When you’re buying a new piece of jewelry, there’s one thing that you always need to consider first: do you want this piece to be fine jewelry, or fashion? The former is made from precious metals and features classic styles, often sparkling with precious or semi-precious gemstones. The latter is made almost to be seasonal, with trendier designs and costume accents.

This guide will serve to take you through the process of buying either fine or fashion jewelry. It covers how to find the right piece for you or the recipient of your gift, even when you’re shopping online. At the end of the day, there is no right answer as to whether fine or fashion jewelry is the “better” choice—just the choice that’s right for you.

How to buy fine jewelry: Metals

Whether you’re buying in-person or you’re opting to purchase fine jewelry online, fine jewelry is all about the materials: the metals and, if applicable, the gemstones used to make an item.

Fine jewelry is held up to strict standards, and is required to be made from a precious metal. Gold is the most popular option for this; yellow gold, white gold, and rose gold are plentiful in the jewelry world. The standard measurement for gold purity is the karat (K), which is measured from 1-24K. Pure gold is 24K, but is too soft to be used for jewelry, so most gold items sit at about 14K, with 4K of wiggle room (give or take).

This Classic 10K Gold 3mm Women’s Wedding Ring, for instance, is 10 parts gold to 14 parts alloy – but don’t worry about purity when purchasing at Best Buy. Anything under 10K cannot be sold as gold, so you know you’re always looking at an item with a good purity and hardness. And like in many other parts of life, more pure doesn’t always mean better. Many opt for a lower karat of gold nowadays, as very yellow gold is going out of style (the higher the karat, the more yellow the gold). For other coloured blends, a mix is essential: rose gold (usually offered in 14-18K) gets its beautiful pinkish hue from being blended with silver and copper.

Like gold, silver is also a very soft metal, so it’s sold as sterling silver with a blend of <7.5% alloy to increase strength. It’s another popular option, with harder metals like platinum, titanium, and tungsten carbide also gaining in popularity. While gold (and particularly white gold) dominates the wedding ring market, sterling silver is very commonly used in earrings. These simple, classic Stud Earrings in Sterling Silver with Button White Pearls are a great example of silver done well. The silver part of the earring is discreet and virtually unnoticeable, but offers one big benefit: it’ll wear well over time, without rusting or triggering nickel allergies. 

Fine jewelry is often purchased in the form of anniversary gifts or wedding bands, or as special occasion gifts in the form of sentimental items. (Crystal can be used in either fine or fashion jewelry, depending on who you ask—but here at Best Buy, it’s categorized as fine if it’s paired with fine metals and other fine materials.)

In the case of engagement rings, wedding rings, or wedding bands, these are rings that will be hopefully be worn daily until death—so it’s important to consider what materials you’re buying. A great tip that almost all emergency room doctors (but very few jewellers) will tell you is that softer metals are safer choices, especially when worn by someone who works with their hands. Gold, silver, and platinum can be cut off of a finger in case of an emergency; titanium and tungsten carbide almost always cannot.

How to buy fine jewelry: Diamonds

Beyond the metal used, fine jewelry is also closely regulated based on gemstones used. Precious stones, semi-precious stones, and (certain kinds of) pearls can be used in fine items. Amazon’s fine vs fashion jewelry listing guide is a great reference to consult when you’re purchasing fine jewelry: it breaks down exactly what category all common precious and semi-precious materials fall under.

The most frequently sought-after stone in fine jewelry is the diamond, which is rated by weight and points in another type of carat (Ct.) The larger the carat, the larger the stone; however, because diamonds are typically small when found in nature, larger stones are much more expensive than smaller ones.

When buying a diamond, consider not only its carat but also its cut, colour, and clarity. A flawless diamond will “glow” more brightly than an imperfect one. A better grade of colour will add to its sparkle. Make sure to check the prongs on your ring as well, as white gold prongs (or a fully white gold band) will make diamonds look clearer and more colourless. (Colour is measured from D through Z, with D, E, and F being colourless.) And finally, the most visible part of a diamond: its cut.

For wedding and engagement rings, traditional shapes like the round and square cut are typically preferred. These are usually cut in a style that’s referred to as “brilliant-cut,” which contains numerous facets to illuminate the diamond and make it look as if it’s sparkling. But other shapes are cut differently: rectangular emerald-cut and baguette shaped diamonds are cut in a step-cut fashion, and princess-cut and cushion-cut diamonds are finished in a mixed cut. These Classic Sterling Silver Solitaire Stud Earrings are a great example of cubic zirconia cut in the style of a round-cut diamond.

