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Make sure you're getting a real gem

Diamonds are a girl's best friend. Gold lasts forever. And pearls are so valuable that they never should be cast before swine. Right? Maybe. Before you go shopping for precious jewelry, protect yourself by learning all you can about the jeweler and about the kind of jewelry you're planning to buy.

1. Shop around. Ask jewelers lots of questions, including: Will all the information provided be detailed in writing? Is the purchase returnable? For how long? Will you get your money back, or a store credit? What is the policy if the item does not fit or needs modifications? Is there a charge for adjustments? Does the item come with a warranty or guarantee?

2. Do some sleuth work. Make sure the jeweler you choose has a good reputation. Check the company's record with trade organizations, the Better Business Bureau toll-free at 1-800-955-5100 and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services toll-free at 1-800-435-7352.

3. Perplexed about platinum? Make sure the jewelry you buy is stamped with the metal content and manufacturer, and the sales receipt has "platinum" written in the description. Items containing 950 parts per thousand (95 percent) platinum may be marked as platinum. Items that are 85 or 90 percent platinum must be marked with the platinum content (850Pt, 900Pt).

4. Good as gold? The most common marks for gold jewelry are 18 karat or 750 (75 percent gold), 14 karat or 585 (58 percent), and 10 karat (42 percent). Ten-karat gold is the lowest level allowed under U.S. law. The item should be marked with the karat weight and manufacturer.

5. Silver bullets. "Silver" and "sterling silver" mean that 925 parts per thousand (or 92.5 percent) of the item is made of pure silver. "Silverplate" signifies an item made of base metal and layered, or plated, with silver. Don't confuse sterling silver with "nickel silver" or "German silver," which don't contain any silver.

6. Know when to be dazzled by diamonds. Ask about carat weight, color, clarity and cut. Find out if the diamond has been treated (fracture-filled or laser-drilled), and whether the treatment is permanent. Never view diamonds against a black background because it changes color perception; view them under magnification, and be sure you understand what you're seeing.

7. Ask key questions about colored gemstones. Is the gemstone natural, laboratory-created or imitation? Has it been treated? If so, how? Is the treatment permanent, and has it affected the gemstone's value? What is the gemstone's country of origin?

8. Points of interest about pearls. Find out whether the pearls are natural, cultured, synthetic, freshwater, saltwater or dyed. Ask how long the luster will last, and inquire about special cleaning and care requirements.

9. Examine the construction. A stone should be held in place with plenty of prongs. There should be room underneath the gemstone for easy access when cleaning. Clasps should be easy to open and close, but not too flimsy. Hollow bracelets and chains can easily be damaged. Solder joints should be clean, neat and not visible.

10. If problems arise after the sale, talk with the seller and give him or her a chance to resolve the problem. If you're still not satisfied, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Sources: Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org); Jewelers Vigilance Committee (www.jvclegal.org)

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