The 24-Karat Party

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

It's gold parties now, here in the de-gilded age. The women who used to invite all their girlfriends over to their fantastic homes for good wine and catered nosh on the pretense of selling merchandise to one another (Pampered Chef! Rolls of fancy wrapping paper for school charity!) are now inviting one another over to their fantastic homes for parties where everyone turns their gold into cash (ca$h!!) and winds up convulsing with giddy laughter over such treasures as wedding bands from bad marriages or those door-knocker earrings left behind by dearly departed Nana.

"See this? This is the shah of Iran," says Kathy Atkins, a guest at a gold party the other night in a townhouse in Alexandria. She holds up a coin ring engraved with, sure enough, a profile of the shah of Iran. "I got this when we lived in Tehran." She also brought a zipper pouch containing some old jewelry belonging to another friend who couldn't make the party, because she's vacationing in Italy -- "Lake Como, but a week after George Clooney left. . . . She called me and had me go into her house to look around for her gold."

Another woman has lots of gold chains she bought "back when I was teaching at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok." A man who came to the party with his wife brought a ghastly, nuggety watch given to him by an African dictator, back in the early '90s, on a lobbying trip.

Not all the tales at a gold party have that air of Washington worldliness; there are also those half-heart pendants on necklaces that were given by ex-boyfriends who were never so great. Charms, brooches, class rings -- some of it so neglected there is no longer a good narrative to go along. There are the dentures of deceased relatives, framed in gold, unwrapped discreetly for an estimate.

There is gold that doesn't even seem like gold, except it is. "I got this on a college trip to Hawaii," says Julie Lobdell, holding up a gold pendant with a tiny pearl in it. "You know those places where they make a really big show of getting the pearl out of the oyster and have you pick out the setting? . . . Oh, and these were my very first earrings, from when I got my ears pierced. Eighth grade! The only way my mother would let me was if I got them done in a doctor's office."

Suzy Senkus brought a bracelet given to her once upon a time by a handsome doctor, who then cheated on her with a nurse, which sounds very "General Hospital," and so is the bracelet, chunky '80s gold, trapped in that same gauzy era. "Get rid of it" is what Senkus tells herself, every time she looks at it, and tonight she will. "God, I should go home and get more of it," she says. "I have more."

* * *

At a gold party, you walk away with a check ($453, $898, $297, $503) and an almost serene renewal of faith in one kind of economy -- the ancient kind. You would never have this sort of fun at a pawnshop, and a pawnshop wouldn't serve ahi spring rolls and martinis.

"I mean, this is it, it's not very high-tech," says January Thomas, showing how it's done, sitting pretty in a corner of the living room next to a bright table lamp. She is getting ready to conduct a gold party for 30 or so guests. (And so can you! Simply go to Thomas's Web site,, and purchase your own measuring kit and guidebook for $700, schedule a party and just wait for the fun to begin.)

Thomas has a jeweler's magnifying loupe, a small battery-powered meter that is wired to a conductor and a little gel pen wired to the meter, which can test any item and immediately assay its authenticity as real gold -- and if it is gold, determine what the karat is. She has a scale that will weigh up to 50 grams. She has Ziploc baggies in both sandwich and freezer size. She has index cards and a calculator.

"It looks like a dorky science fair project, doesn't it?" she says.

She has one of those great big binders of pale green blank checks. She unfolds a beige pad on which party guests will get a turn, one by one, to spread out the gold they've collected over the years and no longer wear or want.

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