Big chances, big rewards: buying jewelry online
A few weeks ago, one of my fellow WalletPop posters argued that one should never purchase jewelry online.
I respectfully disagree. Over the last few years, I've bought pearls, opals, and a fairly large number of set and unset gems from sellers on eBay. I've never been really disappointed; even my less-than-stellar purchases have been a lot of fun and provided me with interesting and unique gifts. As with anything else, it is important to be careful when purchasing from strangers, but if you follow a few simple rules, you can get some fantastic deals on the internet. Best of all, the selection is far beyond what even your most extravagant local jeweler will carry, and is available at a fraction of the cost.
First off, when buying jewels, I've had a great deal of luck with retailers in other countries. The logic here is simple: a jeweler in the U.S. probably bought the gems at cost from a supplier who lives close to the original source. Similarly, if you buy a gem from the original supplier, you will pay a lot less. I have found that this is particularly true of black opals, for which there are several reliable Australian retailers currently hawking their wares on eBay. Similarly, jewelers in China, Thailand, and Singapore often have large online stores and are willing to combine shipping on multiple orders. You can find some fantastic deals.
One thing to consider when buying from overseas retailers is the cut of the gem. According to my friend Harry, who cuts jewels for a living, gem cutters in other countries often sacrifice glamor for weight. This means that the two-carat mystic topaz that you buy from a jeweler in Thailand might not be as sparkly as a 1.8 carat one that you can pick up at the local jewelry store. On the other hand, it will probably be a lot cheaper. It's a tough choice, but there's a lot to be said for buying three or four slightly-less-sparkly gems for the cost of a single spangly one.
As with any online auction, pay attention to the feedback score of your seller. Read through the last few months of comments, paying particular attention to the neutral and negative ratings. Given the incredible volume that some of these guys carry, it's likely that there will be a few bad comments, but a good retailer should have ratings in the 98th percentile or better. While you're at it, make sure that your seller has a reasonable return policy.
Another thing to watch out for is the size of the gem. In the pictures on eBay, the gems often appear to be two inches high by one inch wide. Don't be fooled: they enlarged the gem for the picture. (I know: this is really obvious, right? You'd be surprised at how many people don't bother to actually read the descriptions of the gems before bidding!) Most retailers list the actual dimensions of their wares. Use the big pictures to search for flaws, but pay attention to the actual size listings. Pull out a ruler. Look at comparably sized gems in the local jewelry store. Along the same lines, you should disregard the seller's claims about the "actual value" of the gem. Few gems actually have intrinsic, absolute value, which means that their pricing is a matter of supply and demand. Obviously, the seller will claim that the gem is worth a fortune; what it's really "worth" is largely up to you. To put it another way, when sickeningly banal heart-shaped pendants with diamond chips are fetching a hundred bucks at Zales, value definitely is in the bloodshot, star-struck, trailer-dwelling eye of the beholder.
If you're looking for a gift, it's a good idea to buy a backup from another retailer. You'll find that jewelry is very reasonable, particularly if you buy it from Asian sellers. Picking up a couple of presents won't break the bank and will ease your peace of mind. If both your presents are great (as I've often found to be the case), you can bask in the joy of your recipient and indulge your fantasies of being Diamond Jim Brady.
Finally, many people avoid buying loose gems because they imagine that it will be difficult to get them properly set. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many privately-owned (non-chain) jewelers have a wide selection of setting catalogs at their disposal. They should be able to offer you an almost infinite selection of jewelry at prices that will make you laugh. If you can't find anything that captures your interest, you might try searching for a goldsmith or silversmith to design a unique setting. When I was looking for an engagement ring, Harry (my gemcutting pal) introduced me to Leonard (his goldsmith pal). Together, we designed a diamond and sapphire creation that still puts a smile on my wife's face, lo these many years later!