All That Glistens Is Not Gold, Local Jeweler Passes Acid Test for Authenticity and Integrity

April 10, 2011
Share this story:
Koko Vartanian and his wife Lena answer a customer's question.

Koko Vartanian and his wife Lena answer a customer's question.

On Friday, the U.S. government was on the verge of shutting down over the breakdown of budget negotiations on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, the European debt crisis worsened as Portugal became the third European nation after Greece and Ireland to request a financial bailout.

Thus, it was no accident that nervous investors sent the spot price of gold – seen as a safe investment in troubled times — to a record $1,474.60 an ounce on April 8. A decade ago, gold was about $300 an ounce.

The price also sent everyday people, including this reporter, scrambling to gather up and sell their old, broken or unwanted gold jewelry for cash. Why miss the windfall? Gold is the new real estate boom.

“Why just let it sit there in a drawer collecting dust,” especially if you’ve outgrown it or you associate it with a bad memory,” asked Koko Vartanian, owner of Rodeo Jewelers in La Verne, to whom I took my cache of gold on Friday. I had to wait in line behind another customer, who was hoping to exchange a bracelet of zero sentimental value for cash.

My collection didn’t seem nearly as substantial: a gold crown, some thin, wispy gold chains, a crackerjack-size charm, a gold leaf – a lot of bits and pieces. It was real junk, but it was junk made out of GOLD, so I thought.

After opening a plastic sandwich-sized bag of my jewelry, Vartanian spread the meager contents across a black velvet-covered board. I was a little embarrassed about the tooth, but, hey, if it was going to buy me a dinner at Pizza N Stuff, which is located in the same shopping center, I wasn’t that embarrassed.

“Mr. Bennett, the chains are not gold,” Vartanian said.

“How could this be?” I thought, taking the news worse than if someone had told me that George Washington really wasn’t the first president of the United States.

Then he proved it to me by running a magnet over the chains to which they easily clung. You see, gold doesn’t have magnetic properties. It’s not supposed to cling to magnets.

I quickly put the fool’s gold back in my pocket, hoping at this point that Vartanian didn’t think I was trying to put one over on him by trying to pass off jewelry that really wasn’t made of gold.

Then I received a bit of good news. When he waved the magnet over a couple of metal initials (by now I was reluctant to call them gold) and a bracelet, they didn’t cling to the magnet. Fortunately, the dental crown also resisted the magnet’s pull. Paydirt, baby!

Ah, but not so fast. My education continued, courtesy of Vartanian. Just because a gold piece is stamped 18k or 14k doesn’t necessarily make it so. Some unscrupulous dealers (scam artists) have been known to inflate the number. Indeed, the customer before me learned that her bracelet that had been stamped 14k was really a 10k gold bracelet. Translation: less “k” means less value!

To an incredulous customer, there is a another clear-cut way to demonstrate the purity of gold. Vartanian rubbed the bracelet on a whetstone and then placed a drop of acid solution on the etching. The etching immediately changed color — to a less robust gold.

“The color is not supposed to change,” Vartanian explained. “Sometimes, the metal bubbles or turns green.” Neither is a good sign. Of course, Vartanian has been in business so long, he can usually tell the gold’s purity just by looking at it and holding it. He uses the tests so that the customer is convinced of its purity.

Finally, Vartanian then weighed (in grams) the woman’s bracelet. At the 10k (the true gold content) value, he quoted her a price of $90. Had it indeed been a 14k bracelet, she would have received $145.

“I’ll take it; it has a bad memory to it,” the customer said. “I don’t wear it, so what’ the point of having it?”

As for my metal, I also learned it wasn’t as precious as I had previously thought. After weighing the few pieces separately (some unscrupulous dealers will lump all your gold together – 18k, 14k, 10k – and quote you the 10k price), Vartanian offered me $60. After accepting the quoted priced, I completed a form with my name, driver’s license number and some other incidentals. This is a measure to help prevent people from selling “hot” jewelry. “Basically, it says that the jewelry you’ve given me has not been stolen,” Vartanian explained.

Vartanian sells the gold to another party. He doesn’t melt it down in his shop. “It would leave a bad smell,” he insisted. “The customers wouldn’t like it.”

So far, Vartanian says he’s never been burned by dishonest customers. “If a teenager walks in with an outrageous amount of gold or a huge diamond, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist,” he said with an ever-widening smile.

In fact, Vartanian has a device that also detects the authenticity of diamonds. The woman who learned her bracelet wasn’t laden with as much gold as she thought was relieved to learn that the spendid-looking diamond she wore on her ring finger was the genuine article.

Once in Vartanian’s beautiful store, some customers will apply their new riches toward a new ring or pendant or bracelet. If the item they’re looking for is not in one of Vartanian’s sparkling display cases, he will custom-make it for them. Genuine gemstones come with a letter of certificate from a  certified grading laboratory, such as the Gemological Institute of America which developed the four Cs of cut, clarity, color and carat, to assure customers get exactly what they’re paying for. By taking the worry out of buying, customers can focus on selection.

“I can accommodate whatever the customer wants,” Vartanian said. “We’re not limited to anything. I’m not just a salesperson. I’ve been doing this for 35 years.”

With Mother’s Day approaching, Vartanian has been making Mother’s rings for customers, yellow or white gold bands containing the birthstones of their children. “The stones can be genuine or synthetic (a less expensive alternative) whatever the customer wants,” he said.

What a golden idea, I’m thinking, and I already have $60 to help pay for it!

Leave a Reply