Buying jewelry, part one: The components of value

My GF Linda peered at a 9ct lemon quartz cocktail ring in a jewelry shop case. Surrounded by small green garnets and accented with diamond micro on the shoulders, it carried a $3,800 price tag. She wondered, "Worth it or not?

Throw on your pearls and read on.

Today, A few tips on assessing value, and paying the right price. On Tuesday, Feb. 2, a discussion of what is 'overpriced'.

Price includes...

The asking price reflects tangible factors (materials, production costs, the vendor's business expenses) and intangibles or variables: reputation (individual or brand), historical value or provenance, supply, desirability (especially whether the style is in), condition of the piece, and the economic environment ("the market").

Sometimes you can negotiate price, sometimes not. Either way, you need information to make a prudent decision.

Materials, production
and quality from a jeweler's perspective

Jewelry designer and blogger WendyB (Wendy Brandes) has written two informative, consecutive posts,
Get Smart (about manufacturing) and Get Smart (about quality).

These posts are must-reads. They will not only make you a more informed buyer, they can save you from pissing off Wendy by asking why her pieces cost so much.

What do materials cost?

It helps to know the approximate cost of materials in a piece, for example the current price of gold, and the carat price of the stones that interest you.

You also should know the basics of gem grading and the characteristics of the stones you're looking at. For example, knowing that even a very fine emerald is typically included, and that the inclusions or "garden" is part of an emerald's character (rather than assuming that they must look as clear as a diamond), will save you thousands.

You only need to know the range, not the exact prices. As Wendy points out, the cost of precious metals can fluctuate dramatically. That's why (as Belle de Ville of Beladora commented on Wendy's posts) she may sell a vintage piece for less than the production costs if it were made today.

Some jewelers will provide certified appraisals for gems or the finished piece. This is useful information (though shady ones will give you inflated appraisals). If you are buying an important piece, you can request an independent appraisal from your choice of appraiser.

Books and a tutorial

A good place to start is "Gem Identification Made Easy (Third Edition)" by Antoinette Leonard Matlins or, if you can find it, "Jewelry & Gems the Buying Guide: How to Buy Diamonds, Pearls, Colored Gemstones, Gold & Jewelry With Confidence And Knowledge" by the same author.

For the basics, The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) has a concise, basic tutorial, "How to Buy a Gemstone"

Unset stone prices

Diamond prices are easy to get, go to Blue Nile, Ice or other vendors and search away. One site that has coloured stones is Once you have some knowledge about materials–stones and metals–you will not be captivated by sheer size like Linda was for that 9ct lemon quartz.

Of course these will be retail prices, but you will not be paying wholesale, so you might as well be equipped with competitive retail prices.
And remember, you are paying for more than materials.

When jewelers set their price

Retail jewelers use the term keystone within the trade to indicate the markup of the item. Keystone is defined as double the wholesale price, "triple key" means the wholesale price is 1/3 of what the customer pays. Triple or quadruple keystone is the standard markup for 'everyday' brand jewelry such as Stuller or Ross-Simons.

You should be highly suspicious of offers of "wholesale" prices. A jeweler simply can't survive on less than double to triple keystone. I have on occasion cringed when hearing customers trying to beat a price way down. I want retailers and their suppliers to make a living and have their skills rewarded.

You can easily pay far more than these multiples for designer, rare or historical jewelry. A cameo owned by Garbo will carry a much higher price than a similar vintage piece, but the vendor should be able to prove provenance if the price reflects it.

At auction, the market will decide price.
Going to auctions is a good way to learn more about value. Crazy things can happen– bidding wars that leave pros shaking their heads– but go and watch.

In a shop, the vendor sets the price.

A good jeweler will educate you about the quality of stones, fabrication and design, among other topics. What you thought was shockingly expensive may adjust to "worth it" as you learn more. Read on your own, though, as vendors will naturally present a purchase in its best light.

Few jewelers I've met give deceptive information, but as a guideline, if you are in a place where you will never see the vendor again, the more information you should have.

Back to Linda's lemon quartz cocktail ring. Materials cost: less than $550 wholesale on a good day. Made in Asia, where manufacturing costs are low. Lively but inexpensive stone, rather light weight mount, okay workmanship. My verdict: overpriced.

I agree with Wendy that many customers don't know the costs that contribute to her price– and assert that even factoring in these costs, some jewelry is still overpriced.Bold
Part Two, What is 'overpriced'? appears on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010.
And I name names.


metscan said…
Oh my, I never ever knew that there are so many things to be considered, when buying jewelry. I am lucky to have a jeweler, also as a family friend, whom I trust. For my 35th anniversary (marriage ), I received a round brilliant cut diamond 3.4 ct ring. The color is nearly flawless. He told me that if it were, the price would v e r y much more. So my husband bought it for me. To get an objective opinion of the real value, I marched to a respectful jewelry shop over here and had it insurance valued. We had made a real bargain! I won´t reveal any sums, I never have, but we got to buy it for half of it´s current value. All I can say is, that a good relationship with the jeweler is an asset too.
Duchesse said…
metscan: Good for you! However some people will prefer to trade at various shops, buy at auctions or from private sellers.
metscan said…
Yes,yes. I can understand all the excitement that is connected to buying from auctions and likes, so it is good to be prepared in advance!
LPC said…
There's also a "what the market will bear" component to pricing, right? I wonder what impact the Internet has had on the pricing for jewelry where the design itself is a large part of the cost. It's a lot harder to compare designs than materials. Metscan, your ring sounds absolutely gorgeous.
Duchesse said…
LPC: That's what I meant by "economic environment", thanks.

(Though the recent recession took some prices down a bit, there was not the 'fire sale' many expected. Many high end shops just sat on their inventory.) IMO the internet is very good for research; online dealers are getting much better at providing very specific descriptions.
Mary said…
Great article! I recommend a blog post by dated 1/26/2010 entitled "The Wal-Mart Model of Self-Destruction: Lowest Prices, Always." In the past 18 months, many of us have had reason to reconsider our personal beliefs and actions toward consumerism, speaking specifically about disposable income spending. Mr. Smith's blog post asks us to consider how we have/are contributing to a throw away society by adopting the "lowest cost - always" attitude. This goes right along with your specific examples of the cost, value and quality of jewelry. If we are not mindful, one day we'll only be able to find marginal goods because the quality businesses will be no more.
Duchesse said…
Mary: That's a valuable link, thanks. See also, which is an audio version of Ken Silverstein's article "Shopping for Sweat: The Human Cost of a $2 T-Shirt" in Harper's (January '10), in which he poses as an American garment buyer while visiting overseas makers.
Belle de Ville said…
Duchesse, I'm late on the discussion but this is a fabulous post.

First, you are totally correct about the lemon quartz ring. It is indeed overpriced at full retail.

Second, on any major purchase like a car or a computer you would educate yourself, if not from books then from online resouces. The same is true for jewelry. Blue Nile is an excellent source to get some basic diamond prices and there are many websites with good information about gemstones.

Third, there is indeed a wholesale price is you have a retail store and are placing orders for your stock at the JCK show. Now that price can not be extended to the public it the retailer is going to make any margin. That's not just a fact in the jewelry business, that holds for all of retail.

Fourth, prices change all the time and for various reasons. I posted that I was selling 1940's retro bracelets for prices less than what I could buy them for from the trade. That is indeed true because prices have gone up not just because of the the rise of gold but because of the desirablitiy of wide gold bracelets. The supply is low and the demand is high. Basic economics.

I can't wait to read your next post!
Belle de Ville said…
Oh...and Metscan, a 3.4 carat high color, excellent clarity, round brilliant....that is a very desirable stone. You defenitely deserve it on your 35th anniversary! I hope that you wear it everyday and enjoy it.

Truly, that is where the value of a relationship with a good jeweler comes in.
Duchesse said…
Belle: I am always dismayed when I hear people boast that they paid wholesale for something. Either the vendor has not made a profit or the seller's belief is inaccurate.

metscan: Perhaps you'll post this on your blog? We would love to see! Lovely.
metscan said…
Belle: Thank you for your words, you are the expert!
metscan said…
Duchesse: I am planning to do a post on all my rings, don´t worry, there are not many of them, since I have already passed some of them to my daughters and traded them in order to get a more desirable one.
Anonymous said…
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Glenn said…
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