Recycling Your Old Jewelry: Green Profits

There has been a lot of buzz lately about the economic and environmental advantages of recycling jewelry that you no longer enjoy or which is too badly damaged to be repaired. So, we thought it might be useful to discuss the realities of recycling.

Recycling, in the strict context of this article, involves melting down an old piece of jewelry and then reusing the gold (silver, platinum) to make something new, thereby eliminating the need to mine more (gold) for the new piece. It is the exception rather than the norm for a jeweler or designer to actually melt scrap him or herself.

In most instances, jewelry to be melted is accumulated until there is enough quantity to send to a refiner – a company that is in the business of ‘refining’ (melting and purifying) precious metals in relatively large lots. ‘Scrap’ from many different sources are processed together, so you never get back ‘your’ gold.

The refiner reduces the ‘scrap’ to the pure metal and either pays the jeweler the market value based on the estimated weight of pure (gold, etc.) in the batch, less a refining fee, or returns an equivalent amount of gold (etc.).

In a less strict sense, ‘recycling’ would include selling your unwanted jewelry for cash on eBay, selling it or ‘trading it in’ to a jewelry store or designer for cash or in exchange for something new…similar to trading in your old car when buying a new one. (Giving it as a gift could also ‘qualify’ if it was in lieu of buying a new piece).

Financial Considerations

Before you do anything with that old jewelry, there are a number of things you should determine: ” What do I have?”

  • Are those ‘white’ stones diamonds…or zircons, or glass?; are the blue stones sapphires, etc.?
  • If the stones are real (precious or semi-precious), what type, size, quantity, and quality are they?
  • Is the jewelry made of silver, or gold, or platinum?; the Marking and Stamping Act of 1906 requires quality marks (purity stamps), and trademarks (the registered mark of the maker), as a ‘guarantee’ of authenticity for virtually all gold and silver jewelry made and sold in the United States
  • If it’s gold, what karat is it?
  • Is it repairable and how much will that cost?

10Kt (10 parts out of 24, usually marked ’10K’), 14Kt (marked ‘585’ or ’14K’), or 18Kt (marked ‘750’ or ’18K’), and some designers use even higher karat gold; (pure gold is 24K, and is almost never used for jewelry because of its softness, except in some oriental jewelry made for the Asian market as a way of ‘carrying one’s wealth’).

If it’s silver, it should be marked ‘925’ or ‘sterling’ (92.5% silver) or ‘Fine’ (pure); if it’s platinum, it will usually be marked ‘900’ or ‘950’ (depending on the percentage of platinum vs. alloy).

Was it designed/made by a famous maker?; in some instances, this can mean a world of difference in market value (e.g. David Webb, Cartier, Boucheron, Suzanne Belperron, etc.); the makers name and/or trademark is usually stamped on the jewelry, and can be researched online or in any good library, as well as in the jewelry sales records of major auction houses.

Your Best Sources for Answers to Most of These Questions Are

Your original bill of sale, which should tell you the metal its made of, what types of stones the piece contains, and the total weight of each type; and

[Try] a well-established fine jeweler, preferably in a small-to-medium sized town or city – reputation being everything in the jewelry business, you are less likely to be taken advantage of in a small community than might be the case in a large metropolitan area where anonymity is still possible.

If you are in a big city and don’t have a jewelry store that you regularly deal with, ask friends for recommendations or contact the Better Business Bureau. Also, try to speak directly with the owner. He or she may be more likely than an employee to value developing a new customer beyond a quick, single transaction.

What is my jewelry worth?

Once you have determined what you have, you should try to find out what it’s actually worth ‘at retail’. Assuming your jewelry is in sale-able condition, take a look on eBay before making any decision. Check out the auction results for items similar to yours so that you’ll have an idea of how much people are actually paying. At the very least, you’ll be in a better position to negotiate if you do decide to ‘recycle’ with a designer or jewelry store.

Once You’ve Decided to Recycle

As an individual, the only practical way to recycle (other than on eBay or similar), is to ‘sell’ or ‘trade-in’ your old jewelry for cash or for a new item of jewelry, with a designer or jewelry store. However, it’s important for you to remember that these people are in business to make a profit.

When you Buy, you are paying not only based on the market value of the precious metal and stones, but also for design and for labor, which includes such things as casting the metal, setting the stones (which, for small stones, can be as or more expensive than the stones themselves), cleaning, soldering, polishing, and so on – all, plus a markup for overhead and profit for the maker AND for the retailer.

When you Sell to a designer or jewelry store, on the other hand, you’re only likely to get ‘scrap’ value unless your piece is in really good condition and still in fashion, or you are ‘trading up’ for something much more expensive. In a nutshell, this means that the price of the stones and/or gold (silver, platinum) will need to have gone up dramatically from where they were when you bought, in order to recoup anything close to what you spent originally. You will avoid feeling insulted and disappointed if your expectations are realistic.

Oh, and if you’re only getting ‘scrap’ value, don’t include the stones if they are not damaged, especially if they’re small. (I can probably buy equivalent stones from my gem dealers for a fraction of what you paid for them as part of your jewelry, so why should I pay you more)? They can probably be removed from the ‘scrap’ quite easily and you can incorporate them into a new design now or in the future.

The bottom line is, if you have a piece of jewelry that you no longer wear, it certainly makes financial sense to either sell it, trade it in, or repair it.

Environmental Considerations

This is a no-brainer: though certainly simplistic, the more damaged or simply unused jewelry that we bring out of the drawer or safe deposit box and recycle, by whatever method, the fewer the new pieces that will be made and/or the less mining that will be necessary to meet the demands of the market.

Not only does mining require major energy input (not that jewelry manufacturing and precious metal refining don’t also consume energy, though dramatically less on a per unit basis), but mining for precious metals is among the dirtiest and most polluting types of mining. The impact we have individually is, of course, minuscule.

Cumulatively, however, it can be quite significant and since it also makes financial sense, there is precious (no pun intended) little excuse not to do it. The day is approaching, at frightening speed, when recycling everything imaginable will not be an option…but an imperative!