Don't get ripped off on your holiday jewelry purchase

Jewelry is a great gift for the one you love, but you need to be aware of several things in order to protect yourself. Jewelry retailers are in high gear to take advantage of the holiday buying season, and you don't want get ripped off. Use these ten tips to protect yourself and your jewelry purchase this year.

1. Focus on the gem – When buying a colored stone such as a sapphire, ruby, or tanzanite, the key is to focus on the gem itself. There may be small diamonds surrounding it, but your real value is in the larger gemstone. Focus on that when selecting your piece and evaluating the quality.

2. Know the difference between natural stones and lab-created – Gemstones that come out of the earth are more valuable than those created in a lab. However, some consumers prefer lab-created gems because they are often clearer and have a brighter color. Just be sure you know which you're buying.

3. Less is often more – When surprising your sweetie with a piece of jewelry, simpler is usually better, unless she has picked out a specific item. If you're picking something out as a surprise, go for something less unusual. Plainer items generally have wider appeal and are more likely to make her smile. Fancier items generally have a unique appeal, and might not go over as well.
4. "We can offer better prices because..."
– One of the most common ways that jewelry stores try to lure you into buying a piece is by telling you what a great deal you're getting on it. There are a variety of stories offered to explain your great deal, but most of them include some sort of "buying direct" or "buying large quantities." The truth is this – Retail jewelry sales are very competitive and comparable pieces are very comparably priced from store to store. If a particular ring or bracelet is cheaper than a similar one at a neighboring store, it is probably of lesser quality.

5. Warranties – Most of the warranties offered by jewelry stores are worthless. They generally only cover manufacturing defects, and not damage to a piece that is caused while wearing it. Even when they do cover damage to the piece, there are often many strings attached, making the warranty void for the majority of consumers. Don't count on a warranty to help you out down the road, and definitely don't pay extra for it!

6. Be very careful when buying diamonds – Consumers think that once they know about color, clarity, cut, and carat, they'll be a smashing success when buying an engagement ring or diamond necklace. The fact is that evaluating a diamond's value is very complex and therefore a trap for many. The most important keys are to look for good sparkle and to buy a piece that you are in love with.

7. 14 karat gold is best – Whether you're buying white gold or yellow gold, it's best to stick with 14 karat. 10 karat can be a little brittle and might be a problem down the road, especially with a bracelet that may come into contact with hard surfaces frequently. 18 karat gold or higher is nice, but can be a little bit soft and may not wear as well.

8. Never, ever buy off the internet – A picture on the internet can never replace seeing a piece of jewelry in person. You won't be able to get a good assessment of the clarity and sparkle of the gemstone, and the pictures often make the real size of the gems difficult to determine. Consumers are almost always better off buying their jewelry in person.

9. Always ask for a discount – With a few exceptions, jewelry stores expect you to haggle when buying your piece. They may have some pieces that are non-negotiable, but most of the items in a jewelry store are priced to discount. They'll often tell you the "retail" price, which is the inflated price on the tag. Then they'll offer you a "special deal" which is probably touted as "today only" or some other gimmick. A good rule of thumb is to get them to discount the piece one or two more times. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't... but it never hurts to ask. You might also be able to get an extra discount if you're buying more than one piece, so be sure to ask.

10. Beware of the hard sell – Jewelry sales are very competitive, so many stores will pounce on you the minute you show serious interest. Often you'll get the "double-team" and many reasons why you deserve to treat yourself. Don't feel like you have to succumb to the hard-sell. If you're not sure, don't buy the piece. You may not be able to return it. Instead, look around and come back later in the week if you still think you might have found the piece your heart desires.

The most important part of jewelry buying is getting a piece that you absolutely love. Don't buy a piece of jewelry just because you think you're getting a fantastic deal. You can never be sure if you're really getting a great deal or not.

Instead, buy that piece that caught your eye and that you loved more than anything else you saw. In spite of how good a deal you did or didn't get, if you (or your sweetie) think it is the most gorgeous piece of jewelry in the world, you'll always be happy you bought it.

Forensic accountant Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations through her company, Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners honored Tracy as the 2007 winner of the prestigious Hubbard Award and her first book, Essentials of Corporate Fraud, will be on bookshelves in March 2008.
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