How Do I Know What I am Really Buying? Part 5

Consequences, the topic of the day!

As a consumer, Common Sense is your greatest weapon. The old saying that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is, still holds true. If you know what gold and silver actually costs then you will have an idea of what jewelry should cost. Obviously the amount of work in an individual piece of jewelry can vary greatly, it is not just the value of the metal that determines the price, but a “solid gold charm” is not going to cost $5 when the price of gold is $1,200 an ounce. You can expect a piece of plain metal jewelry to cost 3 to 6 times the value of the metal, as a ballpark figure. For personal reference, the weight of five US quarters is about an ounce, and the weight of six US dimes is about half an ounce. An easy way to know what precious metals are selling for is to check the “spot price” at someplace like Rio Grande Jewelry. The current “spot price” of metal is always listed at the top of the page right under the search box. If you don’t know what “spot price” means, I suggest you read the first blog in this series.

English: Silver bullion bar 1000oz top view

English: Silver bullion bar 1000oz top view (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ask questions! Even small shop jewelers usually mark their sterling pieces “sterling” or “925”. Reputable jewelers should not be offended by questions about metal content, as long as you are polite. I usually have information about what alloys I use available in my shop so that people with metal allergies can buy with confidence. Resellers will rarely be able to provide that level of information, but the items should still be stamped with the metal content if they are precious metal.

But what happens if someone gets caught cheating?

US Laws governing metal purity are complex, sometimes originating in the gold-rush days, other times based on banking scandals, and or on an increased awareness of adulterated materials. In the US, not only are mislabeled gold and silver products unethical, but the penalties can be draconian. Other countries’ metal laws are different, and may be deferentially enforced.

The US laws concerning metal content are covered at the Federal level by the  “Gold Labeling Act of 1976” which is not just about gold (15 U.S.C. 8 Section 291-3000). The act addresses gold and silver in any form: Bullion, jewelry, and any goods manufactured that include gold or silver. If items violating this law are imported, they may be forfeited, seized, and/or condemned. There are many other penalties that may be applied to companies, employees, or people who import fraudulent gold or silver goods, but those penalties are beyond the scope of this blog.

What about US-based companies and people violating the Federal marking requirements? Anyone violating this Federal law may be fined up to $500 or imprisoned for not more than three months PER ARTICLE found in violation of the law. That law also has some interesting, but less obvious provisions. These violations are additive if you cross borders, use the mail, a shipping company, or any other method to move goods to a wholesaler, jobber, retail location, or to the end consumer.  Federal law also extends the right for Trade Associations and competitors to bring suit under the law.

And that’s not the end of laws controlling metal. Almost every State, Territory, and District have something to say about metal purity. For example, California has a Metals law directed at lead and cadmium content, but it also defines other purity requirements. Violators may be fined up to $2,500 per day, per violation. People who willfully violate this state law face fines up to $100,000 and a year in jail.

Civil Penalties can also occur. For instance, if I was a reseller, and I was buying charms from a manufacturer that were supposed to be sterling silver (925), and they were not, I could sue that manufacturer for damaging my reputation as a seller of quality goods. The court would then determine how much damage had been done to my reputation and determine a financial penalty.

How Do I Know What I am Really Buying? Part 4

Last time I promised to talk about Plating and Filled Metal

Plating with precious metal has been around for a very long time. Theophilus, in his book “On Divers Arts”, published in 1122, describes how to gild a surface, First you mill together mercury and gold, and then apply it to a metal surface and drive off the mercury to create a gilded surface. He notes “Be very careful that you do not mill or apply gilding when you are hungry, because the fumes of mercury are very dangerous to an empty stomach and give rise to various sicknesses…” And I should mention that the milling process is expected to take three or four hours. Fortunately today there are considerably less toxic plating techniques available, involving electricity and chemical solutions. Until fairly recently almost all precious metal plating solutions contained cyanide, but now non-cyanide plating solutions are available for the shop jeweler. Base metals can be plated with silver or gold, both with the same intention, to make a less expensive metal appear to be a more valuable. Plated pieces should be labeled as plated, and some may be stamped with the purity of precious metal that was used. The layer of precious metal is just a few molecules thick, and there is no standard to indicate how thick the precious metal is. Religious objects were often gilt during Medieval times to make them look as if they were made of solid gold.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailAn exception to the plating rule is Vermeil, which is Sterling silver that is plated with gold. It is an American standard. By law Vermeil has no less than 2.5 microns of karat gold (no less than 10k purity) layered over the Sterling Silver. It is usually stamped Vermeil and may include a purity stamp for the gold. Vermeil is 50 times heavier than standard gold plating.

