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The No-Fool's Guide to Gold and Other Shiny Things


How to turn your old jewelry into new money.

Somewhere in your home you're probably hoarding a tangled heap of useless shiny stuff that you're sure is worth something if only you knew how to turn your cache into cash. You might think of it from time to time when you hear that the spot gold price, now hovering around $1,100 per ounce, has hit yet another high.

Of course, you know better than to dump it all into an envelope and mail it off to some fly-by-night cash-for-gold company or visit one of those dodgy storefronts that are popping up all over.

But the market for jewelry -- not just "fine" and gold jewelry but vintage, costume, and collectible jewelry -- is so vast and complex that some of its quirkier corners might surprise you.

For instance:

  • Your cheesy high school class ring is probably worth about $40 or $50 as scrap gold, even though it's only 10-karat gold and the stone is colored glass.

  • Sterling silver jewelry pieces studded with "semi-precious" stones, although always pricey in stores, are virtually worthless for resale in this crummy economy.

  • On the other hand, a pin shaped like an elephant and made of rhinestones and gold-plated metal, sold by Avon (AVP) in its Elizabeth Taylor collection in the 1990s, can be worth more than its original cost.

  • Shiny little things that long ago outlived their usefulness -- think cuff links, tie clips, pocket watches, shoe clips, and fur clips -- can be particularly valuable.

  • Things that have gone so far out of fashion they can't possibly come back -- like Victorian mourning jewelry made of human hair, watch fobs made for pocket watches, and bracelets made from obsolete plastics -- can be most valuable of all.

Learning a little about jewelry can help you sort trash from treasure, and turn it into cash.

Your cache may contain any or all of the following: precious metals that can be sold as scrap; precious stones that can be recycled; fine jewelry that's worth more than its scrap value; and costume jewelry that might be worth more than all of the above. Then, of course, there's the real junk.

Here's how to recognize and resell any of the above, except for the real junk.

Precious Metals

Gold, sterling silver, and platinum all are saleable as scrap. But realistically, this is about gold. Silver prices have risen, too, but you'd have to have a lot of it to add up to real money, at about $16.75 an ounce. And not many people have much platinum lying around.

The price you get is based on the day's closing price for pure 24-karat gold futures, lately around $1,100 per ounce. Which tells you nothing. Real gold is marked, but only the pros have the test kits and scales to determine value. The worth of your gold depends on its purity (usually 10-, 14- or 18-carat), and is measured by pennyweight, or one-twentieth of an ounce.

Because this still means nothing to me, I took a few miscellaneous items to a jewelry store. Karl Johnson, of Joseph D. Doubet Inc. in Media, Pennsylvania, weighed a couple pairs of earrings and a ring, all 14-karat gold, and came up with 7.5 pennyweight, worth about $118 that day.

He's also the source of that news that a class ring can be worth $40 or more. Also, that dental gold is more than 15-karat, which is, sadly, better quality than most of the jewelry I own.

A gold buyer should pay about 60% to 65% of the day's gold price for scrap, he said. As always, it's smart to shop around to see if you can get a better percentage. But given the recent reports of gold craze rip-offs, your best bet is probably an established business person in your town who has a reputation to maintain.

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