed to me on a Canadian mountainside, we had already agreed there would be no flashy ring. (I can't stand having anything on my fingers while I'm working, surfing, or playing volleyball.) Instead, I wear a brilliantly beautiful, simple, silver wave form by Marylea Conrad of Ki'ele. I can take it off or leave it on, as my busy life dictates. I've lost my ring a couple of times. Replacing it hasn't meant insurance filings or police reports. I just ask Marylea to make me a new one. For less than $60.

My husband and I used the savings we might have otherwise spent on an expensive engagement ring to make a down payment on the first house we owned together in Santa Barbara, California. That was a great investment.

This isn't to say that women — and men — should not enjoy expensive jewelry. "Statement" pieces tell the world a little bit about yourself, and your status. As age and hard work have increased our relative wealth, my husband and I have agreed to indulge ourselves a little. He wears esoteric watches. I've acquired necklaces, belts, and bracelets from a variety of international artists whose work I admire. Most recently, I've been acquiring pieces from South Africa's Ingrid Rolles; every time I wear one of her signature pieces, I feel her connection to the unique metals and stones this planet has to offer.

Artisanal jewelry is as accessible as your local farmers' market and the internet. Be discerning, but be open. There is great beauty and meaning to be had outside the world of commercial jewelers. Every kiss doesn't begin with "Kay"...

Happy Valentine's Day.