Beware of “Dutch Gold”. It is not real gold, but rather an alloy of copper and zinc, and is usually sold in leaf form. It is sometimes used to “gild” jewelry and other objects. It can be very beautiful, but it is NOT gold.

Filled Metal is made using a different technique than plating. Filled metal has a physically bonded layer of precious metal that is much thicker than plating. It is attached through a combination of heat and pressure to a base metal core.  When purchasing metal stock from a supplier the metal will be listed according to the purity of the gold or silver. For instance 14/20 or 12/20 for gold means 14K or 12K. The ” /20″ part refers to the ratio of karat gold to core by weight, which is 5%. That means the precious metal is 5% of the overall weight of the metal. Different suppliers use different purities of gold.

English: Diagram of gold filled jewellery

English: Diagram of gold filled jewellery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Silver filled has a different annotation system. My supplier lists it as either 1/10 or 1/20, which means a ratio by weight of 5% and 10% respectively; 5% or 10% of the total weight of the metal is silver. I do not use silver filled materials in my shop. I feel that the difference in price is not worth it. But gold-filled materials can allow the customer to have the look of real gold in a product for a fraction of the cost of solid gold.

Next Time: Consequences

How Do I Know What I am Really Buying? Part 3

Last  time we said: Well it looks like silver, but is it?

And now we get into an interesting situation. Two different metals, one of which is a silver alloy, and one of which contains no silver at all – with the same name: Britannia. But they have very different markings.

The first Britannia was, and still is, a standard measure of silver purity in Great Britain. This metal is 95.84% pure silver and 4.16 per cent copper or other metals. The Britannia standard was enacted in Britain in 1697 to try to prevent craftsmen from melting silver coins and reusing them for flatware and hollow ware. It is traditionally stamped 958.

The second form of Britannia contains no silver at all. It is 92% Tin, 6% Antimony, and 2% Copper. It can be stamped “BRITANNIA” or “EPMM”, which stands for “electroplated Britannia Metal”. It is commonly used to make inexpensive hollow ware that is plated with silver. It is also used to make the statues for the Oscars, which are then gold plated.

German Silver contains no silver at all. It is actually a nickel alloy. The alloy that I buy contains 65% copper, 17% zinc, and 18% nickel. I use it mostly for chains, like the one in the picture below. It gives the look of silver without the expense. People with Nickel allergies need to avoid German Silver.


And just because it is “silver colored” doesn’t make it inexpensive. Some rather expensive metals are “silver colored”, for example, Platinum.  For a while there Platinum was even more expensive than gold, but now it has come down a bit and is about $250 less than gold, per ounce. Still not an inexpensive purchase.  Platinum is a fairly rare metal and requires temperatures of over 3000 degrees Fahrenheit to cast, so it is rarely used by small independent jewelers.  Platinum jewelry can be stamped “Plat”, “Platinum”,  ” 900 Platinum”, “950 Platinum” or  “586 Plat” depending on exactly the purity level of the metal.

There are obviously many other silver colored metals out there, including tin, pewter, lead, chrome, and aluminum. None of these are currently considered to be precious metals. Back in the early 1900’s aluminum was considered to a really amazing metal, because of its silver appearance but light weight. I have seen some incredible engraved opera glasses and hollowware from this timeframe. Today aluminum is used in jewelry manufacture because it is lightweight and can be polished up nicely. But it is not a precious metal.

So we have now reviewed the major types of precious metals, which we expect to pay more money for because of the increased cost of the basic materials. If you are interested in non-precious metals, and why  a crafts person, like me,  might choose to use specific metals for an assortment of projects, I wrote a blog series about that earlier this year. Choosing Which Metal  to Use, talks about what metals were actually used in period and the decisions that modern jewelers have to make.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4

Next Time: Plating and Filled Metal