Buying jewelry: What you need to know


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Most of us probably buy a car more often than we do a piece of jewelry. But just like a car, jewelry can be a major purchase and you need to know what you're doing.

When you break it down, jewelry is all about the metal, the stones and the quality of the design and production. The higher the quality of all three, the more you should expect to pay. Since dollars are at stake, a consumer needs to be armed with solid information before spending a lot of money on jewelry.

The metals used in most jewelry are gold, silver and platinum. You'll hear terms like "solid gold," or "gold-plated." You'll also hear gold referred to in karats. Pure gold is 24 karat (24K) but is very soft. To make it more durable it's mixed with other metals. The larger the quantity of other metal the lower the karat of the gold.

18K gold

When a piece of jewelry is marked as 18K gold, that means it is 18 parts gold mixed throughout with 6 parts other metal. A 4K gold piece is 14 parts gold mixed throughout with 10 parts other metal.

Each piece of gold jewelry should have the karat quality mark stamped somewhere on it, though you may need a magnifying glass to read it. Near the karat quality mark, you should see the name or the U.S. registered trademark of the company that will stand behind the mark.

This is important. The trademark may be in the form of a name, a symbol, or initials. If a piece of gold jewelry does not have a trademark along with the karat mark, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) advises you not to buy it.

Understanding terms

When a piece of jewelry is described as "solid gold," that doesn't mean pure gold. It simply means it isn't hollow inside. Gold plated means the jewelry has been coated with gold by mechanical plating, electroplating, and other processes. Eventually, gold plating wears away.

Jewelry can also be described as ”gold filled,” “gold overlay,” and “rolled gold plate (RGP).” That means the piece has a layer of at least 10 karat gold that has been mechanically applied to a base metal. These items should be marked with the term or abbreviation and the karat quality of the gold used, such as 14K gold overlay or 12K RGP.


”Silver” and ”sterling silver” describe jewelry that contains 92.5% pure silver. Silver products sometimes may be marked 925, which means that 925 parts per thousand are pure silver.

Just like "gold plate," some jewelry described as ”silver plate” has a layer of silver applied to a base metal. ”Coin silver” is used for compounds that contain 90% pure silver. According to the law, quality-marked silver also must bear the name or a U.S. registered trademark of the company or person that will stand behind the mark.

According to the FTC, platinum jewelry is rarely 100% pure platinum. It's usually mixed with similar metals or non-precious base metals. A good rule of thumb is the higher the percentage of pure platinum, the higher the value of the jewelry. If a piece of jewelry is labeled "platinum," it usually means it is 95% platinum.


There are more than two dozen precious stones used in quality jewelry and each has unique characteristics. You should get familiar with those of the stones you are considering.

Among the most-used stones in jewelry is the diamond. The diamond is a hard, mostly colorless stone prized for its durability and beauty. It's most often used in rings -- most notably an engagement ring.

Four features largely classify a diamond's price point -- the cut, clarity, color and carat. And when we use carat in this instance, we're referring to weight, not purity.

Size doesn't always matter

One thing to keep in mind about diamonds -- size doesn't always matter. Most diamond experts will tell you that the cut of a diamond will have the biggest impact on its price. Unfortunately, that's the one area where a consumer is least-equipped to make a judgment.

However, if a large carat diamond is priced the same, or even less than a similar but smaller diamond, chances are the smaller diamond has a better cut and will have more value. A quality cut diamond will also seem brighter and have more sparkle.

Where you buy a piece of jewelry is important. While you can make purchases online, most want to actually handle the piece before they buy. Also, you should make the purchase from a trusted, reliable source that will stand behind the sale.

Before finalizing a purchase, ask about the store's return policy, especially if the jewelry is a gift. It's also a good idea to make sure your sales receipt includes any information you relied on when making your purchase, like the gemstone’s weight or size. You should ask the jeweler to provide a grading report from a gemological laboratory.  

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