This Valentine's Day, jewelry may be a more practical gift than usual. The sales that began before Thanksgiving and Christmas JTC are continuing, and the prices of gold and silver jewelry have been further reduced at many stores.
But how does a customer know that the pieces on display are, indeed, gold and silver? There are important marks to look for.
"A little hangtag or foil on the box doesn't mean anything," said Michael Paolercio, president of Michael Anthony Jewelers, a manufacturer in Mount Vernon, N.Y. "Wherever you buy jewelry, ask to see the quality mark and the trademark."
Federal law (the Marking and Stamping Act of 1906, which has been amended many times), requires quality marks and trademarks as a guarantee of authenticity for virtually all gold and silver jewelry except antiques or foreign pieces. Quality marks are called karat marks for gold and fineness marks for silver.
Karat marks refer to the purity of the gold. They are usually stamped on jewelry as a number followed by K, KT, KT Gold or K Gold. The purest gold is 24-karat, but that is too soft for jewelry, so the gold is alloyed with other metals -- including silver, copper and brass -- to increase its durability, rigidity and workability.
Most gold jewelry in the United States is 14-karat, which is 58.5 percent gold and 41.5 percent alloy. In Europe, the standard is 18-karat, or 75 percent gold. Some emblematic jewelry, like school and college class rings, is 10-karat, or 42 percent gold. Nothing less than 10 karat can be legally sold as gold in this country.
"Any responsible retailer would encourage people to know what they are buying," said Peter Schneirla, a group vice president at Tiffany. "If that includes looking at the stamps under a loupe or a magnifying glass, it is the merchant's responsibility to provide this."
Ralph Destino, the chairman of Cartier, said: "The retail price of anything is related, at least in part, to the purity of the gold used to make it. But jewelry is not a commodity. Jewelry is about design, about craftsmanship, about workmanship."
Sterling silver, which is stamped "sterling" in the United States, is also an alloy that is 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent copper. Lesser qualities of silver are sold in other countries. What is more, both gold and silver jewelry must be stamped with a registered trademark or hallmark, as well as with a quality mark.
"This is an identifiable mark that means a manufacturer is willing to stand behind the product," said Steffan Aletti, president of the Jewelry Industry Council, a trade group.
Despite the laws governing these marks and the fact that most manufacturers and retailers observe the federal requirements, some stores sell under-karated gold. They, or their agents, stamp 14K on items that have a much lower gold content.
"Gold is a big blind item," said Lance Stein, manager of Grand Central Jewelers in Grand Central Terminal in New York. "It's supposed to be 14-karat, but it can go as low as 4- and 6-karat. Sometimes there is a 14-karat stamp on the wire of earrings, but not on the earrings themselves."
Michael D. Roman, chairman of Jewelers of America, the retail jewelers' trade association, said: "An awful lot of people are selling 14-karat jewelry without the quality mark at ridiculously low prices. Furthermore, if there is no hallmark, don't buy it regardless of what it is stamped."
In addition to real gold, there are also gold plate and gold filled jewelry. The former is made of a metal plated with gold by an electrolytic process, while gold filled jewelry is produced by a mechanical bonding process in which gold is annealed to a base metal under intense heat. According to Roman, a quality mark must be stamped on these products, too -- "14K-gold plate" or "14K-gold filled," for example.
Jewelers of America has two free pamphlets, one on gold jewelry and the other on sterling silver jewelry, available by writing to the organization at 1185 Avenue of the Americas, 30th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10036. But remember that when buying jewelry, caution is the better part of love.