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How To Buy Jewelry Without Looking Clueless

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PHOTO: Jon Paterson/Studio D

Buying jewelry can be pretty intimidating when you don’t know what some terms mean, when you don’t know if you’ll get what you think you’re going to get, and when you don’t know if the piece you’ll buy can be worn everyday (even as you take a bath) without it tarnishing.

We’ve got you covered.

First, you need to know if you want an everyday piece or simply an accessory you’ll occasionally wear. Generally speaking, an everyday piece will be much more expensive because of the higher quality of materials used. You’ll need to have a bigger budget for it. As for cheaper jewelry, know that no matter how cute or stylish it is, it’s high maintenance. Water, chemicals, humidity, and other things will take a toll on its luster and overall appearance. You’ll then need to clean or polish it. Or when it’s bad beyond repair, you’ll probably want to get yourself something new.


~*Commonly Used Metals*~

Gold

People have always desired gold for its shine and beauty. It’s also the most noble of the noble metals, which means it’s the most resistant to corrosion and oxidation in moist air. Only very few rare acids can damage gold.

Another thing that’s great about gold is that it can be melted to form new gold items. Don’t like a gold ring or have a broken piece of gold jewelry? Have it melted and made into a new piece!

The gold jewelry you’re eyeing can be pure gold, gold-filled, or gold-plated. Pure gold will cost you tens of thousands of pesos. It’s the real deal, after all.

Gold-plated jewelry is inexpensive and it tarnishes very easily. Gold-plated jewelry hardly counts as gold jewelry, because it’s made of a metal base like copper or silver which is covered by a very thin layer of gold. The gold layer is thin enough to be erased in a few rubs.

If the base metal of gold-plated jewelry is copper, you’ll see that your piece has turned brown or green in a few wears. Copper doesn’t react with pure water but with oxygen. Oxygen turns the copper brownish. On the other hand, the green layer on copper happens when the metal has been exposed to airborne chemicals (like sulfur dioxide) or seawater for a long time. (Think of the greenish color of the Statue of Liberty.)

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If the price of pure gold jewelry is way off your budget and you don’t want to spend on jewelry you can’t wear often without looking really unclassy in the long run, there’s a middle ground: gold-filled jewelry. Similar to gold-plated jewelry, gold-filled jewelry uses a base metal and a layer of gold to cover it. The difference is that for gold-filled jewelry, one or more sheets of solid gold are wrapped around copper, brass, or other metals. This process is done with heat and pressure, so the bond between the gold and the base metal is permanent. It helps too that the gold layer is much thicker than the one for gold-plated jewelry. Gold-filled jewelry can last you years if you keep it clean.

When checking out gold jewelry, you should encounter the marks 24K, 18K, 14K, or 12K. 24K means that the gold is in its purest form; 18K means there’s 75 percent pure gold in the piece, while 12K means there’s 50 percent pure gold. (“Karat” is not to be confused with “carat,” which is a unit of measurement for gemstone weight.)

The drawback with pure gold (the 24K) is that it makes soft jewelry that will wear easily. That’s why we have the other karats—gold is mixed with other metals like silver, copper, nickel, and titanium to make the final piece stronger and more durable.

When purchasing a piece of jewelry, be sure to look for the karat quality mark and the registered trademark of the company that will vouch for the mark. If you don’t find one, look for another piece.


Silver

Silver jewelry is usually made of sterling silver instead of pure silver. Pure silver is too soft to be made into something useful and functional, so it’s usually alloyed with copper to make it durable. If a piece of silver jewelry is made of 92.5 percent silver (by weight) and 7.5 percent of copper (by weight), it’s then made of sterling silver. Sterling silver jewelry is marked with “925.”

Pure or fine silver doesn’t tarnish in pure air or water, making it one of the few noble metals. However it does tarnish when exposed to air or water with the gases ozone or hydrogen sulfide—found in swamps/sewers, volcanic gases, natural gas, and well, water. That said, the silver found in your sterling silver piece will keep its lustrous appearance in pure air and water, but will tarnish over time because of hydrogen sulfide in the air. The copper though, as already said, will tarnish when exposed to air.

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Silver is the softest and least expensive of the fine metals. That said, it’s not to be worn daily if you want to keep it from scratches. It works best as costume pieces, meaning to say, jewelry you switch around and wear to match your #OOTD.

Platinum

The precious metal platinum usually costs more than gold. It’s very durable and doesn’t tarnish, which makes it the metal of choice for engagement and wedding rings. Like 12- to 18-karat gold, platinum can last decades of daily wear. Scratch-resistant, it’s perfect for someone with an active lifestyle yet wants to stay elegant and classy through and through.

The quality markings for platinum are in parts per thousand. A platinum piece marked 900 means that 900 parts per 1000 are pure platinum, or simply that the piece is 90 per cent platinum. It’s usually combined with similar metals in the platinum group of metals like iridium and palladium.


Stainless steel

A metal alloy of iron, carbon, and chromium, stainless steel looks a lot like silver or platinum but it costs less and is more durable than fine silver. It doesn’t easily corrode, rust, or stain, which is why it’s commonly used for surgical tools and kitchenware.

You might be wondering why stainless steel jewelry isn’t expensive if it’s something you can wear everyday without worry. Well, compared to silver, steel isn’t a precious metal—it’s not rare, and historically its economic value isn’t as high as that of silver, which was used as currency. And unlike silver, you can’t sell it for a high price in the years to come. Even so, if you want to be fuss-free with discoloration while on a very tight budget, go for genuine stainless steel.

