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Valentine's Day is fast approaching, so if you're considering the purchase of jewelry or a similar keepsake, it's time to start researching the options. A little forethought can save you money without compromising the quality of the gift.

Regardless whether you're in the market for a simple string of beads, a vintage piece, or a diamond doozey, you'll want to assess its quality. A guide produced by MJSA (Manufacturing Jewelers and Silversmiths of America) is an excellent starting point.

After acquainting yourself with the basics, do a reality check. Be sure you know your audience when shopping for a Valentine's Day gift. Your Valentine may be a Holly Golightly, who, like the lead character in Breakfast at Tiffany's, would be content with a Cracker Jacks ring engraved by Tiffany with his or her initials. At the other extreme, your Valentine may be a devotee of Crown Jewels.

Both high-end and budget keepsakes can be purchased online and off, at chains and at independent stores. Each has its pros and cons. To determine where you'll find the best deal in terms of quality and price, we chose a pair of diamond stud earrings with 1 carat total weight of round diamonds set in 14 carat white gold as the test case. A perennial favorite among jewels, the diamond enables reliable comparison based on a standard grading system known in the business as the "four C's": cut, color, clarity, and carat.

Independent Jewelers.

You might start by stopping in at a local jeweler to peruse the unique gems and designs. Local jewelers often hand pick each stone based on quality, clarity, and size. Ask questions and take advantage of their expertise. You will almost certainly pay more than at a mid-level retail jewelry chain, but there's a greater chance you'll be getting prime materials and one-of-a-kind construction.

We looked at our designated diamond studs at two New York City jewelers. One was offering what the industry grading system classifies as a pair of lower-quality diamonds for a sale price of $2599; the second was selling a higher-quality pair at a sale price of $1670. Clearly, take the time to comparison shop.

Jewelry Chains.

From Claire's to Tiffany's and everything in between, jewelry store chains abound in every major mall. Budget and mid-level jewelry chains typically buy in bulk, which may mean lower-quality materials and mass-produced designs for Valentine's Day keepsakes. On the flip side, you can anticipate attractive prices, financing options, friendly service, and a guarantee of some sort.

We compared quality and prices on diamond stud earrings that met our qualifications at Zales, Kay's, and Jared's. Each offered what the "four C's" system considers sub-level quality at prices ranging from $1,199 to $1,899. Odds are you can do better elsewhere.

Big-Box Stores.

Big-box stores like Costco, Sam's Club, and Walmart sell canned goods by the case and toilet paper in quantities so massive as to support a small nation through a stomach-flu epidemic. They also sell jewelry. Lots of jewelry, it turns out. But if brand name matters to your loved one, don't even think about going this route for a Valentine's Day keepsake. Costco doesn't slip off the tongue quite as elegantly as, say, Cartier.

If you want the best deal, however, sashay on over to your local Sam's Club or Costco. We were not disappointed by the offerings. A pair of quality (according to the "four C's") diamond studs carries a $2,999.99 price tag at Costco. Sam's Club displayed several options, each of respectable quality ("four C's", again), at a range of prices; we spotted a well-ranked pair for $1,999.

Of course, when shopping for Valentine's Day jewelry at one of the big-box outlets you should know what you're looking for and at. The salesperson may not be well versed in this area. If you're okay buying diamonds at the same store where you purchase tires, big-box stores are easily the best value.

Online Vendors.

Since the dawn of the Internet age, consumers' need for brick-and-mortar stores has diminished. The trend afflicts the jewelry market, as well. Ibis World reports that online jewelry and watch sales grew by an annual average of 2.9 percent between 2008 and 2013.

We spoke with a customer service representative at Super Jewelers, an ecommerce vendor, who assured us that amazing deals can be had online because many of these sites actually function as wholesalers; that is, no middle man or storefront, and no brand name to pay for. And, he insisted, at least some of the savings are passed on to customers.

Unfortunately, the savings are also associated with indifferent quality. The diamond studs we were interested in showed poor diamond attributes, according to the standard grading system, and were selling for $699.99.

So here's some advice: Be one of those shoppers who likes to touch and feel an item before committing, especially when it's a Valentine's Day keepsake.

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