Chicago Tribune Feature

Friends and relatives are gathering in living rooms across the Chicago area to weigh their gold baubles and trade them for something that seems even more precious in these hard times: cash.

Buyers and sellers say the trend is also reflected in the number of new stores catering to people hoping to score a fistful of dollars by selling off treasures once held dear.

Dusty class rings, necklaces that have fallen from favor, and orphaned earrings are earning their owners money and have become a draw at parties that can bring the host a tidy commission. The get-togethers have also become a way for charities to boost funds.

Marilyn Wagner of Buffalo Grove recently walked out of Midwest Gold Buyers in Arlington Heights counting a cool $1,500.

"It was better to have the cash than all this unused gold laying in my drawer," Wagner said, shrugging off the departed necklace, which she hadn't worn in years, and mismatched earrings.

Midwest Gold Buyers opened its first store about two years ago in Hanover Park and expects to have 30 across the region by January, co-owner Jordan Sadoff said. A lucrative side business organizes parties in people's homes and elsewhere — more than 200 take place in the area every month, Sadoff said.

"We realized that there was a great potential in the concept," he said.

It didn't take Dorothy Collins of South Holland long to recognize the appeal. When she attended her first gold party, she noticed the look on people's faces as they left the room where their jewelry was assessed.

"Everyone was coming out with a smile," she recalled.

Collins invited 12 people to her first party and made a $200 commission. She also sold broken jewelry and a bracelet for $179.

Maria Dominquez of Chicago sold $136 worth of jewelry at two parties, then earned a $45 commission by hosting one of her own.

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"I looked at it as a little extra cash," she said. "It was fun."

Midwest Gold Buyers also sells silver and coins in the 16 stores it operates in the suburbs.

Hoffman Estates trustees recently denied Sadoff's request to open a store in a Golf Road shopping center. Sadoff said he'll ask again, although Trustee Jacquelyn Green noted that jewelry stores in the village already buy and sell gold.

"I just didn't like it," she said. "I just don't think it's the place for it."

Sadoff is quick to draw a distinction between his stores and pawn shops, which lend money using various items, including gold and other jewelry, as collateral. He said his company only buys gold and jewelry. The price offered for gold is based on karat/carats and the market rate, Sadoff said.

A huge jump in the price of gold helped spur business, Sadoff said. By Monday, gold had climbed to $1,102 per ounce, compared with about $700 per ounce earlier this year.

The metal is sent to refiners in Chicago and Florida to be melted down. The smelter charges a fee to refine the metals, and then sells the gold on the market for Midwest Gold Buyers.

Some people throw gold parties to raise money for charity.

Wagner raised a $400 commission at a September party that benefited the Les Turner Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Foundation, based in Skokie. She held the party in a salon she co-owns in Buffalo Grove. She's planning another party in February to raise money to fight breast cancer.

Jovi Evans, a single mother of two who lives in west suburban Broadview, said she sold a couple of bracelets, an anklet and a necklace in three pieces at a gold-buying party hosted by a North Riverside beauty salon.

She's also hosted parties. Evans said Midwest pays a 10 percent commission to the host, plus another $25 for food and beverages.

A company representative sets up a card table with lights, a scale and containers to weigh the metals, Evans said.

The representative asks permission to scratch the metal to test it. Then it's weighed and an offer is made. If the customer accepts, he or she will receive a check on the spot, Evans said.

Using checks rather than cash — at parties and in stores — is one way to try to avoid buying stolen items. "If sellers don't have identification, or it seems suspicious, we don't buy it," Sadoff said.

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By Ken Manson, SPECIAL TO THE TRIBUNE