I know exactly what you’re going through. I spent months looking for a skull ring under $500. My search was rendered difficult because I was looking for something as close to the antique memento mori rings I adore rather than a run of the mill off-the-rack style. Having been in the position you’re in though I think you’re likely to find a gold skull ring for over $500 but under $1000. If you’re willing to use silver (and maybe upgrade to gold later) under $500 will be much easier to find.
It’s funny because everything you and the other bees on this topic have said echoes the position I was in, I had some knowledge about the price of materials and fabrication processes that go into making rings so my estimate was around $1000 while my husband, who didn’t have that knowledge but was keenly aware of the artificially inflated price of gold, couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find a gold skull ring for under $500, although I totally agree with you that most skull engagement rings out there are overpriced.
I ended up getting a AU$850 gold skull ring which I adore by Julia Deville, an amazing Kiwi memento mori jeweller/artist whose work I’ve always loved (I used to sell her work and talked to her personally so I knew she was an awesome gal and was happy to support her). I used a natural spinel I bought on Ebay for $30 and the setting price included diamond one pointers in the eyes of the skulls. However I chose 9k white gold (which is the legal minimum gold standard in the UK/AU/NZ).
Choosing a lower karat gold was the easiest way for me to lower cost but this option is unpopular. In the US everybody you ask will say that only 18k and Platinum are durable enough and not to bother with lower karat gold. No disrespect to them but I think that’s a baseless generalisation as millions of people in AU/UK/NZ have successfully worn 9k gold throughout their lifetimes without significant problems, my family included. Lower karat gold is in reality harder than higher karat. It’s true that it can be more brittle but there are also scores of people out there with scratched, dinged up, battered 18k or platinum rings because they assume that a ‘better quality’ gold means they can wear their rings 24/7 without looking after them (eg taking them off when sleeping/ showering/ doing housework). Platinum for example is touted as much harder, more durable (and therefore MUCH more expensive) than gold but is in actuality less hard and more brittle and prone to scratching than gold, it’s simply that it is more dense (thus you need more of it) and less malleable therefore less likely to bend out of shape or have prongs loosen (here’s some info on it if you don’t believe me http://www.jogiadiamonds.com.au/blog/white-gold-vs-platinum-what-jewellers-wont-tell-you/)
Anyways, I would highly recommend Julia Deville, her work is truly amazing. Here’s the ring catalogue she sent me https://www.dropbox.com/sh/oa7evfwzt0dd9zn/AADh46-73kgWDCv0bVnPXhp0a/PC%20Rings%20June%202013.pdf?dl=0 and some bad (sorry I don’t have any non digi pics) pics of my ring
I’d also recommend Meadowlark Jewelry, they’re based in New Zealand so their prices are in NZ dollars which is MUCH lower than US, you can basically shave off 1/3 of their price, on a good US dollar rate day https://www.facebook.com/Meadowlarkjewellery/photos_stream
I’m planning on upgrading to their red gold skull wedding band in a few weeks 🙂
Also sometimes I kinda wished I’d been able to afford my dream skull ring jeweller, Adam Foster on Etsy. Yes he’s expensive but he is very open to enquiries if you have a budget and as you already have a stone it wouldn’t hurt to contact him, his skull rings are TO DIE FOR!
In any case Good Luck in your search! I love my ring SO MUCH, it’s the most “me” piece of jewelry I own and it’s so unlike the majority of engagement rings that I never get ring envy even after spending hours looking at the beautiful (and generally ginormous) rings on Weddingbee I find myself looking at down my skull ring and loving it as much as I did the very first day 🙂