A bench jeweler is responsible for repairs on customer jewelry. They have gemological training but are a bit out of date on pricing, etc.
First of all, consider the term "chips". Folks often speak of little diamonds as being chips when in fact most are cut diamonds. Modern production methods almost require fairly consistent diamond shapes for quick stone setting and chips are not the ticket for that!
Bench jewelers routinely set very small stones from perhaps 1/2 point upward. A diamond of 1/2 point is 0.005 carats. In comparison, a pair of earrings with a total weight of 80 points would need 40 points per earring. If using 1/2 pointers, that would be 80 diamonds per earring! Yes, even the 1/2 point stones are cut, not chips. More than likely, earrings like you mentioned would use stones of 1 point or 2 points. This would mean 40 stones or 20 per earring.
Small diamonds set in pave or with many stones together as in earring with many diamonds are quality graded.
The cut is apparently not so critical as color and clarity. You have likely seen diamonds with a white look? These stone have no reflection from inside the stone and only sparkle from the surface faces cut on the stones. These stones have a very, very low clarity grade. Then again, the diamonds may have plenty of sparkle from within the stones, light reflected from the inside of the stones with the facets (cut faces) on the back reflecting the light back to your eye.
This is what you want. Decent clarity is needed and I suggest stones of the SI to I1 grade. In small stones, I1 is fine generally and dark spots are not really seen. Still, look for good return of light from within the diamonds. Some better earrings have higher clarity stones and the earrings will look slightly more brilliant.
Ask if they have any idea of the clarity of the diamonds.
Color is important. Often, to gain clarity and use stone relatively free of dark spots, manufacturers will use a stone of lower color grade. This means the earrings may have well selected fairly clean stones of a brownish or yellowish color. At first, you do not see this color but it is apparent when held next to diamonds of a higher (so called "whiter" or less colored) grade.
If the stones have a slight tinge of brown or yellowish, look for a better grade. Ask if the stones are of good color or slightly off color. Go for better color without the brown or yellow tones. Much of this is up to your own eye. Also, if you loose a stone, off color stones are more difficult to match up for a replacement!
The single cut stones are more round overall in top view. Still the number of facets is the same. Full cut stones will have more sparkle and life to your eye. Stones of 1 point or more are better in appearance if full cut. Ask if the stones are single cut or full cut stones.
Quality for earrings like you describe runs from very good to frankly very bad. Bench jewelers often do resizing services for national department stores. Much of the jewelry was tagged with a higher price and a "sale" price of about 50% off. The 50% off price is about what the jewelry was worth. But would I get any for my wife? No!
Why? So many of the sparkling jewelry was very poorly made. Bench jewelers must clean jewelry before any soldering as for sizing a ring may be done and at least one of three of the rings from that store lost stones in the ultrasonic cleaner before we did anything! The prettiness of the jewelry went away because of the poor workmanship. Workmanship is difficult to judge when you are not in the business. Ask how the stones are set into the metal. If they say "channel set" ask to look through magnification.
A real channel set has the sides of the channel pressed down onto the edges of the stone. A fake channel set has a channel for the stones but the stones are held in by little pieces of metal (a small pick of metal) from the inside channel walls pushed down, one little chip of metal on each side of the stone. This is "pick" setting and is very common in lower quality jewelry making. Do not get pick set stones or you will be losing stones.
Ask the clerk to clean the items you are considering. Ask if they have an ultrasonic machine and that you would like the earrings cleaned for a few minutes in the machine. This will take off finger smudges and let you see the actual sparkle and color of the diamonds better. Also, if stones are not securely set, there is a chance some will come out in the cleaner! That is not a foolproof test but a good start. Do not hesitate to ask to have the jewelry cleaned in an ultrasonic before you pull out your check book or plastic card!
Ask if the stones are set securely and if they have had any problems with lost stones from that line of jewelry. This is a reasonable question. Often, jewelry with many little stones is not set securely in the first place. Better quality items will go a lifetime with no problems at all.
In small stones or large, yellow gold holds stone safely as does white gold. Perhaps platinum is the best overall. If you do not want the dull look platinum get after a while, go with white gold since white is your choice. What makes the yellow and white different is hardness. Generally, white gold is harder than yellow and may wear a bit better over time. When we set into yellow gold, we allow more thickness on the settings to account for this.
White gold has problems if you are not careful. Any chlorine such as in swimming pools and hot tubs will work havoc on most white gold. This is because most white gold has nickel to make the gold look white.
The effect is a weakening of the make up of the white gold recipe. Exposure to chlorine in strength or repeated at a swimming pool can actually lead to white gold prongs literally falling off. White gold holds stones well but avoid the chlorine! Unless you want platinum earrings, white gold is just fine. This will last and last and keep shine platinum will not keep. Just keep it clean and away from chlorine!
Bottom Line, deal with a business which is a jewelry store first, not a department within another store.(There are exceptions. Ask if they service their jewelry and have bench jeweler "in house".) If the business has a good reputation, that is one to try first.
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