Thursday, January 24, 2013

An Insider's Guide to Selling Silver & Gold

An Insider’s View: Tips on Selling Gold & Silver for Cash

Do you have a small fortune sitting unused in your jewelry box? Gold and silver prices are still high enough to warrant unloading those broken serpentine chains and single earrings now. What follows are a few guidelines and some personal experience on selling gold and silver.

Do Your Homework

When you walk in to see a buyer, you need to be armed with as much information as possible. That way you will know when to take a good offer, and when to walk away.

Determining Iron Content:
Begin by checking your jewelry with a magnet to see if it has iron content.  If the magnet sticks, it won’t have scrap value, though it may have value as an antique. Show it to someone who knows antiques, if you suspect it is a valuable piece. Some antique jewelry has a value greater than that of the metal it contains.

Maker’s Marks
 Look for a maker’s mark that could add to the value of the piece, especially if it is a famous maker name like William Spratling. I have a copper and brass Art Smith bracelet that is worth nothing as scrap, but around $5,000 on the antique market.  Trolling on eBay might help you find an approximate value.  A maker’s mark is like a logo:  it could be a name, initials or special image.  I have two maker’s mark stamps, one for flat metal that says WORDEN and my registered hallmark, a tiny safety pin image for the curved inside of rings. 

Quality Marks
 Next, check for quality marks on the jewelry. You may need magnification for this. Quality marks are stamps on the jewelry or flatware to indicate how much gold or silver content is in the metal. For silver, look for Sterling or 925, which indicates a sterling alloy, 925 parts silver to 75 parts alloy, usually copper.  Coin silver contains less silver, but is still worth something.  Nickel silver, German silver, and pewter have no silver content at all.  If you see the word Plate or Silver Plate, the piece is silver plated over a cheaper metal like brass, and no one will buy it for scrap.  English silver is easiest to evaluate because there are at least four marks: quality (sterling is sometimes shown as a lion), a maker’s mark identifying the shop where it was made, a mark identifying the assay office where it was evaluated, and a mark for the reigning monarch when the piece was assayed. Unfortunately, many countries do not have the documentation traditions the English do. Also, the weight of silverware knives can be deceiving; they are usually die formed from thin silver sheet and then filled with resin to add weight.

The quality mark for gold is a number followed by a K for karat, which means the percentage of gold in the alloy. 18K (75% gold), 14K (58%), and 10K (42%) are common in jewelry.  Pure gold is 24K and too soft to be used for jewelry, but can be found in coins.  Asian cultures prefer 22K gold (very yellow, but very soft) and dental gold is 18K.  If the mark has a number followed by GF, that means it is gold fill, or primarily a base metal like brass with a thin sheet of gold fused to the surface and therefore junk.  Also, please keep in mind that buyers never offer 100% of the market price.  You are selling scrap that will have to be refined before it is sold again.

Weight Measurement
 After quality, gold and silver scrap prices are determined by weight.  The jewelry world uses two measuring systems, grams (metric) and troy ounces (unique to the jewelry trade). If you have a gram scale, weigh what you have, stones and all.  If you don’t have a gram scale, you could weigh the gold on a letter scale. HOWEVER, do not confuse the avoirdupois ounce (used by the US Postal Service) for troy ounces; they are different systems.  (To convert avoirdupois to troy ounces, multiply the weight of gold or silver by .91146.)  If you don’t have a small scale to weigh your jewelry, I would avoid selling it online.  It’s better to sell to someone who weighs and evaluates the quality in front of you. 

Valuing Stones
If the jewelry contains stones, especially bigger diamonds, check them out with a reputable jeweler. Used diamonds are a whole other market and their value is determined by cut, clarity and carat weight. (Carat is another specialty weight system unique to gemstones.) If the stones are quite large, a certified appraisal might be worth the money just to know what you have. A written appraisal by a certified appraiser costs around $100.  

Finding a Buyer

I sell scrap metal on a regular basis directly to refineries, but most only buy and sell to established businesses that have accounts with them.  I always weigh the scrap on my scales before sending it in. Recently several people have asked me where an ordinary person should go to sell gold jewelry. I decided to do some sleuthing and checked out some places in the Seattle area.

