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Seller beware, as gold buyers can vary widely

I'm invited to a "gold party" Saturday afternoon.

The host is a friend of mine who says a gold buyer will be there to pay cash for my old jewelry and scrap gold.

With pure gold prices pushing record highs, near $1,100 per ounce, the gold buying and selling frenzy is in full swing throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

"Most people have an average of about 50 to 100 grams of gold sitting in a drawer or jewelry box. This could be broken chains, mismatched earrings, unwanted items, old jewelry, etc.," says the event's promotional flyer. "Instead of taking up space in a jewelry box, these items could be earning you some extra CASH!"

The party's gold buyer apparently will be some company based in Colorado, and it promises: "Top Dollar Paid Cash! Guaranteed."

My friend attended a gold party last month, and she was thrilled to walk away with about $175.

But I'm the suspicious sort. That's why I became a reporter (and probably why I don't get invited to many parties). How would I know whether I'm really getting "top dollar" when I don't even know if that gold-tone junk tangled in my drawer is real?

Seriously, how many of us really can eyeball the difference between a 14-carat gold chain compared to one that's gold-filled, gold-electroplated or simply gold-colored? Not me.

So I rummaged around in a couple of drawers and grabbed assorted golden goodies I haven't worn for years.

I was pretty confident a few of them were real gold, including the original setting from my engagement ring (which now holds an amethyst), a long chain my parents gave me when I graduated from college (now broken) and a replica gold coin in a bezel that I bought in an auction a decade ago.

Several other chains, bracelets and rings were of unknown origin, and I tossed in a necklace with an opal and golden heart pendant that an old boyfriend gave me for my 19th birthday.

I talked my editor into letting me do a story about what Modesto gold buyers pay for gold jewelry.

Finding businesses willing to buy gold is easy. Just drive down McHenry Avenue and you're bound to spot a roadside placard or see young women waving "cash for gold" signs. Many jewelry stores now purchase gold, along with pawn shops, coin dealers and some specialty businesses that do nothing but buy precious metals and gems.

An Internet search will turn up lots of buyers, too.

I had never pawned anything before, so I figured the Modesto Loan & Jewelry Co. downtown would be a fun first stop. I emptied out a small bag of stuff in front of the man in the cage, who was nice enough to clear space for my 15-piece golden array.

He put a jeweler's loupe to his eye, then quickly pushed aside several pieces as worthless. I told him how one of those rings was purchased in Hawaii by my father who was told it was adorned with parsley dipped in gold.

"Electroplated," pawn store guy explained to me, noting how it "would take a truckload" of the stuff to be worth anything.

He determined just three items were real: the engagement ring, the broken graduation necklace and one bracelet. He weighed them, then offered me $65 for all three.

I asked him to take a second look at that replica gold coin in the bezel. He did, and said it looked plated to him. I was kind of embarrassed I hadn't known it was fake gold as well as being a fake coin.

I thanked him for the information, then drove to the next buyer: Modesto Gold Jewelry and Coins, near Five Points.

There isn't much to this shop, just a small entry next to a secure glass-enclosed counter. But the place was hopping with customers carrying clusters of gold and other precious metals. Two staff members stayed busy evaluating our wares.

Not wanting to waste anyone's time, I left the golden parsley ring and several other obviously junk pieces in my car. It wouldn't have mattered: This guy barely had to look to eliminate most of my non-gold jewelry.

He passed a big magnet over the top of my pile, and everything that stuck got handed back to me. Gold is not magnetic, I learned.

The only things remaining were the engagement ring, the graduation necklace, that bracelet, the "gold" coin in the bezel, and the opal and golden heart pendant necklace from my old boyfriend.

My hopes swelled. Alas, I reacted too soon.

He performed a chemical test on everything to determine gold content. He said the golden heart with the opal wasn't gold, but its tiny gold chain was worth $10.

The bezel holding the coin wasn't real, so he doubted the coin was gold. I removed the coin from the bezel, hopeful that it would pass the chemical test. Nope.

He offered $115 total for the four pieces he determined were gold. (The customer next to me, meanwhile, collected nearly $300 for her stuff.)

Next stop: DeAngelo's Jewelry in northwest Modesto. This is an actual jewelry store and the friendly staff isn't kept in cages.

Using just magnification and his professional eye, the jeweler determined five items were gold: the engagement ring, the graduation necklace, that bracelet, the coin in the bezel, and a very thin broken chain (not the one my old boyfriend gave me). He offered me $107 for them.

So I had gone from three to four to five items being confirmed gold.

Optimistic, I drove to Terry's Touch of Gold in east Modesto. The main gold buyer wasn't available, but one of the jewelers took a look. The store's staff was nice, and they even offered to clean my wedding ring while I waited. But ultimately the jeweler decided the gold I had wasn't enough for them to buy, and he suggested I try Brooks Pawn & Jewelry.

I did. The buyer at Brooks looked at my stuff, then picked out the engagement ring, the graduation necklace and that bracelet. That wasn't surprising, but the offered price was: $155.

From $65 to $115 to $107 to not worth the bother to $155. Quite a range. Wonder what I'll be offered at Saturday's gold party.

All That Glitters ...

Here's what could be making up that golden tangle in your jewelry box:

Pure gold: When 100 percent of the metal is gold, it's called 24-carat gold, or 24k. That's the stuff worth almost $1,100 per ounce. But don't expect jewelry to be pure gold because that metal is too soft for a durable design. Virtually all gold gets mixed with other metals — such as palladium, nickel, copper, silver, zinc, silicon and boron — to increase its hardness. Mixing, however, dilutes the gold's value.

Solid gold: In the United States, a metal doesn't have to be pure gold to be called solid gold. Metals containing as little as 41.7 percent gold — also known at 10-carat gold — legally can be called solid gold.

14-carat gold: This is what most fine jewelry is made from, a mixture of 14 parts of gold and 10 parts of a base metal. Thus, a 14k-gold bracelet is just 58.3 percent gold. Some very fine jewelry is 18k gold (75 percent gold) and some is just 10k gold (41.7 percent gold). Many "class rings," for example, are 10k because that tends to be a stronger alloy and less expensive than rings made with a higher percentage of gold. U.S. jewelry that is 10k or higher usually will be marked with its carat quality, though marking is not required by law. Near the carat quality mark may be a U.S. registered trademark of the company that will stand behind the mark. The trademark may be in the form of a name, symbol or initials.

Gold-filled, gold overlay and and rolled gold plate: These are terms used to describe jewelry that has a layer of at least 10k gold mechanically bonded to a base metal. Jewelry marked gold- filled, gold overlay or rolled gold plate should include the karat quality of the gold used. Example: 14k gold overlay, 12k RGP or 1/20 12k GF. If the layer of gold is less than 1/20th of the total weight of the jewelry, any marking must state the actual percentage of carat gold, such as 1/40th 14k gold overlay.

Gold-plated: Jewelry can be thinly plated with gold in various ways, including mechanically plated or electroplated. Gold-plated jewelry has significantly less gold than gold-filled, gold overlay or rolled gold jewelry. Eventually, gold plating wears away, and how long that takes depends on the plate thickness. Gold electroplate has a layer at least 0.175 microns thick of 10k or more gold. Gold-flashed or gold-washed jewelry has an extremely thin plating of gold less than 0.175 microns thick.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.

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