Ask someone to show you their jewelry, and the first thing they’ll probably do is hold out their hand to show you the engagement ring and wedding band on their finger – or if they’re not married, they’ll proudly display their favorite gemstone ring.
Rings are the most popular type of jewelry in the world. In fact, about one-third of all jewelry sold today is so-called “wedding jewelry”. That category primarily consists of the familiar pieces known as bridal jewelry: engagement rings and wedding bands. But it also includes newer products like eternity bands and anniversary rings, which have become quite popular. Add in the huge number of fine jewelry rings sold each year featuring precious or semi-precious stones, unadorned pieces fashioned from precious metals, and the cheap rings you can purchase online, on shopping channels or in almost any store, and you can understand why the worldwide market for rings alone is valued at many tens of billions of dollars annually.
The other types of jewelry which have been staples of women’s wardrobes (and men’s wardrobes, to a lesser extent) for centuries, such as earrings, necklaces, pendants and bracelets, may not be quite as popular as rings. However, billions of dollars worth of those pieces are sold worldwide each year.
There are many ways to categorize jewelry. For example:
- Form (for example: rings, bracelets, earrings)
- Purpose (bridal jewelry, religious jewelry, cremation jewelry)
- Stone (diamond jewelry, emerald jewelry, jade jewelry)
- Metal (gold jewelry, silver jewelry, titanium jewelry)
- Age (modern jewelry, vintage jewelry, antique jewelry)
- Quality or origin (fine jewelry, designer jewelry, handmade jewelry)
And that’s just scratching the surface of the different “types” of jewelry you can find at stores or online. When you consider the different ways that each of those pieces is evaluated, it’s easy to understand why jewelry shopping can be one of the most frustrating experiences imaginable. Of course, once the decision-making is over and that beautiful piece is in your hands – it’s all worth it.
The specifics of appraising and evaluating all of this jewelry are way beyond what we can describe in a single article. What we can do is break down some of the most common categories of jewelry on the market today – including the ones which are quickly rising in popularity – so you’re not feeling overwhelmed when you set out on a jewelry-buying expedition.
The Big One: Bridal Jewelry and Wedding Jewelry
Nearly everyone has the opportunity (although some consider it more of an ordeal) to shop for bridal jewelry at least once in their life. For that reason, we won’t go deeply into specifics on this most-common of jewelry categories; you can find plenty of detailed information on engagement rings and wedding bands elsewhere on our site.
As we’ve already mentioned, though, the overall category of wedding jewelry dominates the market, with about 33% of all jewelry sales falling into this classification. A brief overview:
The classic diamond engagement ring (which in reality has only been a true “classic” since the mid-20th century, thanks to extremely successful advertising campaigns) remains the dominant factor in both the bridal jewelry and diamond jewelry markets. Solitaire settings have always been the top choice of brides, with the round brilliant diamond cut the most popular (and the princess cut a distant second). However, alternative settings have become big sellers as well; halo settings with circles of small pavé diamonds (or other stones) encircling the center stone, and three-stone rings with two accent stones flanking the center stone, are two settings which have gained great popularity in the last decade.
Brides are opting for alternatives in more than just settings. Approximately 80 percent of all engagement rings feature sparkling diamonds, but colored diamonds (particularly chocolate and black diamonds) are seen more often than ever. And many engagement rings now feature other precious or semi-precious gemstones, from sapphires and emeralds to amethyst and topaz. Meanwhile, the white gold shank (the jeweler’s term for the band which holds the setting and stone) has been the most popular choice of brides in recent years but is now being challenged in popularity by the resurgence of interest in yellow gold jewelry and rose gold jewelry, as well as by platinum (and its cousin palladium) and other strong metals like titanium and tungsten.
There’s no easy way to characterize today’s wedding band sales. The time-honored plain metal band, sometimes adorned with small diamonds, is still very much in evidence. But so are ornate bands with colored gemstones or patterns of pavé diamonds, bands with intricate patterns or metalwork, and vintage-inspired wedding bands hearkening back to the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Bridal sets which include matching engagement rings and bands also remain popular.
