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  • Writer's pictureValerieBound

Buying Jewelry 101

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

If you’re going to spend a lot of money on a piece of jewelry, you want it to be gorgeous! That goes without saying. But you also want to get what you pay for. So while some things about jewelry are pretty obvious, others are a bit more complicated. In this post, I’ll go through some of my key tips to help you get a piece you absolutely love! And get good value for your money.

Good as Gold

Let’s be real, most jewelry is either gold or silver, and most women have a preference for one over the other. Silver is actually less complicated, but we’ll get to that later. First of all, pure gold is expensive. you’re in the $500+ range. If it’s less than that, it’s not pure gold. Gold is talked about in karats (k). 24k is 100% gold, you can’t go any higher. You’ll be able to tell because it will be stamped 24k, either on the back or underside of the piece. Don’t be afraid to look for it or ask the jeweler where it is. If you’re shopping online, it should be in the description and/or the stamp should be in the pictures.

Gold ring showing the 18K stamp, from Itali Lamberti
Gold ring showing the 18K stamp, from Itali Lamberti

Because pure 24k gold is soft, jewelers often mix it with other metals to make it stronger. That’s why you see a lot of 18k (which is 75% gold) and 14k gold (58% gold) pieces. 10k is the lowest you can go by law in the United States. To get a quality piece that’s not too spendy, 18k is a good choice.

So maybe it’s obvious, but pure gold is the yellowest. When you mix gold with other metals (copper is most common), you’re getting a mix of colors as well. For example, to get a nice rose gold, you mix 75% yellow gold, 21% copper, and 4% silver. And it’s still an 18k gold piece. Of course, if you’re not a fan of rose gold, lower carats will simply be less yellow.

Gold plating

Now here’s the thing. Plenty of pieces say they’re gold, but here’s no mention of karats or stamps that you can see. Those are gold-plated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something you should be aware of. Sometimes you’ll see that something is labeled gold vermeil (which is pronounced ver-may). That’s another way of saying gold-plated. Now, to be fair, the plating is thicker than non-vermeil, and it’s sterling silver underneath, but it’s still gold-plated. And that’s why it’s significantly less expensive. Jewelers and designers will want to highlight a piece that’s 14k or higher. If they don’t, it a good sign of gold-plating. And no one will tell you.

Buying Brand Jewelry

Brands love to have raving customers, and when a brand becomes popular, the price usually goes up. So when you’re buying jewelry, you need to ask yourself how much of what you’re paying is for the name (like Tiffany or Gucci or Cartier, for example) versus the materials (the cost of the gold and gemstones). Quite often, you’ll pay 50% or more for brand name jewelry. Maybe this is ok with you, because you want the piece to be a family heirloom, and brand pieces hold their value better over time. For example, antique Cartier and Tiffany pieces get higher prices than other equally beautiful jewelry that’s unsigned.

Gucci enamel ring
Gucci enamel ring

I was in love with this Gucci enamel ring for a while. But it was over $1,000. It was 18k gold, but it had no gemstones. A gold and enamel ring that wasn’t Gucci would be significantly less. So I didn’t buy it. But I still really like it….

You need to make your own decision when you buy brand jewelry, but just go in knowing the markup is real.

Buying Designer Jewelry

Designer jewelry is different from brand jewelry. It’s typically made by a single designer, handmade, and usually available either exclusively online or in select stores. A lot of times it’s described as artisan or bespoke. I’m a huge fan of Brooke Gregson, Annette Ferdinandsen, Silvia Furmanovich, Adel Chefridi, and Mark Davis. One of my favorite places to get designer gems is from Twist, which has locations in Portland and Seattle, but also a great online presence, where you can search by designer, style, and price. There are plenty of other places online to get great designer jewelry like Moda Operandi, the Real Real, Gilt, and Net-a-Porter.

