Jewelry has honestly never been an expensive part of my life. I mean, I have a few pairs of earrings and a ring or two

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Big Rocks

Breakfast at Tiffany's, lunch at Bulgari, dinner at Neiman Marcus

Jewelry has honestly never been an expensive part of my life. I mean, I have a few pairs of earrings and a ring or two that I love, and I feel like I've paid a lot for them. I haven't. Between the puka shells and Navajo turquoise bracelets and Bakelite bangles long since lost or abandoned, I probably spent $500 total. Since the market seems to have grown up and out all around me since I purchased my own trinkets, I figured the sure-fire way to get acquainted with this most rocky (but bright) terrain and not make a fool of myself was to begin with a little research. I mean, what is expensive, after all?

Thank God for online catalogs, which allow one to peruse unfamiliar territory in safety. Those of you who wish to purchase big, sparkly gifts for the coming millennial holiday season may want to check out www.mondera.com. You make selections to personalize your search for the perfect bijoux—including a setting that customizes the dollar amount you want to spend. While most of the items shown were wimpy little $5,000 or $6,000 pieces, I fortuitously clicked on "Exclusives On Mondera!" to locate one big, fabulous diamond-and-platinum ring that features a 2.55-carat princess cut diamond (very brilliant) and a price tag of $17,734.00. Mondera also has a Jubilee 2000 collection of jewelry designed for the millennium, made in a limited edition of 2000 pieces. But I was still waiting to be impressed, so I moved on to a site I knew would have pieces of eye-popping, almost Byzantine splendor, with price tags to match—www.bulgari.com.

Bulgari definitely has a dashing, flashy site, and features jewelry fit for a Roman empress—or at least the Emperor's mistress. (These pieces are unique; call Bulgari directly at 212-315-9000 to inquire about prices, and be prepared to spend at least $400,000.) Wow—how about "a fine pair of emerald and diamond ear clips" with emeralds that weigh in at 15.80 carats? Or a robust red-white-and-blue cocktail ring from the '60s set with a huge cabochon sapphire, surrounded by rubies and diamonds? C'mon, it's the drag queen of rings, the sort of thing that would make a girl take up smoking just so she could gesture dramatically and really work that thing! Please don't get the wrong idea here, because there are some tasteful, beautiful pieces at Bulgari, like the Stalattite necklace, which is described as "minimalist": a platinum choker that features a stalactite-shaped pendant with eight diamonds of descending size. Uh, and pointing straight to your cleavage, but in a tasteful way.

I had yet to find an item with a truly epic price tag, but I knew where to look: www.nmdirect.com, Neiman-Marcus' Web site. Neiman Marcus is famous for their annual off-the-charts fantasy Christmas gifts, and sure enough, they were offering a Dazzling Diamond necklace, wrought from 18K white gold and a total of 181 carats of diamonds, for $450,000. For those who are actually willing to purchase an item of this splendor online, there was a place to click on the photo so you can see a close-up, which I think is wise if you're going to invest the GNP of some small nation in a gift.

The limitations of virtual purchasing were becoming obvious, however. Shopping for luxury items is a function of the id, and the id requires that one must touch, hold, and have the object of desire. The ice had been broken (no pun intended); now that I knew how much a Dazzling Diamond necklace could cost, I had the definition of "big ticket" clearly delineated. So I went where anyone with a second-grade education, or a fondness for Audrey Hepburn films, would go to find jewelry: Tiffany & Co. (Pacific Place, Sixth and Pike, 264-1400).

I found Tiffany's reassuring, in a funny way. It's like the McDonald's of fine jewelry; you know that you can find exactly the same stuff in any Tiffany's in the world (which could make for one heck of a Happy Meal). Surveying those gleaming cases filled with glittering objects, you realize that there are enough diamonds for everyone, and even if you can't quite muster the lucre for them, you can have a heart-shaped key ring...and that distinctive turquoise box. If you do possess adequate lucre, however, I would suggest a fabulous 16-inch necklace fashioned out of South Sea pearls as big as cocktail onions, with a diamond-and-platinum clasp. These pearls are so big they look almost implausible, and yet when you hold them up under your chin, they reflect a radiant white light that makes you look so great, you could be sporting a recently-healed facelift. Of course, $165,000 could buy a lot of plastic surgery, too...but no little turquoise box.

If Tiffany's is McDonald's, then the home team—Turgeon-Raine Jewellers (1407 Fifth, 447-9488)— is a smorgas-bord. There really is something for everyone here, from the sublime (Patek Philippe watches) to the ridiculous (a brooch, I think, made of amethyst and featuring the UW Husky logo). Mostly the sublime, however, like the 30-plus-inch strand of enormous, exotic black Tahitian pearls, begging to be wrapped around a slender neck ($93,000). Norman Turgeon and Jerry Raine not only design much of the jewelry here, but they're actually on the premises, which I think is nice, and they're enthusiastic about their gems (many of which are exotic-colored diamonds). "Look at this ring," Turgeon said, holding up a smooth, sinuously polished platinum-and-gold men's ring that features a 5-carat, cognac-colored diamond. "That's a ring for a stud." It was beautiful, as is a woman's ring in which a startling, large orange diamond is set in a crisscrossed white diamond band. I actually felt the tug of the id in looking at a lovely pair of vintage Tiffany earrings, diamond and sapphire drops dated 1929 ($25,000). But I'm especially proud of Turgeon Raine because they beat out Neiman Marcus, and putatively Bulgari, for the biggest price tag, with not one but two items: A spectacular bracelet made of a total of 47 carats of starburst-cut fancy yellow and white diamonds so suavely designed as to be simply beautiful, as opposed to looking like $695,000 sitting on one's wrist; and a ring with a 2 carat, internally flawless blue oval diamond set with a pair of white oval diamonds, which costs a million and looks like it —you could virtually skate on this ice. As a lovely, well-heeled patron who was looking at diamond necklaces proclaimed, "These aren't baubles—they're a commitment."

Lesa Sawahata is an artist and writer. She lives in Seattle.

 
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