Eternity Bands and Anniversary Rings
A fairly recent trend, encouraged by the jewelry and diamond industries, has been the gifting of rings on “important” wedding anniversaries to symbolize never-ending love. These eternity bands and anniversary rings most often have small, identical diamonds encircling the band, but come in an enormous variety of designs featuring many types, colors and sizes of stones.
By some estimates, the wedding and bridal jewelry market is worth as much as $100 billion annually. It’s easy to see why.
Just About Every Woman Wants It: Gemstone Jewelry
Almost every little girl dreams of being draped in diamond jewelry – and not just on her wedding finger. After all, don’t all princesses wear exquisite diamond earrings, necklaces and bracelets?
Those dreams don’t vanish as a girl (or woman) grows older, but they’re usually accompanied by a growing fascination with other gemstone jewelry. Some people become attracted to pieces featuring precious gems like rubies or emeralds, while many others find their attention focused on specific semi-precious stones and find themselves collecting turquoise jewelry, amber jewelry or jade jewelry.
The sale of gemstone jewelry is big business for jewelers and websites, and even for owners of antique and second-hand stores. Here is a look at some of the most desirable and most-often purchased.
The wedding jewelry market is enormous, and the largest amount of diamonds sold (in terms of dollar value) is set in engagement rings or wedding bands. However, there is still a huge market for diamond earrings, necklaces, bracelets (particularly the impressive tennis bracelet) and dress rings, and for the diamonds used as accent stones. The sale of diamond jewelry is very big business, even for pieces not designed to be worn at the altar.
Sapphire, Ruby and Emerald Jewelry
Diamonds outsell this trio – the “other” precious stones – combined. The gleaming green, red and blue gemstones, however, are still immensely popular among buyers of rings, bracelets, necklaces and earrings. By one common measurement (the dollar value of colored stones imported by American vendors), sapphires and emeralds account for almost two-thirds of all imported gemstones (33% for emeralds, 31% for sapphires). Rubies are a distant third (less than 5%) perhaps because high-quality, large rubies are the rarest and most expensive of the trio, often more expensive per-carat than diamonds. All three stones have been highly valued by civilizations throughout history; today, they are often used both as centerpieces in fine jewelry and accent stones in diamond jewelry. Many women feel that their collection isn’t “complete” unless they have at least one piece of ruby, sapphire and emerald jewelry. Of course, more than one is always preferable, right?
Most gemstone jewelry is sought after, at least in part, because of the stone’s long and storied history. Tanzanite jewelry is one of the major exceptions. This semi-precious gemstone wasn’t discovered until the 1960s and has only been found in one small area of Tanzania, in East Africa. Fine Tanzanite is known for its stunning, deep violet-blue color with pleochroic characteristics, meaning that the color of the stone seems to change as the gem is viewed from different angles. Because this gem only comes from one mining area, its supply is expected to be exhausted within a few decades (at most), adding to the value and price of Tanzanite jewelry. It has become a favorite of designers and consumers for all types of showpiece jewelry, from large and exquisite solitaire rings, to earrings and pendants.
Amethyst is far from a “new” gemstone; it’s been both popular and important in cultures dating back to the ancient Greeks (who thought it could prevent inebriation), through the Middle Ages when it was adopted by the Catholic and Episcopal churches as the stone used in bishops’ rings. Amethyst has also been favored by ruling classes throughout time, featured in the British Crown Jewels and prominently worn by Cleopatra and Catherine the Great, among many others. While the highest grade of the stone (often called Siberian amethyst) is a very deep purple and extremely rare, there are many quality sources of the gem in the Americas and Africa, so it is easy to find beautiful, purple amethyst jewelry at reasonable prices. The gemstone is also very easy to facet, so it is used extensively for both small and large pieces; lower-quality amethyst is regularly cut into beads or cabochons for use in less-expensive amethyst jewelry. The stone is also used to create the semi-precious gem known as citrine, through a heat-treatment process.
