"The Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rule." Slogan painted on a mock gold brick at the Bethesda Gold and Silver Exchange.

The screech of metal scratching metal grew louder as the escalator reached the second floor of Sears, Montgomery Mall. And when I saw the salesperson rubbing an industrial file against the rim of a silver pitcher at the gold and silver re-sale counter, I almost turned back. Even a story didn't warrant destruction of the gold and silver items I clutched in a tan canvas bag.

To get an idea of what's going on at the gold and silver recyling centers, I had started out to "sell" a class ring (vintage 1958, Syracuse University, with red "stone"), a sterling silver fork that currently sells in stores for $148 and one (I thought, silver) candlestick.

But after several stops, I became so intrigued by the selling process I offered not only my husband's 1950 University of Virginia call ring -- which he suggested I sell en route -- but my own gold wedding band.

At Sears an electronically-calibrated Sauter scale was set out in front of the seller, along with a listing of that particular day's prices last week: 18k -- $16.20; 14k -- $12.49; 10k -- $8.79; dental -- $12.49; sterling -- $10.91, and more.

Admittedly, I wasn't much interested in the posted amounts, only in what I would be paid if I decided to sell. Among offers: Syracuse class ring, $105; silver fork, $14.50.

I was told two things that carried throughout the day (and stops at eight places):

Stones in class rings are worth nothing (unless they are diamonds; typically, they are not), and quick-sale places won't take plated silver.

Explained a jeweler later, "You have to rip the item apart to tell how much is silver and how much is just the weight of plastic, or even cement."

There were 10 people lined up outside Midas Coins, 5022 Nicholson Lane, Rockville, before the door opened at 10:30 a.m. Among them: a woman with a broken silver candelabra in a flowered plastic shopping bag, men with coins in attache cases, a man with Army medals and class ring stashed in his pocket.

Four men behind the glass counter took each client in orderly fashion. They rejected the Army medals, turned down all the plated silver and offered one man $31 for his 1938 class ring. (Can you imagine," he told the man behind him in line, "I paid $4.45 for that originally.")

But at the last minute he rejected the lure of about 700 percent profit and pocketed his ring for sentimenal reasons.

"Others will offer to match out prices, or even top them by $1," said the man behind the counter. "But come back, and we'll take care of you."

At Midas, the Syracuse class ring could have gone for $108, the fork for $20.80.

I had planned to stop at two motels in Bethesda. There had been a sign plastered on a van in the parking lot of one, and the other had run a small ad. pThe sign was gone from the first, and the visiting dealer had pulled out of the second.

But across the street was Bethesda Gold & Silver Exchange, 8021 Wisconsin Ave. Opened for business about a week ago, the place is sparcely decorated, except for a number of mirrors and a desk with three small bottles.

An agreeable gentleman agreed that the way to get the best price is to check a lot of dealers. He said he checks prices several times daily.

"If you had come yesterday you would have been $12 ahead," he advised, hinting that I should hurry up and make my decision to sell. (Here, I was offered $98.75 for the class ring and $17.55 for the fork.)

On to the Last Fair Deal Trading Co. at 4836 MacArthur Blvd. Because I know owner Larry Wilner, my questions -- and perhaps my merchandise -- were treated more amicably. Among things that Wilner told me: m Prices offered relate to the amount of gold in each item, minus the work necessary to refine it.

The margin of difference, he said, between what the dealer offers and what he can get on the market is small. Wilner claims he can offer top dollar because he reuses the gold -- on the premises -- for a line of jewelry.

The parking area outside Royal (once sellers of carpets, and now dealers in gold and silver), 1785 Florida Ave. NW, was filled with Mercedeses and other glossy cars, so I expected a long wait inside. There was none.

The obvious (older) decision-maker and a young man were in a corner in front of the store, accepting items only through a locked window. As gold pieces were thrown on a scale, the older man continued to talk on the phone, signaling prices offered by writing on a pad. The prices -- $65 for the Syracuse ring, in contrast to a high of $141.22, and $8 for the fork, compared to $20.80 -- were the lowest offered so far.

At Trade Fair International, which has set shop in an abandoned gas station at New York and Florida Avenues, they were stopping traffic with handwritten signs. Clearly first-rate entertainment for some of the neighborhood kids, a number had their noses pressed against a window peering into the dealers' side of the room.

Inside, a man considered selling a "half dime" (an old coin), but turned down the offer of $2. A young man's set of silverware in a blue vinyl case was rejected as silver plate. The prices here were not high ($72 for the Syracuse ring, $10.40 for the fork), but not the lowest. And without asking, the proprietor profered a slip of paper on which he had initialed his prices and siad he'd "stick by them for another day."

At Capital Coin & Gold Exchange Ltd., 1511 K St. NW, I was expecting the ambience of an old-time gold dealer's shop. But like most of the other places, it had the atmosphere of an instant operation, set up in unadorned quarters in a downtown office building. Prices here were in the average range: $102 for the same class ring, $19.75 for the fork.

The man who helped me, however, was the most sensitive about sentimentality.

"If it hurts too much to see me bust the ring," he said, "I'll pop out the stone and give it back to you. Otherwise, I'll wait till your back is turned."

My final stop was Gaithersburg Coin Exchange (12 N. Summit St., Gaithersburg) and my annoyance at making the long trip was not much soothed by the back-door basement location. But because I had heard that many dealers sell their purchases here, I figured it was worth the cost of gas to check.

Behind the metal screen, locked doors and barred windows of the Gaithersburg Coin Exchange, the scene was more like a brokerage house than a coin-dealer. The no-frills, no-carpet, shirt-sleeve operation has been in business since 1972 and many say they are one of the largest dealers -- about $75 million in purchases last year -- in the East.

Owner Marc Watts stood in front of two computer screens telling him gold and silver prices at the same time Merrill Lynch and other stockbrokers are getting their information. The screen was changing (downward on this particular day) and Watts was trying to figure reasons for the change.

"We get every tick, every trade of the day in gold," on which, Watts said, he bases prices offered to dealers and individuals selling items to him.

And what items.

A couple from North Carolina had brought up silver coins they had buried in their backyard; a man wanted a wedding ring cut off his finger; a woman insisted her U.S. coins are dated 1536, and a Martinsburg, W. Va., dealer presented a 14-karat IUD, and then decided against selling it.

Business is good, said Watts, because of the fluctuating costs of gold, particularly as noted on the front page of newspapers. For many customers, a sale gives them a booth in the midst of a tough economy. Others are simply seizing the moment to unload bits of silver or gold they have been hoarding, waiting for the price to go up.

I placed by items between a set of doubled-locked windows and watched the silver items weighed on a huge scale behind the windows. I asked, because the man in front of me asked, just what everything weighed and was given some answers I didn't understand.

But I also was quoted the highest prices I had heard all day . . . and that I did understand. CAPTION: Picture 1, 10K Gold Class Ring, $65-$151.89; Chart, Sample Prices; Picture 2, Sterling Silver Salad Fork: $8-$21.94; Picture 3, Silver-plated Candlestick, No offers