While you probably never assumed making fine jewelry was simple, you likely weren’t aware of the sheer level of skill required.
A quality piece of jewelry is usually the collaboration between several specialists. Referred to collectively as “jewelers” by people outside the industry, there are specific tasks and terms for each role.
For processes involving craftspeople, a standard design method is casting the hand-sculpted wax model into precious metal.
An older technique that’s still used on high-quality custom pieces is hand-forging, where the piece is carefully hammered into shape.
Any gemstones will be cut by a gem or diamond cutter (also known as a lapidary). This is a very specialized process and one that is usually handled by an outside gem cutter instead of the jewelry company itself.
To craft the final piece, a gem setter will place the cut gem. This is a delicate and meticulous process that’s often done under a microscope. This allows the setter to see the finer details and ensure the piece meets quality standards.
Finally, the piece is finished. Finishing is the process where any small blemishes are removed, the final piece of jewelry is polished, and it’s packaged and ready to be worn.
How to Choose a Precious Metal
The metal used in your fine jewelry is one of the single most important elements to look for when selecting a high-quality piece.
The types of metals used aren’t complicated, but there are a few basic facts you need to understand. If you’re looking to purchase a piece of fine jewelry, you need to learn about the types of metal and how they’re used.
Like gold, silver has been held in high regard for thousands of years. Unlike gold, however, silver tarnishes. Tarnished silver develops a dull, dark surface that needs to be removed by polishing or cleaning.
Pure silver is also very soft and is usually alloyed with copper to strengthen it. Sterling silver is alloyed but must legally contain at least 92.5% silver by weight.
All high-quality sterling silver should be stamped with a three-digit number indicating the amount of silver used.
Like with gold, this represents a percentage, with 925 or 92.5% being the most common number.
If you’re going to buy a high-quality diamond, you should look for one with certification from a respectable certifying agency.
Of course, a certificate doesn’t add to the value of a diamond by itself. But it can help assure you that you’re making a quality purchase and that the diamond is as valuable as the jeweler says it is.
Certification is performed by a third-party lab that—in theory—will provide an accurate, independent rating for the diamond based on scientific standards.
If the gem were a photograph, the tone would indicate whether you took the photo with bright or dim light. Saturation, meanwhile, would indicate whether the photo was full color, black-and-white, or somewhere in between.
Are they gemstones? Are they precious? Semiprecious?
However you want to classify them, pearls are used in fine jewelry, and you deserve an explanation on how to find a good pearl.
There are three kinds of pearls—natural, cultured, and imitation. Its origin determines the type of pearl.
Natural pearls are formed whenan irritant enters the shell of a clam, mussel, or oyster in the wild. As a response, the animal produces layers of fluid that harden and grow over 5–10 years to form pearls. These are extremely rare, prohibitively expensive, and almost exclusively owned by collectors.
Imitation pearls are completely different. They’re made of glass with a special reflective coating. These are not used in fine jewelry.
Cultured pearlsuse the same process but are grown in a protected farm environment with irritants that are surgically placed in the mollusk’s shells. These are the primary pearls sold in the market today.
The value of pearls can be determined by the type of pearl. The most common varieties are listed below, from most to least valuable.
Akoya pearls are most likely what comes to mind when you think of “pearls.” They’re smaller and a white or cream color. They were the first type of pearl to be cultured and thus not quite as valuable as the more recently-popular varieties.
Several factors determine the value of a pearl. The most important are:
Lustre - The shine and reflection off the surface of a pearl, as well as its glow.
Shape - A pure sphere is typically more valuable than an irregular “baroque” shape.
Size - The larger, the more valuable. Most pearls sold today are 7–7.5 millimeters.
Surface - A smooth surface is more valuable than one with cracks, bumps, or marks.
Color - The tone of a pearl is a matter of preference but can affect its value.
How to start and build your fine jewelry collection
Now that you have a better understanding of the materials used in fine jewelry, it’s time to look at how to build your collection.
If you’re just starting, the first step is to understand your style. Decide what pieces would fit with the way you already dress and any jewelry you already own, like a wedding band.
As you choose jewelry to wear, you’ll want to start with staples. Once you have a few timeless pieces that go with anything, you can purchase some accents for special occasions.
We’ll break down the specifics of each type of piece so you can find the perfect fit each time.
Rings can be some of the most significant and meaningful pieces of jewelry you own.
Whether you’re looking for an engagement ring, wedding band, eternity ring, or a personal fashion statement, you should start by understanding what you’re looking for.
Then, based on what the ring means to you, begin to choose a piece that fits.
The most common metals in fine jewelry rings are gold and platinum. White and rose gold are common variations but remember that white gold will need to be “dipped” every once in a while to maintain its color.
As you choose a ring, you’ll typically need to choose a center gemstone, accent gemstones, and types of bands. Any type of gemstone can be a good fit, but diamonds are certainly the most common.
You can also add finishing details like milgrain beading or engraving.
Typically, wedding bands—especially for men—are simpler and don’t have a center gemstone.
Earrings are excellent fine jewelry pieces, both because they don’t need to be sized and because they can be more versatile than necklaces and bracelets.
Gold, silver, and platinum are all great choices for precious metals. Be sure you aren’t using an alloy with nickel in case of allergies.
The decorative elements you choose depends on the style of earring.
Studs are most commonly accented with pearls or diamonds, though a colored gemstone can add a unique touch.
Hoops can be accented with gemstones, but the most common style is either a plain hoop of precious metal or one studded with diamonds.
Drops offer the most variety for gemstones. Nearly any type of precious or semiprecious stone or pearl can find a place in a set of drop earrings.
A necklace is an excellent, classic staple to start your fine jewelry collection.
Gold should be protected from abrasive materials and impacts against surfaces. As a relatively soft metal, it can be scratched easily.
Pearls are more delicate than gemstones and metals. Other pieces of jewelry can easily scratch the surface of pearls, so store them separately. Clean pearls using only mild soaps, not any chemicals. Lay pearl strings flat to dry—hanging them can stretch the threads.
There are a number of companies that sell fine jewelry. Here are some of the most respected names in the space.
You might expect this list to include brands like Kay Jewelers and Zales. But the unfortunate truth is that these chains don’t offer great value for fine jewelry. Kay has even been accused of swapping out customer’s diamonds for fakes.
The three stores below are reliable and offer authentic, certified jewelry at competitive prices. You’ll find top-rated reviews for these three stores almost anywhere online.
James Allen was launched in 1998, and along with the Blue Nile was one of the first online diamond retailers.
In 2013, James Allen introduced a new type of groundbreaking diamond imagery. Every single diamond for sale has an interactive 360º close-up view magnified 15–40x. You can rotate the image and see exactly what you’re buying.
Their diamond selection is second to none, boasting over 300,000 diamonds.
And while their fine jewelry options are not quite as expansive as some competitors, you’re still likely to find excellent choices that fit your style.
You have a deep understanding of fine jewelry.
Fine jewelry has a level of craftsmanship you’ll be hard-pressed to find with any other product, jewelry, or not.
And the materials used in crafting fine jewelry are second to none. Now you understand the expert strategies to choose precious metals and gemstones that will last a lifetime.
Plus, you have an understanding of which types of pieces might meet your personal style and how to care for those pieces once you make the purchase.
What do you like about fine jewelry? Do you know anything we’ve missed?