~*Stones*~

Gemstones have been classified as precious and semiprecious, but it’s led people to believe that precious stones are far more valuable, rare, or beautiful than semiprecious ones, which is not always the case. Diamond, ruby, sapphire, and emerald are considered precious stones, while all other stones are semiprecious. When picking a gemstone for your jewelry, don’t focus on it being precious or semiprecious, but what you find the most beautiful.

Natural gemstones come from the earth and are mined. Some are treated with heat or chemicals to improve or change their color (and sometimes their durability), and that’s fine. What you don’t want when you buy a gemstone is to be tricked into shelling out a huge amount of cash for a stone that has been injected with glass or silicon to make the gem more brilliant or hide fractures. You can avoid that by asking how the stone got its color, how it’s been treated, and making sure you can return it after having it appraised by an expert.

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Laboratory-created gemstones have the same physical and chemical properties as those of natural gemstones. The difference is that lab-created stones aren’t as rare and valuable. With the naked eye, you can’t tell the two apart. A gemologist can though, with proper testing.


Lab-created gemstones are not imitation stones. Imitation stones look like natural gemstones, but they’re made of glass or cubic zirconia.

Diamonds

Diamonds are valued (and priced) based on four Cs: color, clarity, cut, and carat weight.

The more colorless the diamond, the more valuable it is. Their colorlessness is measured through the D to Z scale, with the D standing for most colorless and valuable, Z for diamonds that are yellow or brown.

The clarity is about the absence of blemishes on the surface of the stone and inclusions within the stone. Inclusions and blemishes are like the diamond’s birthmark—they are a natural result of the diamond’s formation beneath the earth in extreme heat and pressure. Diamonds with minimal inclusions and blemishes are very rare, making them more valuable and expensive.

The cut makes the diamond sparkle. Choices range from cushion cut, Ascher cut, emerald cut, princess, cut, marquise shape, and pear shape. Go for a round or square shape if you want a classic feel. Don’t hold a diamond to the light to see how much it sparkles; every diamond, even if it’s poorly cut, will shine in the light as long as it’s clean.

Carat weight is how much the diamond weighs. One carat is 200 milligrams, about the same weight as a paper clip, according to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). Take note though, that just because two diamonds are of equal size doesn't mean they're of the same quality. Bigger isn't necessarily better. The American Gem Society (AGS) states on its website, "Comparing the value of diamonds by carat weight is like comparing the value of paintings by size. A wall-sized canvas by an unskilled artist may be bigger than a miniature by Rembrandt, but it will not be worth more." 

The final price of a diamond depends on the four Cs combined, not just one. 


Pearls

Pearls can be natural, cultured, or imitation. Natural pearls used to be abundant in the Persian Gulf, but many of them have been harvested, hence are now rare and extremely expensive. They’re formed inside the shell of mollusks as a defense against an irritant, like a parasite that got into a shell when it was feeding, or an injury in the mantle tissue. Natural pearls are practically 100 percent calcium carbonate and conchiolin, an organic horn-like compound. If you want natural pearls, insist on seeing papers guaranteeing that they are authentic. Buy from an establishment that specializes in natural pearls, too.

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A number of pearls on the market are cultured pearls. They are formed when a pearl farmer or technician places a mother-of-pearl bead or tissue into a mollusk (usually done through a careful surgical procedure) to begin the pearl-making process.

Imitation pearls are often just beads made to resemble real pearls. The materials can be glass, plastic, or an actual mollusk shell, most of which are coated with a solution containing fish scales to imitate the iridescence of real pearls. They may look genuine, but imitation pearls do not have the same weight and smoothness as those of real pearls. The luster of imitation pearls will not last either.

A beautiful pearl has a smooth and scratch-free surface; the shape can vary from round, oval, and misshapen (known as baroque pearls).

Pearls can also be classified as saltwater and freshwater pearls. Saltwater pearls are pearls cultured in the sea. Akoya pearls, from Chinese and Japanese waters, are tiny (two to 10 millimeters), rare, and are usually white or cream. Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines produce the South Sea pearl, the largest kind, ranging from nine to 20 millimeters. These can be white, cream, or golden. Tahitian pearls, grown in Tahiti and French Polynesia, are eight to 16 millimeters in size, and are usually gray, blue, green, and purple—collectively called black pearls, since they are formed by Tahitian black-lipped oysters.

Freshwater pearls are cultured in lakes, rivers, and ponds in China. Many of them have a piece of tissue (instead of a bead nucleus), making them thicker than the akoya pearl. They’re mostly white, but can also be made in other pastel colors.


~*At A Jewelry Shop*~

1. Look like you know what you want and that you know what makes a piece of jewelry good and valuable. Be confident. Buying jewelry is no joke; you’re paying a pretty huge amount for one.

2. Ask if you can inspect a stone that’s pulled from the ring. Flaws can be hidden in the metal, and spotting them can increase your bargaining power. An expert jeweller should be able to pull a stone from a ring and set it back without problem.

3. Check the papers that come with the stones. Diamonds must be GIA- or AGS-certified. GIA also certifies gemstones. 

4. Ask the jeweller how to care for the jewelry, since treatment of gemstones can improve or worsen their durability.

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Sources: Vice, American Gem Society, Gemological Institute of America, Geology.com, International Gem Society

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