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Is it Jewel or Jive? Tips for the Traveler

She couldn't resist the ruby ring in New Delhi, so she cashed a few traveler's checks and handed over a fistful of money. Back home, she took it to a jeweler for appraisal . . . and learned that her $300 ring held an inferior-grade stone that had been dyed. Here's how to avoid similarly costly mistakes.

Test It Yourself

  • Genuine pearls have a faintly gritty texture you can detect by brushing them lightly across your teeth. Fake ones feel smooth.
  • Gemstones remain cool against your upper lip. Glass and plastic warm up quickly.
  • "Ivory" made from animal bone or palm nuts is dull and smooth. Real elephant ivory is glossy and crosshatched with brown channels (and usually illegal to sell, export, or import).

Avoid Unmarked Metals

  • Pure gold and silver are too soft to hold most shapes unless they're alloyed with another metal. Good-quality jewelry is stamped with its alloy proportions.
  • Gold purity is listed in karats (k) in the U.S.A., and in percentages most other places. The best gold jewelry is stamped 18k or 750 (75 percent pure gold) or, alternatively, 14k or 585 (58 percent).
  • Vermeil properly refers to gold-coated sterling silver, but it (along with gold-filled, gold-plated, rolled gold, and gold-washed) is also used to describe a less valuable metal coated with pure gold.
  • The usual silver alloy is sterling (925 parts pure silver, 75 parts copper). Either the word sterling or the numeral 925 indicates the genuine article.

Beware of Flashy Names
Descriptive terms can be deceptive. Onyx is a hard, banded quartz; Mexican onyx, however, is a form of alabaster. Smoky topaz is not topaz, the precious gem, but a golden-brown quartz. Gem-quality jade is either jadeite or nephrite. New jade is a form of serpentine; apple jade is chrysoprase; Oregon jade is green jasper. They're all pretty, but less precious than jade.

Get It in Writing
For customs declarations, insurance purposes, and your own peace of mind, insist on a receipt that has these details:

  • Date of purchase
  • Price
  • Name of shop and salesclerk
  • Physical description of item
  • Metals used and purity data
  • Mineral composition of gemstones
  • Gemstone color and clarity (with grades for diamonds); shape (cut); and size in carats, millimeters, or grains, as appropriate.

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