An important gemstone in ancient Persian and Native American civilizations, the distinctive, opaque blue-green color of turquoise is still associated in most peoples’ minds with those cultures. Many pieces of turquoise jewelry, often set in silver settings or strung on silver chains, still have an exotic look for that reason. The stone is mined around the world, but the most important sources are in Iran (where some of the finest specimens have been found) and the southwestern United States. Some American deposits rival the quality of blue Iranian turquoise, but most produce veined stones, ones with more unexpected color variations, or low-grade stone known as chalk turquoise. Much American turquoise is treated or enhanced with wax or dye in order to improve color and retail price, so it is important to know what you’re buying before paying good money for turquoise jewelry. The stone is most frequently cut into beads or cabochons and then stranded on necklaces and bracelets, but can also be stunning (although porous, soft and easily damaged) when larger cuts are set in rings or pendants.
The “queen of gems” lends itself to the creation of spectacular opal jewelry. Aficionados know that an opal ring can make a statement every bit as dramatic as that of a spectacular diamond engagement ring, thanks to the trademark color play of a high-quality opal. Approximately 95% of the most desirable stones are mined in Australia, including the extremely valuable black opal – which isn’t really black, but has black body tones mixed with extraordinary flashes of many bright colors. The other type of opal which is quite costly is the Mexican fire opal, predominantly red or orange with sensational color play (fire opal jewelry from Brazil is of much lower quality, albeit at a much lower price). Because the true value of an opal can only be appreciated when the stone is large enough to display its color variations, the most common types of opal jewelry are rings or pendants, although it’s certainly possible to purchase opal bracelets or earrings – they’re just not as eye-catching.
The beautiful green stones we usually call “jade” can be fashioned into gorgeous jade jewelry: bangles or bracelets, statement bands or rings, pendants or necklaces, as well as striking dangle earrings. What most people don’t realize, though, is that there are actually two forms of jade: jadeite and nephrite. Jadeite is the stone we typically think of as jade; it’s commonly bright green (although it is found in other colors as different as black and orange) and very expensive. Imperial jade is the form of jadeite which is most expensive of all, and is the brilliant green stone revered around the world. Nephrite has a duskier color, is more common and much less expensive.
Amber Jewelry and Pearl Jewelry
The “semi-precious gemstones” featured in these types of jewelry aren’t really stones at all. Amber is tree resin which has fossilized over millions of years, and pearls grow naturally inside mussels or oysters after sand enters the creatures’ protective shells. They are still referred to as “gemstones” by most people, however, and can be not only beautiful but quite valuable. The most desirable amber jewelry showcases reddish or golden-colored stones and “inclusions” such as insects or plants actually add to the value of amber; larger pieces like pendants can best show off those inclusions, but lovely amber rings, bracelets and even earrings can be found in abundance. Natural pearls are rare these days and carry a premium price because most commercially-available pearls are “cultured”, cultivated after sand or another substance has been manually inserted into creatures’ shells. Even though pearls have been cultured, though, that doesn’t make classic pearl necklaces, earrings or other types of fashionable pearl jewelry any less stunning.
One of the most distinctive pieces you can own is a cameo. Generally speaking, a cameo is a hand-carved portrait or scene etched into either semi-precious stone banded agate or colorful conch shells, which are then polished to make the piece appear three dimensional. Cameos jewelry has been created by artisans as far back as the Greek and Roman empires, and throughout history have often been worn as pins or pendants. The recent resurgence of interest in antique pieces has led to new life for cameo jewelry; today it is sold not only as pendants or pins, but also as rings and bracelets – and true antique cameo jewelry can be extremely valuable.
Chances are that the exceptional moissanite jewelry you have your eye on, with a stone that looks even more fiery and sparkly than a diamond, doesn’t really feature a semi-precious gemstone. Moissanite was first discovered in the late 1800s, but it’s so rare that you’re unlikely to ever see it on the market. Almost all moissanite jewelry now uses stones created in a lab through a process invented about twenty years ago. If you don’t mind the fact that your pieces aren’t “real”, moissanite jewelry is truly gorgeous since the stones look even more beautiful than diamonds without any of the inclusions or defects inherent in natural gems. It’s readily available at a fraction of the price of diamond jewelry, too.
