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THE GOODS : The Gold Standard : It's true--all that glitters isn't necessarily real. So here are a few tips on how to buy jewelry that's worth its weight.

June 02, 1995|NANCY ROMMELMANN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gold is to a woman what a blue blazer is to a man: timeless, elegant, always appropriate. It's the staple of a woman's wardrobe.

--John Petterson, Manager, Tiffany & Co. Beverly Hills

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Elegant, yes. Timeless. And costly. And, as romantic and dazzling as gold can be, it is also an investment, perhaps a family heirloom. Hunting for gold jewelry can make youwish you had an uncle in the business.

First, the karat question: Straight from the mine, pure gold--24 karat--is very soft, too soft to wear without an accumulation of scratches and nicks. Pure gold jewelry is not sold by most American jewelers.

Most gold jewelry is made of gold mixed with alloys that strengthen and color the metal, giving it characteristic hues. Pure gold is a rich golden yellow. Gold mixed with copper yields rose gold. Adding nickel and zinc yields white gold.

Shiao Jing, a jeweler in the Downtown jewelry district, says the lack of high karatage gold in the United States has nothing to do with price, but is a cultural preference. "In the Orient, we wear 24K. Here, you like 14K. You like what you're used to."

She flashes two wedding bands. The 14-karat is a pale gold, the 24-karat a luminous metallic yellow. "For special pieces, 24K looks more glamorous, richer," she says, "but for wedding bands, I'd recommend 14K for durability. After all, you only want to buy one."

The percentage of alloy determines the karat number. Gold containing 18 parts gold and six parts nickel is 18K gold; 14 parts gold and 10 parts alloy is 14K gold. American-made gold articles do not have to carry a karat mark, although most do.

But by law, jewelry imported from Europe must be stamped with the karatage. Europe expresses the percentages in hundreds out of 1,000 parts: 18-karat gold will be stamped "750" (meaning it is three-quarters gold and 250 parts--or one-quarter alloy).

The minimum karatage for gold sold in the United States is 10 parts gold, or 10 karat. In Canada, it's 9, and in Mexico it's 8, so while you may pay less for gold jewelry north or south of the border, you also may be getting less gold.

According to the World Gold Council, more than $9.6 billion worth of "primary value" gold jewelry (that means 14 karat and above) was sold in the United States in 1994, with that figure rising a steady 7.7% annually for the past three years. During that time, the price of gold has remained constant: $360 an ounce, or about $13 a gram.

With such high volume, but no real wholesale price increase, there's a lot of competition for consumers' gold dollars, and major retailers know it. Each uses a different approach: Department stores and malls rely on convenience, high-end jewelers on reputation, and wholesalers on the fact that everyone loves a bargain.

About 20% of all gold jewelry sold last year was purchased in department stores. "We offer [customers] a good selection and a wide range of prices in a central location," says a saleswoman at Bullock's in the Beverly Center.

Buying a known designer's pieces can really up the price. A pair of 18K Charles Garnier's hoops at Bullock's runs $1,200; an almost-identical pair of 14K earrings from the Bullock's line is about $300.

"Clients do follow designers," says Tiffany & Co. Manager John Petterson, speaking from the glittering second floor of the store on Rodeo Drive. "We had a bash this winter for Elsa Peretti, and a woman came up to her and announced Peretti's designs had changed her life. We all thought it was a little funny, but the woman was sincere."

In addition to Tiffany's signature designers, there is the Tiffany Collection, wrought in 18K and a little in 14K gold--but no 24K or 22K ("too soft," Petterson says).

Petterson's advice on selecting a piece: "Look at the craftsmanship, at the critical elements of the piece. It should flow, without any kinks. The clasp should give a resounding click, the hinges should move freely.

"Is it hollow or solid? With some exceptions, gold should always be solid. Look at the back of this piece," he says, snapping the clasp of a shell-shaped earring. "It looks as good as the front."

He moves on to a Paloma Picasso necklace. "Tiffany is very proud of our finishing, which is something you have to look for. Brushing, high-polishing, texturing--it's a lot of work, but it's what makes a fine piece of jewelry."

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Buying in the jewelry district around Pershing Square in Downtown can provide more gold for your money. Most gold jewelry sells there at wholesale prices--which means the item is simply weighed and totaled.

The jewelry district can also be intimidating. There's often a language barrier because many wholesalers are Middle Eastern, Asian or Latino, and the sheer number of dealers and range of quality of the gold can be daunting.

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