How to distinguish fine vs fashion jewelry

For the most part, fine and fashion jewelry are easy to distinguish – by more than just the materials used in their making. Fine jewelry is meant to last its wearer an entire lifetime, so it’s intentionally styled to be timeless. You’ll more often see brands producing fine jewelry in elegant, simple styles, or in classically ostentatious ones. (You would never call a diamond-encrusted pavé style ring simple, for instance, but it’s still a very classical style!)

On the other end of the spectrum, fashion jewelry tends to be trendier, with a difference in materials that can be easily spotted from a distance: leatherwork instead of fine metals, for instance, or veined stones instead of precious ones.

How to buy fashion jewelry

Fashion jewelry is pretty simple: it’s everything else that exists in the world. Nowadays, great fashion pieces can be found online, often from designer brands. They sit at a cheaper price point, and offer good value for pieces that you don’t intend to keep forever.

Fashion jewelry is made from non-precious materials, plated metals, and other materials like plastic or wood. (Glass beads are a great example of fashion jewelry that can look quite mesmerizing!) Non-precious stones are also used in fashion jewelry–especially in big statement necklaces–and styles are typically a little more trendy. Fashion pieces come in all shapes and styles, but are often more casual and offer more of a “statement” look.

A big shift in fashion jewelry over the past 5-10 years has been a move into minimalism. You can find fashion pieces today that have the look of semi-fine, or even fine jewelry.

Fashion jewelry, because of the metals used and coatings involved, is limited mainly in its sizing. (It certainly isn’t limited in its selection!) Because fashion jewelry is coated in colour or plated with another metal, it cannot be resized – and often isn’t sold in as wide of a range of sizes. This can become problematic for anyone with very large or very small features; for instance, the semi-precious ring above is flexible and adjustable, but sold only in one size. This lovely Shine Family Life Heart Rose Gold Stainless Steel with Clear Crystal Bead Bangle Bracelet is similar: it has a lovely rose-gold finish and adjusts in size, but if your wrist is truly an outlier, there’s nothing that can be done to make it fit you.

Which kind of jewelry is better (for you)?

A good rule of thumb to follow for fine vs. fashion jewelry is simply this: if you’re buying something you’d like to keep for many years to come, it’s better to upgrade to something fine. If you’re dressing for a casual event or want a large, eye-catching piece, opt for fashion jewelry instead. Here’s how to find out which you should choose in each scenario, and why!

When fine jewelry is right for you

For special life events such as weddings or anniversaries, your first instinct should always be to choose fine jewelry. You want your recipient to be able to treasure your gift for years, which they can only do if the piece will withstand the test of time.

Fine jewelry features better materials, and as a result, will last longer. Regular cleanings will keep your piece in sparkling shape for decades, and designs typically look more refined and sophisticated. Pieces like this are often referred to as “investment pieces”: they’re more costly upfront, but they retain their value over time. Items like a beautiful gold bracelet will last long enough to become an heirloom piece that you can pass down to your children. And for those with allergies, fine metals can be safely worn by those with allergies to alloys such as nickel or cadmium without triggering a reaction.

One of the common misconceptions is that fine jewelry isn’t as creative as fashion jewelry. This doesn’t have to be the case. Keep things fresh by opting for fine pieces in unexpected designs, or choose something with a mix of gemstones.

I also love fine jewelry as an option for those with irregularly sized fingers or wrists. Because these metals are solid through and through, they can be melted and resized—and are often sold in more sizes to begin with. If you’re a ring size of 5 or below, it becomes next to impossible to buy fashion jewelry that will fit your fingers!

When fashion jewelry is right for you

Fine jewelry can certainly be a statement piece, but for most of us, that’s just not in the budget. So, when your outfit could really amp itself up with a bold piece of jewelry, opt for a fashion piece!

Also known as “costume jewelry,” fashion jewelry is a great way to buy seasonal items on a budget. You can find more variety and bolder styles in fashion jewelry (especially if you consider demi-fine pieces to be fashion items), and you can find them at a cheaper price point. Fashion jewelry isn’t designed to hold up to heavy wear – so it’s priced accordingly, and you don’t have to worry as much about damaging or losing it. Think of fashion jewelry as the fast fashion of the jewelry world: bold pieces that go in and out of style quickly, and are designed to be replaced accordingly.

Fashion jewelry is a great choice for statement pieces and things like trendy bracelets, but it’s also a good choice for teens, children, and those of us who are just very likely to lose things!

There is no such thing as the “right choice” to make for fine vs. fashion jewelry – only what is the right choice for you. Consider how long you’ll wear each piece for, how its materials will hold up over time (both in wear and value), and make sure you’re sitting comfortably for the occasion and your budget. There are great fine and fashion jewelry pieces to be found for any occasion.

Shop fine and fashion jewelry online at Best Buy.

Rae Chen covers everything from handbags to speakers here on the Best Buy Plug-in Blog. They can also be found at thenotice.net, where they've been writing about beauty & wellness since 2007.