By Thomas M. Buckley

Issue #126 • November/December, 2010

When you go to yard sales this year, be sure to look for jewelry. I used to always look for tools or other items that a self-reliant person may want to buy at a bargain price. One day I noticed a bunch of sterling silver chains hanging on a small rack. Being a coin collector, I knew the value of silver. I bought these chains, probably two ounces of silver in total, for a few dollars. From that point on I have always looked for jewelry first.

Often you will find a mish-mash of jewelry in an old jewelry box or other container. Sometimes there are stray pieces mixed in boxes with other items, or just placed out on the tables. I have found a treasure trove of gold and silver over the years, and you can, too. You will probably have to sort through some costume jewelry or other junk, but you will be surprised by what you will find.

This bracelet is sterling silver and 14 karat gold. It was sitting by itself on a yard sale table. It weighs more than an ounce. The author bought it for a dollar.
This bracelet is sterling silver and 14 karat gold. It was sitting by itself on a yard sale table. It weighs more than an ounce. The author bought it for a dollar.

The silver that you are looking for is sterling silver. It will be marked STERLING, STER, or .925. The designation .925 means that sterling silver is an alloy of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper.

Gold will be marked with karat or a number. The number represents the percentage of the alloy that is pure gold. (Silver and/or copper are mixed with gold to make the metal harder.) For example, 14 karat gold is 58.5% gold. So it is marked 585. The chart gives the karats and the numbers to look for.

8K is 333
10K is 416 or 417
14K is 583 or 585
18K is 750
22K is 916

Some pieces of jewelry will be marked with STERLING or the karat. Some will be marked with the number. Some will be marked with both. I sometimes see gold chains marked 14K and 585 on the clasp.

Some jewelry is gold plated. That means that the piece is a base metal with gold electroplating over it. Some of these pieces can be very attractive, and may be worth buying as jewelry to wear. But you want to know whether you have real gold or a gold plated piece. The following designations mean that the piece is gold plated. I will use 14K as the example, but it could be any karat.

1/20 14K
14K P
14K EP
14K GF

Chains are marked somewhere on the clasp. Rings are marked on the inside of the band. Earrings are generally marked on the stem or the wire, but it can be elsewhere. Pins and pendants are marked on the back.

It is not a bad idea to have a small 10X magnifying glass with you. You want to be surreptitious, so a large glass will not do. I only use the glass if I can do so when the seller is distracted. If you use a magnifying glass in front of the seller you are telegraphing that they may have a valuable piece and they may pull it from the yard sale. If the piece is marked and I cannot use the glass, I generally buy it, even if I cannot read the mark. You will get a feel for these things. Sometimes you will score. Other times you will get a piece of good-looking plated jewelry. I have bought necklaces that looked like gold, only to find out that they were sterling silver with gold plating. I could see a number, but it was too small for me to tell if it was 585 or 925. But for the price that I paid I didn’t lose out.

This is typical of the kind of sterling silver you can find. The brooch weighs ¾ of an ounce. These two pieces cost the author $1.50.
This is typical of the kind of sterling silver you can find. The brooch weighs ¾ of an ounce. These two pieces cost the author $1.50.

Most of the jewelry that I have seen over the years has been women’s jewelry, so women will go about this differently than men. Aside from a piece that a man will want to give to his favorite girl, he will probably want to sell the rest. Women may want to keep some or all of the pieces, and use them as jewelry that can be converted to cash in an emergency.

There is a huge difference between the value of silver and gold. Many coin shops are paying $300 for an ounce of 14K, but only $10 for an ounce of silver. So when you buy silver you need to have an idea of what a coin shop will pay you if you are selling it. Six nickels weigh approximately an ounce. So if you have some sterling pieces that feel like that amount of weight in your hand, you have about an ounce. As far as guessing the weight of gold goes, I have never had to worry about how much a gold piece weighed for the little I have paid for it at yard sales.

If you find a jewelry box that somebody has put out, there is a way to go through it. If it has different levels or drawers, go through them systematically. Go from one side to the other looking at every piece and pulling out the ones that you want. Don’t just dig in from the middle or you will miss good pieces while moving things around. Don’t be afraid to make a neat pile of the pieces that you don’t want next to the box if it is chock full. You can put them back in when you are finished. Do not put the pieces that you want down or somebody will pick them up and try to buy them out from under you. If the box looks like it has a lot of good pieces in it, make a reasonable offer for it.

Some people will have jewelry priced or they may say something like, “Everything in that bowl is 25 cents.” I once got a nice 10K gold ring and some silver pieces for 25 cents each. I got a 10K gold ring with a pearl in it from a box that was marked “$1 each.” That ring brought me $30 at a coin shop.

Other times the jewelry will not be priced and you will have to haggle. I generally try to get a handful of mixed pieces and make an offer. If the seller threw it on the table in a heap of stuff, she probably does not know or care what it is. I once went through a cookie tin that was full of jewelry. I had a hand full of silver and I was still digging. I threw it all back in and offered five dollars for the whole tin. I told the woman that I was going to take it and let my wife dig through it. (The women having the yard sales like it if you say you are buying for your wife.) The seller agreed. The silver and gold in it were worth $100.

This collection of gold jewelry cost the author about $12. This is typical of the gold jewelry that he finds on the weekends.
This collection of gold jewelry cost the author about $12. This is typical of the gold jewelry that he finds on the weekends.

Some people will ask for more for their jewelry than you can sell it at a coin shop for, but still much less than it would cost you new. Believe me, a bit of Wright’s Silver Cream can brighten this jewelry up like it was new. So it is up to you to decide whether you want to buy the jewelry to wear. You ladies know that you cannot get a nice silver chain or ring for $2 at a jewelry store. It may be worth the $2 to have the piece to wear, even if you could only get $1 for it at a coin shop later. After you have bought and sold several pieces you will have a feel for this.

Look through all of the jewelry. I have found several silver and gold pieces mixed in with costume and children’s jewelry. If you get to a yard sale and they are still setting up, do not be afraid to ask if they are putting any jewelry out. Other people are looking, too. So don’t shout the question out. Go up to the seller and ask discreetly. I have gotten first dibs on good jewelry a few times by doing this.

There is a lot of competition out there for yard sale jewelry. You will not be the only one looking for it. Many of the people looking are antique or flea market dealers and they can be aggressive. When I get to a sale I do a quick scan for the jewelry first. If I see any, I do not let it sit on the table. I pick it up to look at it. If it is sitting on the table and the person next to me picks it up, I’ve lost it unless she puts it back down. After I have the jewelry in hand, I do a quick scan for other items of interest like tools, oil lamps, or whatever else would interest me. I have found that buying other items with the jewelry can take the seller’s attention off of the jewelry and you can get a better price on everything.

In some countries where there is not a modern banking system or a strong currency, people buy gold and silver jewelry as a means of savings. Iraq and India come to mind. If you can get gold and silver jewelry at discount prices, there is no reason why you should not do the same. Happy hunting.


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