Take the earth’s second most-common mineral (quartz, which can be found in a multitude of colors and appearances) and cut or fashion it into shapes, and you have natural crystal which can be used to create pendants or beads for necklaces and bracelets. However, most of what’s usually called crystal jewelry is actually made from glass, often with a large percentage of lead inside. The best-known versions are made by from the Austrian company Swarovski, which creates lovely “crystal jewelry” as well as decorative items and collectibles. They’re sparkly and pretty – but they’re not really gemstone jewelry.
That’s just scratching the surface (not something you really want to do literally to a gem, of course) of the gemstone jewelry market. It’s easy to see why billions of dollars worth is sold every year.
The Unsung Partner in Jewelry: Precious Metal
It’s easy to skip over the importance of precious metal when shopping for jewelry; once you’ve focused on a captivating gemstone, the shank (or band) and setting can quickly become an afterthought. But that doesn’t do justice to the crucial role that metals play in both the design and appearance of fine jewelry – and of course, doesn’t take into consideration the enormous amount of beautifully crafted gold, silver and platinum jewelry sold without “adornments” like gemstones.
Precious metals are used to make jewelry for two basic reasons: their chemical properties and their innate value. Most are strong, lustrous and hold up well to elements like water and sunlight, making them ideal for use in jewelry design. They’re also valuable in their own right, so they add substantial monetary worth to any piece of jewelry. Gold has historically been the metal of choice for designers, but silver, platinum and less-common precious metals like titanium are often used for reasons of functionality, aesthetics, or cost.
Many people categorize fine jewelry by the metal used to fashion it, so let’s do that here as well.
Beautiful, versatile and romantic – these are just some of the reasons why gold jewelry has been favored by cultures all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. Today, there are three colors of the metal popular for the design of gold jewelry: yellow gold, white gold and rose gold. The primary difference between them is the mix of alloys used to fashion the final product, since pure (24 carat) gold would be far too soft to use in jewelry. Yellow gold is pure gold mixed with metals like copper and zinc, white gold is pure gold mixed with metals like palladium and silver (and often plated with white-colored rhodium), and rose gold jewelry features pure gold mixed with copper. The closer to 24 carats, the higher the percentage of gold in the alloy and the more valuable the metal; stronger 14 or 18 carat is the most common choice for gold jewelry like rings and bracelets, while 10-carat gold is often used for pieces like gold earrings and pendants which don’t suffer as much wear and tear. Yellow and white gold are more popular, but rose gold jewelry has made quite a comeback of late because of increased interest in antique and vintage jewelry.
As a softer metal which is also more likely to oxidize, silver is not a good choice for engagement rings, wedding rings or other valuable pieces which are worn daily. Silver is more likely to be used (with gemstones) or featured (as pure silver jewelry) in pieces which are either worn occasionally like dress rings, or “swappable” items such as necklaces, bracelets or earrings. Both silver and gold are favorites for designers looking to create unique fashion statements simply with precious metal. Silver jewelry is much less expensive than its gold counterparts, especially since pure silver bends too easily to be used in jewelry; what you normally see on the market is either sterling silver jewelry (the silver is alloyed with a small amount of copper), or cheap silver plate (much less desirable than fine sterling silver jewelry).
Almost all of the platinum jewelry pieces you will find are rings, primarily engagement or wedding rings. The white metal itself is gorgeous, durable, heavy – and significantly more expensive than gold or silver. Its cost and weight are the reasons why it is not commonly used for items like earrings, bracelets or necklaces. Above all else, platinum is a “prestige” choice for those can afford it.
Another of the “white metals”, titanium is growing in popularity among jewelry designers and buyers. It is extremely light yet extremely strong, hypo-allergenic, and less expensive than platinum or white gold. That makes nearly every type of titanium jewelry an excellent option, but there’s an important caveat: the metal is so strong that titanium rings cannot usually be resized, and the prongs normally used to hold gemstones or charms can’t be soldered onto titanium rings or necklaces. Engagement and wedding rings made from the metal are widely available, but the most common titanium jewelry seen in stores are men’s bracelets.
