Recycling Your Old Jewelry

Posted by Rick Cameron (Reprinted and edited from a 2007 article) on Apr 22nd 2017

Recycling, in the strictest sense, involves melting an old piece of jewelry and reusing the gold (silver, platinum) to make something new, thereby eliminating the need to mine more (gold, etc.) for the new piece. It is, however, the exception rather than the norm for a jeweler or designer to actually melt scrap themselves. 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 melting and purifying precious metal scrap in relatively large lots. The refiner melts the lot, then assays it to determine the percent of pure (gold, etc.) that it contains, and either pays the jeweler the market value of the precious metals in the batch, less a refining fee, or returns an equivalent amount of metal.

In a less strict sense, recycling would include selling your unwanted jewelry on eBay, or trading it in to a jewelry store or designer either 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 would also qualify, since it 'replaces' making a new piece of jewelry).

Financial Considerations

Before you do anything with that old jewelry, there are a number of things you should try to determine.

First, 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 karat stamps and trademarks (the registered mark of the maker), as a guarantee of authenticity for virtually all gold and silver jewelry made or sold in the United States; 

  • if it's gold, what karat is it?: 10Kt (10 parts out of 24, usually marked 10K), 14Kt (marked 583 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);
  • 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 (indicating parts per thousand of platinum vs. other alloying metals);
  • if the jewelry is damaged, is it repairable and how much will that cost?;
  • was it designed/made by a famous maker (e.g. David Webb, Cartier, Boucheron, Suzanne Belperron, Tiffany, etc.)?; this can mean a world of difference in market value; 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:

a) the original bill of sale (if available), which should identify the metal, the types and sizes of stones the piece contains, and the total weight of each type of stone; and

b) a well-established fine jeweler; if you don't have a jeweler that you know and trust, ask friends for recommendations or contact the Better Business Bureau, and try to speak directly with the owner since he or she may be more likely than an employee to value developing a new customer beyond a quick, single transaction.

"Now that I know what I have, what is it worth?"

Once you have determined the 'specs', you should try to find out what your piece of jewelry is actually worth at retail. Assuming it is in salable 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 trade-in your old jewelry for cash or for something new, with a designer or jewelry store. However, it's important for you to remember that these people are in business to make money. When you buy jewelry at retail, you are paying not only based on the market value of the precious metal and stones, but also for all of the labor involved in making the jewelry, plus the maker's markup for overhead and profit, plus the retailer's profit.

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 are only getting 'scrap' value for the metal, don't include the stones if they are not damaged. They can probably be removed quite easily, and you can incorporate them into a new design now or in the future; don't count on the stones having any resale value.

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 somewhat simplistic, the more broken or simply unused jewelry that we recycle, by whatever method, the fewer the new pieces that will be made and/or the less metal we need to mine to meet the demands of the market. Not only does mining require major energy input, but mining for precious metals is among the dirtiest and most polluting types of mining. The impact we have individually is, of course, miniscule. Cumulatively, however, it can be quite significant and since it also makes financial sense, there is precious little (no pun intended) excuse not to do it. It's really a win-win.

The day is fast approaching when recycling everything imaginable will not be an option...but an imperative!