 The first place I went to was Bellevue Rare Coins on NE 4th Street in downtown Bellevue; my husband found them by Googling Where to Sell Gold Coins/Seattle.  The family-owned and -operated company opened its first store, West Seattle Coins, in 1979. They are experts on coins, precious metals, and estate jewelry.  Their website offers helpful advice and they give free verbal appraisals. 

I brought two early 20th century American silver dollars and some old Chinese coins.  They offered me a fair price on the silver dollars but were not interested in buying the Chinese coins. Although the coins are very old, they aren’t rare because many were minted.  They gave me a receipt for the silver coins and paid me in cash.  Thumbs up to Bellevue Rare Coins! It was a very pleasant experience.

 My second choice was American Gold in the South Center Mall area, a company that employs people to stand on street corners and wave signs at cars driving by.  I found the store in the back of an empty strip mall, hidden from the street and up a stairwell.  I got as far as the stairs and hesitated. I realized that no one from the street could see me enter with gold or leave with cash.  It was a perfect hold-up situation and gave me the creeps.  Many years of working in the jewelry biz have taught me to be paranoid. They might be legit, but the location felt wrong, even in broad daylight.  American Gold????? I kept moving.

Warning: don’t enter any establishment that is hidden from public view or gives you the creeps. Trust your instincts and take a friend.

 My third stop was Renton Cash for Gold, located in a room about the size of a closet on the side of a gas station on Rainier Avenue, a very busy street.  The entrance was visible from the street and there were lots of folks at the gas station mini-mart, so I felt safe.  I dressed down for this session, yoga clothes and no jewelry.  I presented a pleasant gentleman sitting at a desk behind a security door with a baggie of stuff: three silver costume jewelry pieces; a small, old gold ring with rubies and an emerald; and a ring I made for my mom in the 1980s of 14K gold set with a large piece of bright green jade and five high quality small diamonds on the side.  Since I made it, I knew what it was worth.

The gentleman went through the usual tests. First, he touched all the pieces with a magnet to see if they had any iron content. When nothing stuck to the magnet, he examined each piece with a jeweler’s loupe, searching for quality marks. Then he sorted the silver pieces into a pile and rubbed each one on a black touchstone until they left a mark.  He then applied drops of nitric acid to each mark and none of them fizzed. (Fizzing indicates the strong presence of more lowly metals like copper or brass.) Then he rubbed the two gold rings on another black touchstone and applied a drop from a different bottle of acid (a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric) to those marks. No fizzing again, a good sign.

 Last he weighed the silver pieces all together on a digital scale and punched some numbers into a calculator.  Then he did the same with the two gold rings, stones and all, and offered me 6 bucks for the silver junk and $200 for the two gold rings.  I laughed and said I’d keep them for that.   When he asked me why I laughed, I explained that I had made the jade ring and knew the value of the stones and karat and weight of the gold.  He raised his offer to $500 even after I told him I didn’t want to sell.  We had a candid chat after that and he admitted he knew nothing about stones.

 Because he used orthodox methods for testing gold and silver content, I told him I would recommend him to a friend who has some gold to sell and I will, if all she has to sell is gold jewelry without stones or antique value.  However, he never told me the price he was paying for scrap, so there is no way to compare his prices with online sites.  His prices also seemed to be negotiable. What’s my verdict on Renton Cash for Gold? The owner is honest, but ignorant about jewelry.  If you are going to go that route, be a comparative shopper and get other quotes.

A Word for Posterity

 Finally, I want to put in a word for posterity.  The history of gold and silver jewelry has been compromised because every time there is a war, recession or depression, people tend to yank the stones from the settings and melt down the metal for money.  That is probably why we have no surviving hat ornaments made by the famous Italian Renaissance jeweler Benvenuto Cellini although he claimed in his autobiography he made hundreds of them. King Henry VIII was notorious for having the royal gems pulled from jewelry every time he remarried, reusing the same stones in gifts for his new queen.  It was good business for the Tudor period jewelers, but bad for the history of jewelry. 

Please be careful you aren’t destroying something that has value as art.  Do your homework, and let the jewelry and its history live on.