Beyond Traditional Jewelry
There’s a lot more to the jewelry market than engagement rings, wedding bands, and traditional pieces (earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings) whose primary function is to “be beautiful”. An enormous amount of jewelry is created either for very specific functions or to provide very important meaning to the wearer. Here’s a sampling of those “less obvious” types of jewelry which bring in big money to the industry.
Anyone who is into body piercings and modification knows that until fairly recently, it was difficult to find large selections of body jewelry without searching for a specialty store in an “alternative neighborhood”. Today, this segment of the jewelry industry has become a huge business for jewelers and online sites as well as specialty kiosks and carts. An enormous selection of body jewelry can be found at any shopping mall, with major retailers carrying well over ten thousand individual pieces. The biggest sellers are nostril and septum jewelry; small studs and screws are most popular for nostril piercings, while rings, pinchers, clickers and barbells are the hottest items in the pierced septum jewelry category. Vendors also do a brisk business in body jewelry for belly, tongue, eyebrow, labret and nipple piercings. There’s even “microdermal” body jewelry which can be implanted under the skin, for those who really want something different than the piercing jewelry which used to be a “statement” but is now commonplace.
Trendy for some, traditional for others – baby jewelry is a surprisingly big market. In many Latin and Asian cultures, it is not only accepted but expected that baby girls will have their ears pierced shortly after birth. That practice has spread throughout Western nations, with sales of stud earrings for babies now at an all-time high. Other types of baby jewelry like bracelets have been traditional gifts from early civilizations through the Middle Ages, and are still widely available today in hypo-allergenic metals like gold, silver and platinum, or in teething-safe materials such as silicone and polyester. Anklets are another widely-seen type of baby jewelry, originally popular in Asian cultures but now universally sold as baby gifts. There are also modern variations on the gold or silver bib (or diaper) clips which were a common baby gift in 17th and 18th century Europe.
The idea of personalized jewelry may, at first, seem to be somewhat outdated; it calls to mind the days of men wearing monogrammed cufflinks and ladies showing off initialed brooches on their formal dresses. Those items are still available, of course, and in gorgeous styles that your great-grandmother couldn’t have imagined. But there’s a lot more to personalized jewelry than just cufflinks and brooches. Sales of personalized necklaces and pendants go through the roof on Mother’s Day, and personalized jewelry is also a popular gift for anniversaries or the birth of a child. Monogrammed rings, personalized cuff bracelets, and variations on the traditional ID bracelet (for children, teens and adults) are all big sellers.
Didn’t consider this one, did you? The per-item cost of religious medals, charms, bracelets and other items isn’t huge, compared to the per-item cost of diamond jewelry, gemstone jewelry or other big ticket items. However, so many religious items are sold each year that they add up to a huge number. It’s estimated that the total market for religious jewelry is well over a billion dollars per year and growing, particularly with the easy availability of religious items online. A large percentage of this jewelry is sterling silver, yet many crucifixes, crosses and medals are available in 10 or 14 carat gold as well. And some upscale jewelers allow you to create your own religious jewelry with gems, such as gold or silver crosses featuring your birthstone.
If you didn’t think about religious jewelry as a category, you most certainly didn’t give cremation jewelry a thought. If you’ve never heard of it before, you’re not alone. This jewelry stems from the growing trend to keep a small amount of a loved one’s cremated remains after they’re scattered or buried. Cremation jewelry allows you to place saved ashes inside a beautiful locket, pendant, bracelet or ring, in order to remember the loved one and feel close to them after they’re gone. Some people keep dirt from the sacred burial ground, funeral flowers or a lock of hair if they prefer not to use actual remains. Those choosing this method of remembrance can find many tasteful forms of cremation jewelry for sale, and some prefer to have a designer create custom pieces which hold special significance for the family of the deceased.
Having considered all of those different ways to categorize jewelry – and realizing that there’s much, much more to the industry than just rings – there’s still no substitute for window shopping (or whatever the equivalent is called when you do it online) and buying that special piece of jewelry that calls your name as soon as you see it. After all, there’s always room in a jewelry box for just one more ring, necklace, charm or set of earrings.