(Updated for gold settlement prices.)

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Gold prices continued their staggered testing of new highs Thursday, pushing into bold new territory before backtracking to end the session slightly lower.

It's a pattern -- not unusual when a liquid asset is bumping up against new highs -- that some market players have found comforting, since it would seem to indicate levels of support for the steady march of the precious metal northward, at least over the relatively near term.

Overnight, the Gold December contact touched new highs on the Comdex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange, before coming down from those highs in regular-session trading Thursday. Gold for December delivery settled at $1,210.60 an ounce, down $1.40 on the session.

Gold for February delivery, meanwhile -- the most actively traded contract on the Comdex -- slipped to $1,209.50 an ounce, down $3.50 from the previous settlement price. Intraday, the contract shot as high as $1,227.50 -- notching a record for the third straight session -- and fell as low as $1,205.20.

The painfully obvious question -- how high can this thing go? -- remains on everyone's mind, with some traders and investors drawing comparisons between gold in late 2009 with crude oil in 2008, said Darin Newsom, senior commodities analyst at Telvent DTN, who went on to dismiss the analogy.

"There's no reason to believe the end is near," Newsom said. "It's still a stout market."

Unlike crude oil last year, which collapsed once fundamental demand dropped out with the onset of the recession, Newsom said that fundamental supply-demand support for gold looks to be firmly in place. "Gold doesn't have that same sort of market structure" as oil did in 2008, he said. Everywhere, investors want the yellow stuff, whether it's demand for physical metal or paper demand created by the buying of futures among ETFs and commercial traders trying to cover short hedges.

Given the "stair-stepping" pattern of gold's rise, Newsom sees the metal reaching as high as $1,386 an ounce or so by the early first quarter of 2010. "If it happens faster than that, some will argue that we're nearing a blow-off top in the market," he added, a notion that's not necessarily contrary to certain gold perma-bulls.

Mining stocks, a more leveraged way to invest in gold, were broadly lower Thursday. Inevitably, miners lately have been announcing their intentions to add to their gold capacity. The latest to do so was Japan's Sumitomo Metal Mining, which said on Thursday that it may hike its output by 50% over the next 10 years, according to Bloomberg.

Among U.S.-listed gold-mining names, Barrick ( ABX) declined 2.3% to finish Thursday's session at $46.84, while Newmont Mining ( NEM) lost 2.2% to $54.58. Shares of Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold ( FCX) retreated 1.6% to $83.80. AngloGold Ashanti ( AU) dropped 3% to $45.51.

The physically-backed ETF, SPDR Gold Shares ( GLD), slid 0.5% to $118.70. Market Vectors Gold Miners ( GDX) was down about 2.3% to $53.53, while shares of Market Vectors Juniors ( GDXJ) finished lower by 2.8% to $28.51.

-- Written by Scott Eden in New York

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Scott Eden has covered business -- both large and small -- for more than a decade. Prior to joining TheStreet.com, he worked as a features reporter for Dealmaker and Trader Monthly magazines. Before that, he wrote for the Chicago Reader, that city's weekly paper. Early in his career, he was a staff reporter at the Dow Jones News Service. His reporting has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and the Believer magazine, among other publications. He's also the author of Touchdown Jesus (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a nonfiction book about Notre Dame football fans and the business and politics of big-time college sports. He has degrees from Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis.