Firing Line: What consumers want to know about gold jewelry

When customers rifle product questions at your sales associates, they needn’t head for cover Here, MJ answers the questions consumers most often ask about gold jewelry.

What would your salespeople say to a customer who claims the gold neck chain she bought the month before is fake because it left black marks on her skin?

How would they answer a question about the difference in color between 10k gold and 18k gold? Would they know how to handle queries about your store’s pricing policies and those of competitors who sell gold by the gram or claim to be discounting 50%?

These are the kinds of questions consumers raise today. Just as the public wants to know the 4Cs of diamonds, it is also likely to ask about the quality characteristics of gold jewelry.

Salespeople should be ready for the customer who is familiar with assay tests, and the one who doesn’t know a gold karat from a diamond carat. “One customer may walk in and have no concept about what 14k gold means, while the next one might ask specifically for an 18k-gold, 2mm, 5-gram rope chain,” says Carrie Necastro, manager of King’s Jewelry, Hermitage, Pa.

To prepare employees for both, we called jewelers to find out what questions consumers ask most. Then we went to the experts-the World Gold Council, the Gemological Institute of America, jewelry arts specialists, retail training experts and metallurgists-for the answers.

Q. Is your Jewelry made of pure gold?
A. Technically speaking, only gold with no additives can be called pure. However, such gold-labeled “24k”-tends to be too soft to be used in jewelry. So various metals that act as hardeners, such as silver, copper, nickel, palladium or zinc, are added to make the gold suitable for jewelry use. Once you add these other metals, the entire mixture is called an alloy. Almost all gold used in jewelry is an alloy.

Q. Is this piece made of solid gold?
A. If you mean is it made entirely of gold, yes. However, the term “solid” can only be used to describe pieces of jewelry that are not hollow and are 10k or more in fineness.

Q. What does the “k” stamp on this piece of gold Jewelry mean?
A. The gold used in jewelry is almost always a mixture of pure gold and other metals. In America, the degree to which gold has been mixed with other metals is expressed in a unit called a karat, represented by a “k” on a piece of jewelry. When gold contains no other metals, it is said to be 24 karats (24k). Most consumers buy jewelry that is either 14k-14 parts pure gold and 10 parts other metals- or 18k-which is 18 parts pure gold and six parts other metals. However, many jewelers are starting to stock gold that is 10k-10 parts pure gold and 14 parts other metals-which is the lowest fineness allowable for gold jewelry in the U.S.

Q. How do I know that a piece of Jewelry contains the amount of gold stamped on it?
A. Gold marking is regulated by federal law. Jewelry that carries a gold content mark must therefore meet certain gold testing requirements designed to prevent falsification. But it helps to shop at a reputable place where jewelry is regularly checked for final peace of mind that the gold markings are accurate.

Occasionally, you may see a piece of karat gold jewelry with no marks on it. The absence of a stamp (i.e. 14k or 18k) is perfectly legal because the government does not require manufacturers to stamp the amount of gold in a piece of jewelry. If a manufacturer does use a gold mark, federal law requires that it be accurate and accompanied by a maker’s mark-either the company’s initials or registered trademark. The maker’s mark helps in investigation of gold that falls below the mark.

Most Americans are familiar with gold content expressed in terms of karats. But if they are buying gold jewelry that is made in Europe, they will sometimes find gold content expressed in metric terms, since Europe is on the metric standard. In Europe, the proportion of gold to other metals is measured in parts per 1,000. The following are translations of the most common U.S. karat marks into the European metric equivalents: 24k=999, 18k=750, 14k=585, 10k=416.

Although 10k is legally the lowest karat age that can be called gold in the U.S., Great Britain manufactures 9k-gold jewelry (stamped 333) and Germany has 8k gold (stamped 250).

Be aware that a piece of gold jewelry does not have to test (assay) to exactly the amount stamped, just very close to it-three parts per thousand if the piece has no solder (a goldsmiths’ metal “glue” which holds parts together) and seven parts per thousand if the piece does contain solder.

Q. What does the “p” stamped on my piece of Jewelry mean (i.e. 14kp)?
A. While customers often think the “p” stands for plating, it actually refers to the word “plumb”-a goldsmiths’ term that means the piece is exactly the fineness indicated.

Q. Will 10k gold chip or peel?
A. No. Although 10k gold contains less precious metal than 14k or 18k gold, pieces made with this alloy are just as durable as any other.

Chipping or peeling of gold is only a problem when the gold is a plating affixed to a base metal. In such cases, however, the fact that the gold is a plating will be disclosed as part of the piece’s metals markings. This plating takes the form of either gold electroplate or gold filled.

By the way, the term gold filled, used to describe a specific form of gold plating, does not, as the term implies, mean that the item is filled with gold. It refers to jewelry made of base metal (commonly brass or copper) covered by sheets of gold bonded to the base by a mechanical process.

Q. What causes gold to be different colors?
A. While pure gold is a warm yellow, it can be manufactured in a wide variety of colors-including pink, white, green, blue or gray-by being mixed with different metals.

For example, when silver and copper are added to pure gold, it turns yellow. When nickel or palladium (or zinc and copper) are added, gold turns white. Pure gold combined with silver, copper and zinc results in green gold. And pink gold is made when copper is mixed with pure gold.

