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Tips on smart shopping for holiday jewelry

Whether you're buying five golden rings or that classic strand of pearls, purchasing a nice piece of jewelry for the holidays isn't that difficult. But getting a good deal takes a little know-how.

The first rule: Buy from someone you trust.

"Know what you're buying," says Laura Simanton, senior public relations manager for the Gemological Institute of America, or GIA. "And the best way to know what you're buying is to know who you're buying from."

Second, get "a full and accurate description of the item," she says. Know that words like "synthetic," "created" or "lab created," mean the stones are not natural. "Be sure you know if the gem you're buying is natural, synthetic or treated in any way."

If the item comes with a laboratory report, it should be from an accredited gem lab. In the report, look for treatments done to the stone (such as heating, irradiation or laser drilling and filling) that may enhance the appearance, but not necessarily the value.

And, whether you're buying for yourself or someone else, you want the option of returning the item. Whether your special someone prefers gold to platinum or the item just isn't the quality expected, you want a seller who stands behind the product with a convenient return policy.

Like other stones, the key is to know what you're buying. If the pearls are real, odds are they're cultured. "You really won't find natural pearls in the marketplace," says Maureen Gribbin, spokeswoman for Mikimoto America.

For quality pearls, look for a bubble- or blemish-free surface on the pearls. And the rounder they are, the better. "The more round they are, the more expensive they will be and the better quality they will be," says Gribbin.

Freshwater pearls, which tend to have an irregular shape, are usually less-expensive because they take less time to grow, she says.

Pearls can range in color from silvery white to white, with green or pink overtones, to pink. There's no right or wrong with color, says Gribbin. If you're choosing something like a pearl necklace, select a color that will complement the skin tone.

Also look for high luster, which Gribbin calls the pearl's "inner glow." "The more lustrous the pearl, the better the quality," she says.

A good quality string of pearls, like many better necklaces, is likely to have a safety clasp. In addition to the regular clasp, there will be some sort of second fastening device as a safeguard. "In more inexpensive strands, it's less common," says Gribbin.

No industry-wide grading system exists for pearls, but Mikimoto does offer a grading system on its Web site. Its system grades pearls heavily on their reflective quality (luster) and surface perfection.

And yes, you can tell if pearls are real by running them over your teeth, says Gribbin. But save that for the set you inherit from Grandma, not your next trip to the mall.

Next: Determining a diamond's value.
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