If your knees go weak over gold earrings, watches, bracelets, necklaces and anything else, you're not alone. Through history, gold has been the most desirable and popular precious metal and a symbol of wealth and power since antiquity.
But what with karat, color, weight, alloy, design and price, feeling confident about buying the genuine article can be daunting. Robin Morris, a New York-based jeweler whose company Chimaera makes handcrafted fine jewelry, says shopping carefully for the shiny stuff is easier than you think if you have the right information.
- Karat with a K. You hear about 24-karat gold, which simply means 100 percent pure gold. Any value below 24 is the amount of pure gold that exists in a mixture, or alloy. With 14 karats, you get 14/24 pure gold, or 58.5 percent gold. The other nongold metals in the mix do not add much real value, but are used to increase strength, hardness and durability, while varying the color. "The standard in Europe is 18 karat, but here folks often buy 14 karat, though it's not considered as prestigious or valuable," Morris says. "It's really about personal preference and cost." You may not like the deeper color of 24-karat gold, for example. But, she notes, you should never go lower than 14 karat, especially for custom pieces. On the other hand, the higher the gold content, the softer the metal. So rings should be made using 14- or 18-karat gold. Jewelry made with 22- or 24-karat gold is best saved for special occasions, Morris advises.
- Mixing gold with other metals. Except for the purest form of 24 karats, gold is usually mixed with other metals like copper, silver, nickel, palladium and zinc, which increase strength, hardness and durability and produce a range of color. Mixing gold makes it more scratch resistant and less vulnerable to damage. "Silver is gorgeous, but it just doesn't last as long because it's a lesser-quality metal and gets dented," Morris says. "But gold will usually last a lifetime. If you're buying a wedding ring or something you want to pass on or wear every day, gold is more durable." Jewelry designers are also able to create more precise designs in gold, Morris adds. For example, designers can get finer detail in gold, and the finish shows up better. However, be careful with pure gold, which can scratch.
- The price. The various karat values in gold create differences in price and color. The lower the karat, the lower the price. Ten-karat gold ranges from $14 to $20 per gram and 14-karat gold ranges from $20 to $30 per gram, while 18-karat gold ranges from $27 to $37 per gram. (The gram weight shows how much gold is used to make the piece.) The higher the weight, the more expensive. But sometimes jewelers charge less per gram in heavier items. So ask for the price of the item, then check the price per gram.
- The color. Gold is yellow by nature in its pure 24-karat form. Mixed with copper, it becomes redder. Silver, zinc and other white and gray metals make gold a paler shade of yellow. Today, Morris says, yellow gold is the most popular, followed by white gold, two-tone gold (yellow and white) and tri-color gold (yellow, rose and white or green gold). Three colors can make jewelry designs more distinctive
- The proof. The legal minimum in the U.S. for gold is 10 karats. And the law says that all gold jewelry must be "hallmarked," meaning every piece of gold jewelry has to be stamped with the amount of karats it contains.
- The quality of the piece. Today, most jewelry is made by precision machines that insure uniformity. But even machine-made pieces need a jeweler's finishing touches. Key areas to inspect are anyplace where the piece moves, for example where separate pieces are joined, like clasps, settings and latches. These areas are where jewelry is most likely to break. Hold the piece in your hand and make sure it feels strong and doesn't snag.
- Buyer beware. Use common sense. "Some stores might say something is gold when it isn't," says Morris. You can't necessarily tell the difference between 18-karat gold and 14-karat gold by looking at it, she adds. "You want to pick a seller who's well known or get a friend's recommendation because to the naked eye it's often hard to tell what's authentic." One typical gimmick is a 40-to-60-percent-off sale in which the "regular" price has been purposely inflated so there's no real savings. As with most things, if '- armed with the right information '- you simply go for a good piece at a fair price, you'll be just fine.