Sometimes, a certain designer will gain a cult Hollywood following. When that happens, the price magically increases. Sometimes, these designers are fabulous (I’m thinking of Silvia Furmanovich, who comes up with things I’ve never seen before) and sometimes they’re just pieces that are trendy. Like minimal pieces or personalized jewelry.

earrings from Silvia Furmanovich
earrings from Silvia Furmanovich

I love to promote fabulous jewelry designers (check out my instagram to see some amazing pieces)! But when I buy designer jewelry, I really want it to something different, with some real artistry. Something that’s unlike anything I own already. Not just a simple ring in a plain prong setting. You can get that at the mall.

Buying Gemstones

First off, all gemstones are beautiful, that’s why they’re called gemstones. And I mean everything – amethyst, turquoise, sapphire, opal – all of them! People get wrapped up over all the wrong things, in my opinion. Faceted, cabochon, synthetic, natural, treated, precious – I think all that matters it that you love it! It’s common for the big three – ruby, sapphire, and emerald, to command higher prices than other gemstones. It’s a shame, really, because they are plenty of other red, blue, and green gemstones that look equally beautiful (tourmaline, tanzanite, spinel, etc.). However, if you are going to buy ruby, sapphire, or emerald, please go to a reputable jewelry store. Rubies that are essentially leaded glass with tiny bits of ruby are all over department stores.

A Silver Lining

Silver is fabulous! And it’s pretty easy to know the good stuff. The good stuff is sterling, and it’s required to be stamped. Sterling silver is 92.5 percent silver. Anything other than stamped, marketed sterling silver isn’t real sterling silver. Period. And you just shouldn’t buy it.

Sometimes you will see something called nickel silver. Beware. There is actually NO silver in nickel silver. The silver refers only to its color.

Now, sometimes things look shiny and silver-y. Those are most likely rhodium plated. One of the benefits of rhodium plating is that it doesn’t tarnish like silver.


Pearls are classic, and apparently, they’re in style again. There are basically three kinds – fake (sometimes charitably referred to as imitation), natural (essentially non-existent, except in antique pieces), and cultured (which are everywhere).

Cultured pearls are grown in oysters on a pearl farm. Pearl farms give you uniformity in color and size, and people like their pearls that way. In fact, in an antique piece (which is the only place you’ll find natural pearls anymore), that’s how you can tell pearls are natural – because they don’t match exactly.

Be skeptical if someone tries to tell you it’s a natural pearl. Natural pearls are the ones found naturally in oysters in the ocean. Today, if they’re even around, they’re way more expensive to get to the consumer. You won’t find them unless you’re specifically looking.

If you’re trying to tell the difference between cultured pearls and fake pearls, go by cost and weight. Plastic is light, real pearls are heavier. And obviously, real pearls cost more. Sometimes the shimmery part of the pearl is coming off around the drill holes, and then you know for sure it’s fake. Sometimes, though, you won’t be able to see that.

In general, if it’s costume jewelry, you can assume it’s fake. If it’s fine jewelry, it’s usually cultured. Now, for costume jewelry pieces, I don’t think it’s a big deal that the pearls are fake. Especially if they’re tiny.

If you want a nice pearl strand, or some lovely drop or stud earrings, or a beautiful statement ring, those are your opportunities to get real pearls. Real pearls have a shimmer that can’t really be duplicated. Fake pearls look dull compared to the real thing.

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend

Diamonds can be complicated. Did you know we sell more diamond jewelry in the United States than all other gemstone jewelry combined? There are tons and tons of articles about diamonds, ones that go into details about the four C’s, and what C is the most important. Diamonds are popular as engagement and wedding rings, and outside of that market, they’re usually used as accent stones in other jewelry. If you are buying a diamond for your engagement or wedding, I have done earlier posts on lab grown diamonds and salt and pepper diamonds. And if you want another stone instead of a diamond, well, I wrote about that too.

Best for Last

My best advice is just to make sure you love it. Sometimes, a certain piece will just take my breath away. And while online shopping is more and more common, I’ve bought things online that I haven’t ended up liking. They were bigger or smaller than I thought, or the color wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. If you are buying online, make sure you read their refund and exchange policy. Beware of anything that says final sale. You’re taking a risk that you won’t be able to return it.

Now, what are you waiting for? Go off and buy some fabulous jewelry!


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