The day gold hit $800 an ounce, I found, buried in the back of a drawer, a 14-carat gold wedding band, now devoid of any sentimental value, purchased in 1975 at one of those interchangeable jewelry stores on Connecticut Avenue for the princely sum of $35.
Lacking a postage scale, I held the ring in one hand, balanced an eight-ounce can of Campbell's soup in the other and convinced myself that this circular hunk of gold weighed at least one ounce. Even though only about half of 14-carat gold is the real thing (the rest is a metallic Hamburger Helper), the ring was unquestionably worth $400).
On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, as gold plummeted on the foreign markets in anticipation of my decision to sell, I went searching, like Diogenes, through downtown Washington for an honest jewelery store.
My first stop was Diener-Jackman on L Street, a little east of Connecticut Avenue, where three gentlemen stood behind the counter with gray smocks and glints in their eyes. They accepted my ring with a grunt and a young woman materialized out of nowhere for the ceremonial weigh-in. The shiny scale stopped gyrating when the dial was set at 3.5. Sensing I was about to make a killing, I wanted them to know I was no rube. "Three-and-a-half ounces?" I asked casually. "No, three-and-a-half penny weights, said the woman. There wasn't much left of my savoir-faire when I discovered that a penny-weight is equal to One-twentieth of an ounce.
Mr. Jackson himself balanced the ring in his hand and spat out, "Twenty-five dollars, that's what it's worth." Clutching what was left of my dignity, I replied, "No, I think I'll hold onto it." Jackson clearly had heard that one before. "It's worth nothing to you -- why keep it?" he asked. "Gold is going down, it'll only be worth less." Jackson then revealed his theory of the gold market, which had something to do with the U.S. Marines taking the Middle Eastern oil fields. With false bravado, I countered with the comment that gold would hit $1,000 as soon as Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia died. As I dashed out the door, Jackson yelled after me, "So what if Tito dies, no one can live forever!"
I ducked into H. Kaufmann jewelers, where I discovered that the ring had amazingly gained weight while I crossed the street, now checking in at four penny-weights. When I hesitated over an offer of $36, the young, bearded jeweler warned, "This is today's price. I can't give you $36 if gold goes down tomorrow."
At International Jewelers Inc., also on L Street, four people were jammed into one tiny room chattering away in a language that may well have been Farsi. They offered $35 for the ring. Fearing a massive price drop, I hurried around the corner to the Tiny Jewel Box on Connecticut Avenue, where, in palmier days, I had once made a substantial purchase.
The woman behind the counter took the ring, disappeared into the back room and came back with an offer of $45. Without an instant's pause, I said, "You have yourself a deal."
Instead of handing me cash on the spot, the woman began asking a series of questions -- name, address, phone number. Ah, I thought with pride, they want to add me to their mailing list. She continued, "Height? Weight? Color of eyes?" Something was clearing away. Just a routine form for the police, she said, looking at me as if I were the famed cat burglar of Capitol Hill. "Do you want to know the date of my divorce?" I asked with false levity. "Can I see some identification, please?" Was her only reply.Only when she was convinced that bloodhounds could track me anywhere, did she hand me a check for $45.
By early the next morning, when the m oney was gone, I had discovered the exact value of a used gold marriage token -- one dinner at the Palm and a tankful of regular gasoline.