The first clarification to make is the difference between fine and costume jewelry. It's not always easy to know the difference.
Fine jewelry is any piece with precious metals, often with naturally occurring gemstones (as well as pearls or diamonds).
What does "precious metal" mean?
And the precious metal must be in at least a certain karat to be considered fine jewelry (at least 10 for gold). Karat measures the purity of a precious metal, such as gold. 100%, or 24 karat solid gold is usually too soft for jewelry-making.
So gold is often mixed with other metals to strengthen it so it's suitable for jewelry. The less it is mixed with other metals, the more pure. The more it is mixed with other metals--the less pure. So if the gold is 18 karat, it is 18 parts gold and 6 parts of another kind of metal. The lower the karat, the less shine and depth of gold.
Fine jewelry lasts long than costume jewelry, and can often be handed down through generations as a family heirloom. That's why they're considered investments.
Costume or Fashion Jewelry
Costume jewelry, otherwise called fashion jewelry, is made with non-precious metals, plated metals (silver plated, gold plated, etc) and/or man-made gemstones. A piece may have natural gemstones but plated metal, and it is still classified as fashion jewelry. And vice versa--if a piece has precious metal but man-made gemstones, pearls, or diamonds it is still costume jewelry.
Plating is a very thin layer of precious or non-precious metal over a base metal (this is usually an alloy of many types of metal). With time, all jewelry tarnishes and layers come off through wear and tear or oxidation. But when this plating comes off, underneath is a different color and tone--the base metal.
These differences aren't always discernible to the eye. Gold-plating, when new, can look like gold-filled* or solid gold. Always almost, the jeweler describes the materials of the pieces--if not, it's assumed to be non-precious, man-made costume jewelry without any special aspects. If there's something special about it, a jeweler will probably point it out.
*Gold-filled can be any karat, but it means that there are about 100 layers of plating. So while a solid karat of gold is often more pricey than, say, 92.5% solid silver, it's more economic to go with gold-fill. It last 100x longer than plating, but doesn't cost the same as it would if it were gold all the way through.
Overpriced vs. Underpriced
So, with that knowledge, how do we understand how jewelry becomes overpriced and underpriced? In reality, this is difficult to distinguish. There are many factors that go into the price of jewelry, besides being fine or costume jewelry. To name a few:
- how much time the jewelry took to make (aka, handmade takes more time and often costs more or is underpriced and the jeweler makes less than their time is worth)
- where it was made (sweatshops in China paying 13 cents an hour will be able to have lower retail prices than a one-woman--crafting, sourcing, marketing, everything--shop in the USA, for example)
- the positioning of the brand (designer = the prices might be higher simply because of the name and how popular it is)
- the cost of materials, supplies, and tools needed to create the jewelry (not to mention “overhead” which means the cost of a studio, electricity, gas in the car to get to the post office)
- whether or not the item is also sold in bulk at a discount to retail stores (if it is, that means the base price to allow for profit from sales needs to be doubled at the least)
- the uniqueness of the piece (just like an artwork, originals are worth more, especially when they can’t be replicated easily or often)
Lots of variables. That means that aside from metal quality and the use of precious stones or metals—the price of any given piece of jewelry can vary greatly. Sometimes it can be overpriced, but sometimes it can also be underpriced.
When it comes to handmade jewelry, more often than not it is underpriced to keep up with competitors who often don’t understand how to structure prices and charge enough to keep the business alive. Some handmade jewelers simply enjoy their work and charge the bare minimum to cover the costs of what they deem a “hobby business”.
But this can be damaging to other sellers who price to stay in business and to grow the business to bigger and better things, because lower prices from other handmade sellers cheapen the value the average consumer puts on handmade jewelry (though it is not all created equal, since there are so many variable at play).
As a jeweler myself who has come to deeply understand the difference between metals and how to price to cover costs and overhead, to make enough per hour to stay in business—after nearly three years of doing this, I’ve come to a point where I understand the value of moderately priced jewelry (which may be “expensive” to some).
