Ask a Jeweler: Nonmetal Bands, Gem Appraisal, and Inherited Damage

by Anna Rasche

1. Could you offer some suggestions for a non-metal engagement ring?

I work as an industrial electrician, and my company has a strict policy prohibiting metallic jewelry (which I am totally on board with, for the record.). For the time being I’ve pretty much decided not to get an engagement or wedding ring, because it seems silly to pay so much for something that I’d only get to wear a few waking hours a week. I’m ok without the token but … it would be nice to have my reminder that someone cares, especially at work.

As someone who also has a reaction to metal worn for more than a few hours, I’ve experimented with cheaper rings in a few different materials so far: stone (broke within months), wood (split/cracked/stained with the water from handwashing or when the wood dried out), and plastic (isn’t that kind of cheap looking for an engagement ring?). Am I answering my own question in negating all those materials, or is there something I haven’t thought of? Maybe those other rings broke BECAUSE they were cheap? But I’m afraid to drop a lot of money on, say, a wooden ring, when it might break in two years. Besides, the idea of a broken engagement ring sets off all my superstitious bad-luck alarms!

I would be very grateful for some advice on durable rings in untraditional materials if you could spare the time.

This is an interesting question! I’ve never had somebody use “not a good conductor of electricity” as the main quality they’re looking for in a wedding ring, but there’s a first time for everything. I discussed this conundrum with a fellow jeweler whose first thought was that you should get a band tattooed on your finger! I called up a tattoo parlor, New York Adorned, and spoke to a friendly guy named Josh to get some advice. He said you CAN get a wedding band tattoo, but generally he recommends that couples get commitment tattoos on a different part of their bodies. The reasoning behind this is that the skin on your hand doesn’t hold ink as well as other parts of your body, so tattoos there have a greater potential to wear out and get blurry over time. If you still want to get a wedding band tattooed on your finger anyway, he recommends getting a plain black band on just the top half of your finger. Thanks, Josh!

If tattoos aren’t your thing, you could look into getting a ceramic wedding band to wear at work. I’ve never worked with these personally, but the internet says they’re hypo-allergenic, impossible to scratch, and just as durable as metal bands. They’re also only like $80 bucks! Then with all the money you save, you could get another, more traditional wedding band to wear in your off-hours. And since your skin reacts to metals, you should try getting a higher karat gold ring (18k+) or a platinum ring to avoid that itchy feeling. Pretty bands around 3mm wide can be as little as $200 — $350, which isn’t too bad for something you’ll (theoretically) have for a lifetime.

As far as the superstitious bad luck alarm that comes from broken wedding rings, I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Jewelry’s always being melted down, traded in, altered, stepped on, scavenged for parts, etc. Cracking a ring from a hard day’s work will hardly register on the bad juju-o-meter.

2. My friend is buying an estate diamond engagement ring — how should she go about getting it appraised?

All right, so the process is pretty much the same for estate pieces or new pieces.

An appraisal is an expert’s opinion on the value of something. In relation to jewelry appraisals, the “value” is roughly what it would cost you to replace an item if it were lost or destroyed. If you buy an expensive piece of jewelry, the store you purchase it from should write an appraisal, for insurance purposes, to go along with your piece. When properly done, an appraisal will include photos of the jewelry and a thorough description detailing the quantity, quality, and variety of gemstones used, what metals were used, and age/origin (if known) of the piece if it’s an antique. If your friend chooses to get her ring insured (renters insurance can cover jewelry, fyi) and heaven forbid loses it, this appraisal will help her get enough money from the insurance company to have a new ring made. Of course it’s never possible to get an exact replica of an estate piece, but it’s at least something. Generally the value written on the appraisal will be higher than what a person initially pays. There are also people who work independently as jewelry appraisers, if your friend would feel more comfortable having a third party examine her ring. The Appraisers Association of America is a respected organization that lists all of their members online. It’s also a good idea to get something re-appraised every few years, as the values of precious gems and metals change over time.

Separate from appraisals are diamond certificates. Most diamonds of any significant value will be sold along with a document from an independent gemological laboratory (GIA is the most respected, although EGL has some good street cred). These certificates state the color, clarity, cutting style, and carat weight of the diamond in question. Since tiny, hard-to-spot visual differences mean huge price differences when it comes to diamonds, a lot of consumers feel more comfortable purchasing a stone that’s been certified. Sometimes older estate pieces or smaller diamonds may not be certified, which is fine as long as you trust your jeweler to tell you what’s up.

If a diamond IS lab-certified, when you bring it to an appraiser, bring the certificate along with it, too. Then the appraiser can use the information from the certificate to help determine the ring’s overall value. If the diamond isn’t lab-certified, the appraiser will probably look at your diamond under magnification and decide its quality for themselves. If everyone is doing their job right, the diamond information you get from the jeweler, the gemology lab, and the appraiser should be approximately the same.

It’s important to note that an appraisal value isn’t the same as a re-sale value. If your friend ever needs to sell her ring, she shouldn’t be surprised to get offers of less than half the appraised value. Even from nice stores.

In terms of evaluating estate rings during the purchasing process, the number one thing I can recommend is to buy from a reputable dealer. For people not used to looking at fine jewelry, the differences between something nice and something fake-nice can be hard to spot. Trusting the jeweler you work with will alleviate worries of this nature. Avoid places that try to rush you into a decision or don’t have a good return policy. Since your friend is looking at estate rings, she should make sure to ask if the rings she’s looking at are genuine antiques or reproductions. Not that there’s anything wrong with reproductions, it’s just good to know what you’re getting. Also, since people tend to wear their jewelry a bit harder nowadays, when buying a piece of old jewelry it’s good to ask about its durability, and whether it can stand up to everyday wear and tear until death do you part.

3. Hello! I inherited a gold-plated locket from my grandmother, but at one point some knucklehead must have polished off some of the plating. There are some engraved details on the piece that I don’t want to lose, however — how can I go about finding someone who can fix this? I’m worried that it could be damaged even more if I try to get it re-plated.

Oh dear, that is always a danger when polishing plated pieces. Don’t worry, though, because re-plating is a pretty standard repair these days. It’s accomplished through a technique called electroplating, which Wikipedia can explain better than I can. To describe it in less-sciencey terms: Your locket will be dipped into a special liquid with a whole bunch of dissolved gold floating in it. Two wires will be attached to the locket, then to a power source (think jump-starting a car battery). When the power source is turned on, all the gold in the solution will be attracted to the locket and stick to its surface. Generally, the plating can be applied in such a thin layer that no engraving details will be lost. To make doubly sure, I would take your locket to a jewelry store that specializes in old pieces, as they probably have experience with this type of repair.

Just remember that it’s only possible to re-plate the entire piece, not just one little spot, so your locket might be a slightly different tone of gold when it’s finished.

Previously: “Where’s a good place to find affordable, interesting, and maybe antique jewelry that I’d be excited about?”

Anna Rasche works in the Diamond District by day, and helps run the Society for the Advancement of Social Studies by night. She enjoys good cheese and bad puns. Ask her anything.