Gold glitters to $1,000 an ounce

March 13, 2008 12:54:29 PM PDT
Bargain-hunting at the local jewelry store just got harder. Gold, which has soared to record levels in the past year, hit a new milestone Thursday, rising to $1,000 an ounce for the first time in futures trading - a boon for investors, but a deterrent to consumers shopping for jewelry.

Michelle Findlay, a manager at a toll operator company in New York, said she has stopped buying pure gold pieces. Her latest buy was a silver bracelet plated in 18-karat gold.

"I noticed lately the price has been going up," she said, while browsing at Gold Panel jewelry store on 34th Street in New York. "I'll wait, definitely, for the prices to go down" before buying another gold item, she said.

The price of gold has jumped nearly 20 percent since the start of the year after rising nearly 32 percent in 2007. The huge advance is mainly the result of a weaker dollar and record-high crude oil prices. The dollar fell below 100 yen Thursday for the first time in 12 years and hit another new low against the euro, while oil traded above $110 a barrel Thursday.

Lower interest rates - and the prospect of more cuts - bringing the dollar's value down makes dollar-based commodities like gold cheaper for foreign buyers. The weak currency has also made gold more attractive because the metal is a hedge against inflation. "Interest rates are low and that doesn't help our dollar," said Scott Meyers, senior trading analyst with Pioneer Futures, a division of MF Global.

After topping $1,001 on the New York Mercantile Exchange, gold for April delivery fell back to settle at $993.80 an ounce on Thursday. Analysts say gold could still go higher, especially if the Federal Reserve cuts interest rates again next week as expected.

When gold becomes more expensive on futures markets, it doesn't immediately translate into higher prices for jewelry. But in the long term, the price tags on gold rings, bracelets and necklaces do go up. Exactly when the increases from this latest jump will show up on price tags depends at least in part on a retailer's size.

Big retailers like Tiffany & Co. and those that sell jewelry to large department stores order products up to a year in advance and keep more in stock. Those stores likely didn't pay as much for the jewelry when they ordered it, so they wouldn't need to raise prices as quickly to offset costs.

Instead, since some of those larger stores are already buying merchandise for the 2008 Christmas holiday season, consumers may see higher prices toward the end of the year.

Tiffany spokesman Mark L. Aaron said that while there is not a direct correlation between the rising price of gold and the cost of its gold jewelry - the labor that goes into a piece is an important factor - Tiffany does adjust prices based on the cost of precious metals. If gold keeps rising, a price increase this year would be a "fair assumption," he said.

Independent jewelry stores, meanwhile, order products closer to when they appear on the shelves. Patrick J. Murphy, owner of Murphy Jewelry in Pottsville, Pa., said he doesn't raise the price of gold jewelry he has in stock but he must when he reorders pieces.

For example, an 18-inch gold chain in stock has a retail price of $189.95, but if he reordered the chain at the same length, weight and style, it would be priced at $346.

"That's been our challenge," he said.

When the makers of branded jewelry and accessories raise their prices, he has to pass the increase on to customers. He cited a recent price increase by Rolex as one example.

Patti Warshauer, owner of Main Street Goldworks in Half Moon Bay, Calif., said consumers are buying less, but it's not the price of gold that's getting to them - it is all the other financial pressures they're contending with.

"Discretionary income is much more affected by the price of other things, gas and things like that," she said. "They're still buying gold if they need it, if it's what they like."

Browsing jewelry stores in New York's diamond district, Kathleen Pierri, from Smithtown, N.Y., said the rising price of gold might make her buy less, but "if you really like it, you'll buy it," she said.

"Jewelry is a feel-good item, you're going to buy it if you need it," Pierri said.

Helen Antalg, a jewelry appraiser from Australia, said she was on watch for a good deal during a vacation in New York. "I'm looking to see if there's anything that catches my eye and at a good price," she said.

"I'm tending to go to the pawnbrokers as opposed to the retail side of things" in order to get better deals, she said, but added that she hasn't changed her jewelry-buying habits due to rising prices.

With prices rising, selling those not-so-beloved Valentine's Day presents or family heirlooms might sound like a good way to make a few extra bucks. Dave Adelman, who owns two pawn shops in Atlanta, said he's seen an increase in the number of people coming in to sell their gold. But he said he can't be sure whether that can be pegged to gold prices rising or other economic factors.

"When they come in, we don't know whether they're doing it based on the gold price or because of need," he said.

Whether consumers are buying gold or selling it, Murphy, a jeweler for 30 years, said he's amazed the price has jumped so high. He remembers when gold was just $35 an ounce.

"I didn't think we would ever be talking about $1,000 an ounce," he said. "It's crazy."