The ads come between the articles in every newspaper proclaiming that a "golden opportunity is knocking" while the simple signs on the side of major roads get right to the point: "We Pay Cash 4 Gold."
Gold buyers have become a fixture in Western Pennsylvania in recent years. Three major companies -- Treasure Hunt, Cash for Gold and Gold Buyers of Pittsburgh -- own a total of about 30 locations in the Pittsburgh area, competing alongside dozens of small companies to buy old wedding rings, coins and jewelry.
In exchange for cash, the buyers will collect gold and then sell it to refineries.
The rush began when gold prices more than doubled from 2008 to 2011, hitting a record $1,923 in September 2011. But prices have begun a steady spiral downward. A year ago in August 2012, gold was valued at $1,900 per ounce; now, that figure hovers around $1,300.
Each day breeds new uncertainty about prices and the fate of many businesses in the newly competitive marketplace for gold.
"This is not a business where you can sit back and live the life of luxury, and know that you're going to be open a month from today," said Jeremy Gugino, 25, who owns Community Gold and Jewelry Buyers of Western Pennsylvania.
"That market could tank it and you could be back in your store working every day -- it's a hard business, and it's not one with a solid future, but it's hard to really say what job really does have security anymore."
Mr. Gugino, a native of Sarver, Butler County, opened his business in 2008 as a kiosk in Pittsburgh Mills Mall. As gold prices took off, he remembers a weekend of particularly strong sales for his new business: He and his uncle, a co-owner of the company, had to turn people away because they had run out of cash and reached their debit cards' withdrawal limits.
At the time, they offered to appraise customers' old gold coins, necklaces and wedding rings, but told them to come back in a few days to complete their transactions.
But whenever the price of gold takes a hit, memories like that one seem particularly distant to Mr. Gugino. A good week for the business, which has moved from its kiosk to a permanent spot in the mall, has now become a "break-even week," he said.
Last year, Mr. Gugino's business had profits of about $50,000. That sum is only a small subset of the overall gold buying industry in Western Pennsylvania, where the bigger chain gold buyers can bring in several millions of dollars in a good year.
The decreases in business that many gold buyers have experienced have more to do with customers' perceptions than with the actual value of their jewelry, said Elisa Merrell, director of operations at Treasure Hunt, which has been in business for about 50 years.
"People hear on the news that gold took a big hit, and that's going to keep them from understanding that a plummet of $200 when you're talking about $1,700 is not really a plummet," Ms. Merrell said. "It's not a stock market crash."
A decade ago, before an ounce of pure gold became worth almost $2,000, the same amount of the metal was valued at just $400. Gold's value may be decreasing, Ms. Merrell said, but its prices are still high.
Still, Brandon Shutterly, a staff member at Jerry's Route 51 Quick Cash in Brentwood, said the worst part of his job is telling people that their gold jewelry is worth far less than they expected. The national headlines about plummeting gold prices do not go far enough in bracing customers for the reality that the high markups in jewelry stores -- markups that often run higher than 500 percent -- do not equate to actual gold prices.
"It's my least favorite part of my job, telling people their rings are worth $100 when they say, 'Oh, but I bought this for $2,400,' " Mr. Shutterly said.
Heidi Roup, a co-owner of The Gold Buyers of Pittsburgh, said she instructs her staff not to appraise their customers' wedding rings unless they are sure they want to sell, because the knowledge of the actual value of the jewelry can come as a disappointment.
Gold Buyers of Pittsburgh has nine locations near the city and is opening a 10th store in the coming months. The locations vary from large spaces in which the company sells some of its jewelry in addition to buying scraps of gold to far more modest spaces.
The company's Blawnox location, on Freeport Road just off of Route 28, is a small, cinder block house with just one room, a counter, a television and a framed Penguins jersey hanging on the wall. Customers have to ring a doorbell to enter.
Ms. Roup, who co-founded the company with her husband, attributes its success in part to its opening in 2009, right before gold prices spiked, and in part to its customer service and reputation.
In a business in which shop owners could easily cheat customers out of their gold's true value, Ms. Roup said her company encourages customers to consult other businesses but still manages to close more than 90 percent of its sales. She added that most of her client base is made up of repeat customers or referrals from existing clients.
Still, Ms. Roup and others in the business agree that the marketplace for gold buyers is saturated: Wherever a new store opens, at least a half-dozen others are a stone's throw away.
Eddie Lowy, who runs Banner Coin Exchange in Downtown, said he is confident his business will weather the storm of plummeting gold prices. He has operated his small shop at 347 4th Ave. for more than three decades, and he said he predicts gold prices will rebound within five to seven years.
In the meantime, he expects his reputation to carry him forward.
"There's too much competition in the marketplace all across the U.S. trying to buy gold and silver from the general public, yet there isn't enough stuff for there to be bought to make each profitable," Mr. Lowy said. "In the future, I firmly believe that those with outstanding, long-term reputations will be the survivors."
Daniel Sisgoreo: email@example.com, 412-263-1410 or on Twitter @DanielSisgoreo.