Jewelry Buyer’s Guide: Precious Metals 101

Whether you’re looking for gold bullion or silver rings, precious metals are a solid investment, and the hunt for rare treasures is definitely an enjoyable pastime. The estate sales at Everything But The House make it easy to find a huge range of precious metal jewelry that’s ideal for collectors, resellers, or anyone who wants to build a robust portfolio. Planning to start making some purchases? It pays to learn more about metal jewelry and how it’s valued.

Defining Precious Metals

Before buying precious metal jewelry, it’s wise to know which metals fall into the “precious” category:

Platinum group metals, including iridium, palladium, and rhodium

Other metals used for making jewelry, including steel and copper, fall into the category of “industrial metals.” While these metals have value in construction and engineering, they have less value in the fine jewelry industry.

Buying Gold

Gold is a highly prized, valuable metal. In its pure form, it has a warm yellow color, but it’s possible to adjust the tone by alloying gold with other metals. Gold doesn’t tarnish or corrode and is soft enough to use in relatively intricate pieces.

Gold Purity

Knowing how to buy gold requires an understanding of the gold purity system. The unit of purity is the karat, with 24 karats (24k) representing the highest purity level of 99.9% pure gold and only trace amounts of other elements. In simple terms, 24k means 24 out of 24 parts are pure gold.

Incredibly soft and expensive, 24k gold is unsuitable for many forms of jewelry. Most gold jewelry comprises an alloy, and because it’s impossible to add other metals without lowering the gold content, such alloys have lower karatage. For example, 22k gold contains 22 parts of pure gold and 2 parts of other metals. Softness and price have an inverse relationship. As the karatage decreases, the price decreases and the metal becomes harder. The common gold purities are:

24k: 99.9% pure
22k: 91.7% pure
18k: 75% pure
14k: 58.3% pure
12k: 50% pure
10k: 41.7% pure

In the United States, manufacturers stamp gold jewelry with the karat value. In other countries, manufacturers stamp a value reflecting the percentage of pure gold in the piece, such as “999” for 24k.

Types of Gold Jewelry

When buying jewelry, it’s important to understand the various terms used to describe the quality of the materials, or else you risk paying too much for an item. Common terms to look out for include:

Solid gold: This isn’t the same as “24k gold.” Solid gold is any solid — meaning not hollow — gold alloy of 10k or more.
Gold-plated: This is base metal jewelry, such as brass or steel, with an electroplated gold alloy outer layer of 10k or more.
Gold-filled: This is base metal jewelry with a mechanically bonded alloy layer of 10k or more.
Gold vermeil: This describes silver jewelry with a thick gold alloy layer of 14k or more.

Colored Gold

During the alloying process, adding copper or silver enhances the gold’s natural color. It’s possible to change gold’s color by using different types of metal. Introducing ferrous metal gives the gold a blue tinge, adding copper creates rose gold with a red tinge, and adding nickel or zinc creates white gold.

Buying Silver

Silver is a beautiful alternative to gold. It’s less expensive but still regularly used in fine jewelry for its luster and ease of use. Like gold, pure silver is very soft, so it’s often alloyed with other metals.

Silver Purity

Silver grading employs a decimal value representing the parts of pure silver per 1,000 parts. For example, an alloy of 80% pure silver and 20% other metals contains 800 parts of silver per 1,000, which is expressed as the fineness value .800. The most common purity grades are:

Fine silver (.999): 99.9% pure silver, with only trace amounts of other metals
Sterling silver (.925): 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper
Coin silver (.900): 90% silver, named because it’s the type of silver used in coins in the U.S. prior to 1965

Jewelry manufacturers usually denote the fineness of the materials used with a numerical mark, such as “.925,” although sometimes they use words such as “Sterling.” Some countries use additional hallmarks, which are symbols that indicate an independent assayer has guaranteed the fineness of the silver.

Buying Platinum

Platinum and gold have similar prices per gram. However, platinum has a higher density and is usually 95% pure, so more platinum goes into the construction of a piece of jewelry compared to a similar piece of gold jewelry. This makes platinum more expensive. Platinum is popular for wedding rings and engagement rings because it’s naturally white and very durable, and platinum prongs holding gemstones in place are less likely to break. Additionally, its high density makes the jewelry heavier than alternatives cast in other materials.

Platinum purity is expressed in a similar way to silver purity in parts per 1,000. Only jewelry that’s at least 95% platinum bears a “Platinum” mark; other jewelry bears a mark representing the amount of platinum per 1,000 parts. For example, platinum jewelry that’s 90% platinum and 10% other metals has a composition of 900 parts of platinum per 1,000 and usually bears a mark of “Pt900.”

How to Buy Precious Metals Online

The first question you need to ask yourself is “Why buy precious metals?” The reason behind your purchase helps you decide what items to look for. Collectors enjoy the hunt for old coins and vintage jewelry, while investors may be more interested in items such as bullion valued by the weight of the precious metal rather than the perceived value as a collectible. If your interest is in modern and vintage jewelry, Everything But The House is a great place to start. The regular estate sales and auctions of private collections turn up rare and unusual treasures to cherish.