Q. Is there a difference in color between 18k, 14k and 10k gold?
A. No, but there can be slight differences in color richness. The more gold a piece contains, the more vivid its color tends to look. In general, 18k gold has a warmer, fuller glow than 10k gold. However, some manufacturers can minimize these differences by carefully adjusting the alloys used to make their gold jewelry.

Q. What is Black Hills gold?
A. Black Hills gold is gold jewelry manufactured in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Traditional designs feature a grapes-and-leaves motif made out of green, rose and yellow gold. Often the jewelry also has a diamond-cut finish. The precious metal in Black Hills gold jewelry does not have to come from South Dakota to be called Black Hills gold. However, the jewelry must be manufactured there to have this designation.

Q. If my skin turns black underneath my gold jewelry, does that mean it’s not real gold?
A. Your problem is not uncommon, and is known to jewelers as “gold smudge.” It is caused by a chemical reaction between the piece and the wearer, or from tarnish. While 24k gold does not tarnish, some alloys will. Both 18k- and 14k-gold jewelry are less likely to cause smudge than 10k, due to the fact that the higher karat ages contain less base metal. (Some people are even allergic to gold or some alloys.) Other causes include exposure to makeup, chemicals, a buildup of soap or lotion and perspiration. Regular cleaning and careful wear often eliminate the problem. Buying jewelry with a higher karat age will also help.

Q. Will the finish on this piece wear off?
A. Because the finish on a piece of jewelry is confined to its surface, there is always the potential for it to show wear over time, especially with rings which are in constant contact with your skin and other objects. Finishes are more likely to last on items such as pendants or earrings, where there is minimal friction between the piece of jewelry, skin and clothing. On such jewelry, the finish will last almost indefinitely. If the finish does start to disappear from the piece, it can be reapplied, or refinished, by a trained jeweler.

Q. I bought this chain one month ago and now it has black marks between the links. Is it defective? Can it be fixed?
A. Sometimes the base metals used to make old jewelry will oxidize, causing the piece to become darker in color. The process may speed up if the jewelry comes in contact with bleaches and perfume that contain potentially corrosive materials. By the way, oxidation is less likely to occur in higher karat age pieces because they contain less of the metals that oxidize. Precious metals-gold, platinum and silver-do not oxidize.

This is not a permanent condition. Through regular cleaning and careful wear (i.e. avoiding contact with chemicals) the problem is controllable.

Q. Can I wear my gold jewelry every day?
A. It is important to choose a piece of gold jewelry that is consistent with your lifestyle. If you intend to wear a piece every day, you should steer towards more durable items. For instance, rope as opposed to herringbone chain would be a better choice for a person with a very active lifestyle.

Q. What is the best way to care for gold jewelry?
A. Use jewelry cleaner and a soft cloth to clean your gold jewelry .If you do not have jewelry cleaner, you can use mild soap and warm water. Never use any harsh cleaners such as bleach or abrasives. There are also individual ultrasonic cleaners that are sold to consumers. (Be sure to put no more than two pieces side by side in the cleaner. The machine’s vibrations may cause items to tumble against each other, causing scratches.) You can also take your jewelry back to the store every so often for the jeweler to clean it professionally.

To store gold jewelry, wrap each piece separately in a soft cloth. Lay herringbone chains flat so they do not kink. Always remember to remove your jewelry before sleeping, bathing or exercising.

Q. If scratches appear on my jewelry, can they be removed?
A. Yes, scratches can be buffed out of a piece.

Q. If I dent this hollow earring (or bangle) can it be fixed or is the piece ruined?
A. Gold, although considered a soft metal, can withstand a reasonable amount of wear and tear. If a piece does suffer a blow that actually dents it, many times it can be removed by a trained jeweler, who will usually give you an estimate for the cost of the repair.
Q, The store down the street sells its gold jewelry by the gram. How do I know that I am getting good value here?
A. Buying finished gold is not the same as buying gold bullion. The value of bullion is based primarily on weight and gold content whereas the value of gold jewelry owes as much to workmanship and styling as it does to metal content. Two pieces of gold chain may look nearly identical, but one may be well crafted and the other poorly made. What’s more, the method of manufacture can make a great difference in the final price of a piece. Obviously, handmade jewelry will cost more than machine-made.

Q. Many stores have 50%- to 75%-off sales. Why don’t you?
A. Often stores that advertise huge discounts are engaging in deceptive pricing. To give you the illusion that you are getting a great bargain on your gold jewelry, they mark it down substantially from a fictitiously high list price that the store has never actually charged. Although this practice violates Federal Trade Commission rules, it is still common. If you compare these so-called “marked-down” prices to the everyday non-discounted prices in most reputable stores, you will usually find the non-discounted prices are the same or even lower.

Q. I like the look of large gold earrings, but wouldn’t they be too heavy to wear?
A. Jewelry manufacturers are able to produce big, bold pieces of gold jewelry that are lightweight and very comfortable to wear. One of the most widely used manufacturing techniques is die striking (also known as “stamping”), which can produce highly detailed, hollow (and hence lightweight) gold jewelry. Electroforming is another manufacturing process that produces lightweight pieces

Q. Why is electroformed jewelry so expensive compared to other gold jewelry of the same weight?
A. Electroforming is a very time-consuming process and requires equipment that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. These expenses have to be factored into the jewelry’s final cost. Imagine how much more expensive and uncomfortable such large pieces would be if they were not hollow.

Modern Jeweler, June 1994 | 800-759-9997 | (fax) 800-616-9997