IF EVERY European country were to send a female delegate to a conference in Brussels, you would be unlikely to need a flag to tell where each came from. Instead you could look at their earrings - or bracelets, brooches or necklaces; it seems we are as nationalistic in our jewellery habits as in all others.

The British woman is likely to be stuck in a time-warp, wearing grandmother's pearls or a simple linked chain or sentimental locket round her neck. She would prefer small stud or plain hoop earrings, an antique - or antique-looking - brooch and possibly an unobtrusive bangle on her wrist.

Although she would seldom wear all these pieces together, she prefers several small, 'feminine' items to one big one that makes a statement. She does not go for avant-garde designs and is unlikely to commission special ones. Her rings - including the wedding and engagement rings - tend to be traditional (the engagement rings of both the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York being prime examples).

The French woman looks for unique designs - often incorporating other precious metals or natural products. She is happy to have special pieces commissioned - especially if someone else is paying for them.

She loves colour and sensuality in her jewellery, so if she wears hoop earrings they will incorporate an additional element such as a coloured stone or carved cherub. She enjoys wearing big - but subtle, rather than sparkly - jewel-set pieces that make a bold style statement. Her rings are likely to be unconventional, fluid shapes, stone-set in innovative ways. She likes 18- carat gold and does not consider nine carat to be the real thing.

German women go for stolid geometric jewellery that suits their generally boxy fashions. A particular favourite is electroformed gold - light, hollow pieces that suit the angular designs which they like.

These differences came to light when the World Gold Council was researching a pan- European advertising campaign. It had to melt down these national preferences and instead create a 'Eurowoman'.

The result, which will appear on our television screens this autumn, is an ad that shows a glamorous model slithering across sun-baked rocks. She is selling the image of la jeunesse doree rather than the 'or' itself.

The gold jewellery industry needs the advertisement to work. It is trying to revitalise its image after the devastation suffered as a result of the recession and the social acceptance of stylish costume jewellery. That is the bad news. The good news is that British women, in particular, are becoming more discerning buyers.

Sally Goldsby, publicity manager for the World Gold Council, says: 'There is a new breed of British woman who is more in touch with Europe, and she has been partly responsible for the fact that more 18-carat gold jewellery is being bought here this year than ever before.

'Gold jewellery has come out of the recession now. More was manufactured in the first three months of this year than at the same time last year, and that is due in considerable part to the emergence of the British Eurowoman.'

Business at the big London jewellers is still, unofficially, acknowledged to be dismal as a result of the knock-on effect of the Gulf war, the recession and the IRA bombings of London. 'Bond Street is struggling,' the council concedes, although individual firms refute this. Both Tiffany and Garrard have adapted to the new market conditions by diversifying and producing more modestly priced and multi-purpose pieces.

Smaller jewellers that have strong personal bonds with their clients are doing even better. Kiki McDonough, who caters for working women 'like myself', offers reasonable price-points and practical pieces; Theo Fennell, who is a friend to his celebrity and society clientele, encourages customers to bring him their unstylish but sentimental jewellery to be remodelled into dynamic new 'scrapbook' designs. (Joan Collins has done this recently, creating some dramatic gold cuffs from the better elements of outmoded gifts.)

Provincial jewellers - those that have survived, that is, such as Hancocks of Manchester and Sinton's of Newcastle - are, according to the council, thriving.

Boodle & Dunthorne (which the Duke and Duchess of Westminster are said to patronise in Cheshire) is doing a brisk business in the only pure gold jewellery currently available - 24 carat from Gay Freres of France and Switzerland.

'Although it is hallmarked as 22 carat, because there is no 24 carat hallmark in this country and because it has 22 carat clasps, this is 24 carat, pure gold jewellery,' says Ms Goldsby, 'with no alloys whatsoever.'

(A British firm, Titan Metals, is experimenting with producing jewellery out of 23.9-carat gold to which some titanium has been added.)

The British Eurowoman, however - let's imagine her working at the European Parliament in Brussels at least part of the time - would prefer 18 carat for its durability, as the purer the gold the softer it is and the less suitable to wear for everyday purposes.

Her earrings would be bigger and bolder than before - and she will have learnt a bit about mixing gold with colour and stones the way French women do so well. The apologetic little chain around her neck would metamorphose into a much bolder and more elegant design.

Grandmother's pearls could be reset into new heirlooms for the future. She would be confident enough to wear a brooch as well - and a biggish one, too: strong rather than sparkly for daytime.

'British women are becoming bolder about buying gold,' says Ms Goldsby. 'They are realising that the good design they have become accustomed to in costume jewellery can be made in real gold, too - and that often they can get gold for not much more than some of the more expensive costume pieces, which can't be repaired and are offputtingly expensive to replate.

'Costume jewellery also doesn't give women the feeling of well-being and emotional confidence that gold jewellery, according to our survey, does. And in times of recession and uncertainty, people want that feeling; and, although they may spend less, they are keener to spend on quality.'

Although we are not yet as wedded to gold as the Italians, Europe's heaviest gold consumers, nor as impulsive about it as the French, the standard and scope of gold buying is at an all-time high in Britain.

Perhaps, after an era in which image counted for more than substance, when outsized costume jewellery complemented outsized shoulders, women are looking for real rather than fool's gold.

(Photograph omitted)