After all, "expensive" is a very opinionated word. Is $100 expensive? Is it only expensive for certain products? Is $1,000 the base level price for expensive jewelry? Or maybe just $500?
It comes down to what you want out of your jewelry; your personal preference. What matters to you? What do you value in your jewelry? Do you value diversity in your collection over high-quality? Do you value hypo-allergenic options?
If you have sensitive skin or allergies, there are precious and non-precious metal options for you. 18 karat gold and .925 sterling silver (92.5% only silver, with 7.5% of other metals to strengthen the silver for jewelry use) are great options that often don't cause reactions. There's also silver-filled, which is the same concept as gold-filled.
However, white gold, which is often touted as allergy-friendly, is not a great option. White gold is made white by usually mixing in nickel. Sometimes, palladium is used instead of nickel, but this should be inquired about. Nickel is one of the most wide-spread allergies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 10 to 20% of people have an allergy to nickel.
Platinum is consider hypoallergenic because it doesn't need to be mixed with other metals to be strengthened--so you can use 100% platinum for jewelry. One kind of metal significantly decreases the likelihood of a reaction, and very few people have been known to react to platinum itself.
Palladium is similar to platinum, and is also considered hypoallergenic, but is a rarer metal that is harder to come by.
If you aren't looking for precious metal, any pure metal is your best bet. They aren't as shiny, but they can be cheaper. Popular pure metals great for sensitive skin--especially in piercings--are titanium and niobium. Titanium is dark, dull gray color, but like platinum it doesn't need anything to strengthen it. Niobium is the same, and can be colored through anodization.
Avoid plated metals and metals that aren't identified by the jeweler or shop (they're likely amalgams of many types of metals, increasing the likelihood of a reaction).
High Priced Jewelry Is Often Worth the Money
ESPECIALLY if the jeweler discloses that the metal is precious and high-quality, and that any gemstones, pearls, or diamonds are natural, not manufactured. Or, if the jeweler creates unique work that is time-consuming and requires skill--often, they also use quality materials for their work--it's worth it.
I want my jewelry to last. The jewelry I buy and the jewelry I make. I want it to look good forever—not just for a month. When it comes to stones and diamonds, I’m not an expert—but when it comes to metals like sterling silver and gold, I can’t recommend precious metals enough. They have a sparkle and shine that jewelry is known for—almost a glow that catches the eye.
And if you can’t splurge on sterling silver or gold-fill than opt for some sort of solid metal, such as copper or brass. You can always brighten these metals up, so long as they're solid copper or solid brass. And if you're wondering if there are metals that never tarnish--they don't exist. Over time, all metals tarnish and lose layers. You want to make sure that underneath it looks the same, so that as layers come off your jewelry will remain as you bought it (with proper care and cleaning, of course).
Again, at the end of the day, it's about what you want out of your jewelry and how long you want it last. Are you looking for something to go with a costume that you're not likely to wear 10 years from now, or are you wanting an heirloom you'll be passing on to your granddaughter?
I buy fashion jewelry somestimes. I think it's still worth it if I really love it, and besides--it typically doesn't cost as much. But, I also have fine jewelry pieces that are staples in my own personal jewelry collection, while costume jewelry comes and goes, they stay.
But, a word for the makers . . .
In an economy where everyone seems to be feeling like there's less and less room in their budget--quality jewelry is worth it, but it may sell slower. If you sell your work, I recommend a mix to widen your price range. I offer antiqued brass sometimes, and other times 18 karat gold-fill. Sometimes I do use silver-plated, but I also offer .925 sterling silver.
This offers diversity in price, so if someone wants some of my handmade jewelry they aren't forced to choose fine jewelry at the moment--they can go with fashion jewelry options.
Of course, if you're business is high-end and you refuse to have lower priced options because of branding and marketing reasons--stick with your gut. If your work is quality, charge what it's worth. The people who value quality and hard work will know it's more than worth the price.