Luminous, elegant silver is a perpetual classic. Unfortunately, silver tarnishes over time (thus your grandmother's annual silver-polishing parties), but new tarnish-resistant alloys are making sterling silver more attractive than ever.
Spend Less: Silver costs substantially less than platinum or gold (it's going for about $12 an ounce right now, as compared to the other two metals' $1,222 and $615, respectively), which makes silver goods a "bargain" luxury. Or try stainless steel. Designers are beginning to use this durable, tarnish-resistant and sometimes more affordable metal to offset precious stones and other fine materials. Look for it in men's accessories.
The standard bearer of richness is also the most conflicted: Gold is the densest, yet softest, of luxury jewelry metals.
Spend Less: Gold tends to become more expensive when the economy is uncertain, which is right about now. You can slash costs by about a fourth (or more) by shopping for 14K instead of 18K gold. Just don't skimp too much on the thickness of the jewelry—hollow or thin designs can erode due to gold's notorious softness, especially on items that are worn often (like wedding rings).
Diamonds and Gems 101
There are two camps here. You can see diamonds as the ultimate symbol of romance, a sweeping yet simple gesture of devotion practiced by good people like your parents. Or you can it as the ultimate symbol of racism, steeped in an uneasy mix of imperialism and terrorism (see: conflict diamonds, war diamonds or Leonardo DiCaprio's new action flick, Blood Diamonds). You're both right. Either way, diamonds are still inextricably set in American ideals of love and marriage. Ambivalent jewel shoppers should ask for Kimberley Process Certified diamonds instead. They're guaranteed to come from conflict-free origins.
Spend Less: "Improved" gems are lesser-quality stones that have had their defects altered or removed. The upside: Incredible savings (sometimes up to 90 percent). The downside: Poor resale value and diminished durability. A better compromise is to go ahead and purchase a high-quality rock—just buy less of it. Decreasing the carat size of a diamond adds up fast and can save you thousands. Or buy a big stone in a lesser clarity grade.
"Cultured" diamonds are a great alternative, too. Instead of being mined from the ground, they're grown in labs and are identical to natural diamonds in both their appearance and chemical composition. Expect to pay 15 to 30 percent less than the real McCoy.
Gray-white platinum is famously sought after for high end jewelry. It's also essential to the automobile industry—catalytic converters and the best spark plugs can't run without them (that's why they're so darn expensive). The corrosion-resistant sheen of platinum is often imitated but rarely rivaled.
Spend Less: Platinum is exceptionally strong, so you'll do well to shun expensive, bulky pieces in favor of slim designs. Or try palladium instead. It's a strong, lighter weight member of the platinum family that's about half as expensive.
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