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Precious Metals Buying Guide

by Staff Writer

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A stack of gold, which is the most common precious metal for jewelry

Since humans first discovered shiny metal and sparkling stones, jewelry has been a popular way to win a spouse, reward a friend or just show off your wealth and good taste. Although few of us will likely see a treasure chest full of gold or silver bullion outside of a pirate movie, most of us will, at some point, buy or receive jewelry made of precious metals. From gorgeous fine jewelry to trendy designer jewelry, precious metals add a high level of shine to anything you wear. This precious metal jewelry buying guide presents some basic information to help you recognize and select quality precious metal jewelry that could become treasured family heirlooms.

Buying Precious Metals:

  1. Definition: "Precious" metals are gold, silver or any of what are now called the PGM, platinum group metals. Platinum group metals include platinum, iridium, palladium, ruthenium, rhodium and osmium. Metals that are not classified as gold, silver or PGM metals are considered "base" or ''industrial'' metals. "Precious" refers only to their use in jewelry; many "base" metals are extremely valuable to industry. For example, copper is a monetary metal, used in coinage for millennia, and rhenium's value is nearly 10 times that of gold, but it's so rare that the entire output is committed to industrial use. Part of the precious jewelry mystique is tradition: Silver and gold have been valued as decoration and currency since ancient times. They are easy to work with and they don't rust. The platinum group joined the precious category because their properties are similar to gold and silver, and they are also very beautiful.

  2. Gold: Gold has a magic all its own; rare is the person who does not react when hearing the word. Since man's earliest records, gold has been the ultimate mark of wealth and remains the hallmark precious jewelry metal. The purity of gold is most often measured in fineness, but Americans still use the karat in fine jewelry and designer jewelry. Karat is frequently abbreviated with a "k" after the number. Pure gold is 24k gold, and it is too soft to use in jewelry. Commonly used in fine jewelry, 18k and 14k gold are 75 percent pure and 58.3 percent pure, respectively. Commonly used in fashion jewelry, 10k gold is 42 percent pure; 10k gold is the legal minimum for gold jewelry. Gold-plated jewelry is quite common and allows jewelry lovers on a budget to indulge in this fantastic precious metal. In plating, the gold layer is chemically bonded through electrolysis onto a base metal, such as silver or nickel.

  3. Silver: Silver is the most plentiful of the precious metals. It was the money standard until the 19th century in most countries, and almost every 21st century home has some silver jewelry, a set of silver-plated candlesticks or a silver coin. Silver must be alloyed for hardness; the best silver used to make jewelry is sterling silver, which consists of 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent base metal. Nickel is the most common sterling silver base metal. Sterling silver jewelry is a growing fashion trend, mainly because sterling silver is often the most affordable precious metal.

  4. Platinum: Platinum has a short history in jewelry. Brought to Europe by the Spanish Conquistadors, its chemical properties made it difficult to work with until the 19th century. Platinum that is at least 95 percent pure may be sold as platinum. Anything lower must be marked and described as platinum alloy. Platinum jewelry stays white, and it also develops a patina that many think gives it a vintage jewelry feel and makes a great background for diamonds. Denser than gold, platinum is heavier and more durable, too; it holds gemstones securely and is hypoallergenic. Perhaps most important, platinum will not wear away; the platinum bracelet, earrings, necklace or ring you buy today will be the same when you hand them down to your granddaughter.

  5. Industrial metals: Used in manufacturing for many decades, the industrial metals are recent additions to the jewelry market. Stainless steel reflects a brilliant shine when it has a polished finish, making steel jewelry very attractive. It resists tarnish and chipping while maintaining its appearance with minimal care. Titanium is durable, yet it is surprisingly lightweight. Tungsten carbide resists scratches and damage better than any other jewelry metal, so a piece of tungsten carbide jewelry maintains its polish for many, many years. Tungsten is darker in color than titanium, though both have a grey hue and both are hypoallergenic. The industrial metals are especially popular in contemporary men's jewelry, and many men choose these metals for attractive, durable wedding bands.

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