Shoppers in the market for a Valentine's Day jewelry gift may find slightly lower prices, but fewer real deals.
Spending on jewelry for the occasion is expected to top $4.1 billion, up from $3.5 billion last year, according to the National Retail Federation, which also reports that a record 18.9% of Valentine's Day shoppers plan to buy bling. Part of the surge is likely pent-up demand from reduced spending on such trinkets during the recession. "A guy hasn't bought his wife jewelry in five years, and it's overdue," says Jeff Nobbs, a co-founder of deal-tracking site Extrabux.
Higher prices may also be influencing that total, prompting consumers to spend more to get decent quality. Gold is up nearly 30% compared with last year, according to Kitco.com, and the RapNet Diamond Index reports the price of one-carat stones is up 19%. Foreign demand for gemstones has both curtailed supply and pushed prices on quality stones higher, says Antoinette Matlins, an independent gem and jewelry expert. "Any stone above 0.75-carat and good to very good quality, that's where you start running into challenges," she says.
Those market pressures make it more important for consumers to evaluate the profusion of Valentine's Day jewelry sales, experts say. While some may be good values, others are cheap for a reason. "Some places use sales to get rid of stock that would be difficult to get rid of any other time," Matlins says.
Jewelers have offered more discounts in print, mobile and online formats in recent years, hoping to appeal to coupon clippers and to make people more comfortable buying jewelry online, Nobbs says. Zales, for example, has coupons including 20% off select purchases, as well as $50 off a purchase of at least $300. Bluenile.com currently has a 20% off code. "If you don't look for those, you're leaving money on the table," he says. Some aren't combinable with sales or pricey engagement rings, however, which may limit shoppers' options.
The per-ounce price of gold, at roughly $1,748, is more than 50 times as expensive as sterling silver, which clocks in at $34. But the inexpensive precious metal isn't just found in low-end jewelry -- designers are increasingly incorporating it into valuable diamond and gemstone pieces, says Helena Krodel, a fine jewelry trends expert. Unlike other metals, however, silver can be prone to darken and require more frequent cleanings, reports industry group Jewelry Information Center. Ask if the piece has a tarnish-resistant finish.
Shoppers who are spending more than $500 on an item with diamonds or other gemstones should get an independent appraisal and gem grading report, as well as ask pointed questions about its quality, says Matlins. Diamonds and colored gems often undergo treatments in a lab to remove flaws, but that lessens their value on the resale market. It can also lead to misleading sales. "Even at 50% off, you may still be spending 10 times that gem's real worth," she says.
There's a growing online market for both loose stones and finished pieces online, says Martin Rapaport, chairman of The Rapaport Group, a group of companies that track the diamond and jewelry markets. Competition means many stores and web sites will match prices on pieces of comparable quality. Some also offer extra discounts for paying with cash or buying a completed piece instead of having them set a gemstone purchased elsewhere.