Before I started making jewelry I didn’t know that sterling silver is not the purest type of silver. Nor did I know what the heck 14K vs. 22K gold meant, and why it only went up to 24K. Never even heard of the term vermeil. Knowing these things can help you make better choices about the jewelry (and other items made with precious materials) you buy. So, here is a basic review of things about jewelry that you may or may not know… In this article I’m going to concentrate on gold. Later I’ll cover terminology to do with silver, other metals, and gemstones…
1) What is the karat?
You are probably familiar with the terms 14K, 18K, 22K, and 24K, but do you know what they mean? The k stands for karats. A karat is a measurement of the amount of gold found in something. (Don’t confuse karat with carat. The term carat, in the US & Canada, refers to the weight of a gemstone. I’ll get into that in another article).
Anyway, for obscure reasons I won’t delve into, one karat is 1/24th of the total material present. So, 24K gold is PURE gold (well, not entirely pure, but I’m not going to nitpick here). Although it looks great, pure gold is not very good to make jewelry with – it really isn’t very strong and if you had a pure gold ring it would soon bend out of shape and not look very nice. That is why you don’t see much made with solid 24K gold.
In other examples, 18K gold contains 18 parts gold and 6 parts another metal or metals, making it 75% gold, while 14K gold is 14 parts gold and 10 parts other metals, making it 58.3% gold. As a side note, 10K gold is the lowest you can go and still legally call it gold in the United States. In my opinion the karat system is kind of dumb, but its ingrained in the jewelry culture and isn’t going anywhere. Wouldn’t it be easier if someone just said “This item is 75% gold”?
As far as gold goes, I personally like to work with 22K gold because it has a nice rich yellow color (see picture below under vermeil). But everyone has different tastes, and in fact, you can find gold in all sorts of colors. My wedding bands are white gold, because I tend to favor the silvery colors for every day wear, as it goes with more of my other jewelry. So, what makes white gold white, or rose gold rose? Gold itself is always the same color, so the various “colors” of gold are actually made by mixing in other metals.
White gold used to be made by mixing nickel and silver with gold. These days, white gold is usually gold mixed with palladium and silver, or very occasionally platinum. Palladium is a metal very similar to platinum, although it is more expensive. The expense of palladium is why white gold sometimes costs more then “regular” gold. Now here is the kicker. White gold actually has a slightly grey or grey/white color, so it is commonly plated with Rhodium. The use of rhodium plating for white gold jewelry has been standard practice in the jewelry industry for a long time. Rhodium is a very hard, silver-white metal that is a member of the platinum family. White gold is coated in rhodium by method of electroplating. Confused yet? This is why sometimes you will notice your white gold turning slightly yellow – the rhodium plating is wearing off. (I’ll talk about these other weird sounding metals another day).
Rose gold, which is another common color you see, is a combination of gold and copper. The more copper, the redder the hue. A common mixture for rose gold is 75% gold and 25% copper by mass (in other words, the gold is 18 karat, with the other 6 parts of the total 24 parts being copper). For 18 karat rose gold, often 4% silver is added to the 75% gold and 21% copper to give a rose color. Rose gold is an alloy; there is no such thing as "pure rose gold". The highest karat version of rose gold is 22K, also known as crown gold. 14K red gold is often found in the Middle East and contains 41.67% copper. That is a lot of copper…
2) Is it solid gold, gold-filled, vermeil, or gold plated? Or is it gold at all???
The value of the item depends, in part, on the answer to this. I’ll start with the cheapest (plated), and go to the most expensive (solid gold). And then I'll finish off with a warning about the words gold toned...
When you are told something is gold plated, it means that some cheaper metal has been electroplated with a coating of gold. So, what is this “electroplating” which I speak of? Well, it is a way of putting a VERY thin (a few molecules thick) layer of metal (silver, gold, whatnot) on top of another, cheaper metal. A lot of costume jewelry is gold or silver plated, which means that it is only a thin coating of gold or silver over some other metal. Eventually, if you wore this item every day, that coating will wear off and you will be left with the other, less desirable metal. That is why gold and silver plated jewelry is so much cheaper than solid gold or silver jewelry. In reality, gold and silver plating is just fine for items you will not wear all the time. If it’s a pair of earrings, necklace, or bracelet that you don’t plan on wearing every day, gold plated is probably just dandy, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper. But there are ways of getting better quality stuff for not too much more… Read on.
Which brings me to the term vermeil. Vermeil is gold-coated sterling silver. However, the sterling silver is not electroplated – the gold is put on in a much thicker layer, making it more durable. In my opinion, vermeil is very beautiful – the gold is usually not too shiny, and instead has a rich satiny finish (that’s one of its top draws for me). And the fact that its over sterling silver means that you are still getting quality materials in the interior of your piece. However there is one caveat. We all know that silver tarnishes (I’ll get into WHY in the next blog)… Well, vermeil can tarnish too, if it is poorly done, harshly treated, scratched, or if the layer becomes worn down with repeated everyday wear. And unlike sterling or fine silver, it’s not that easy to clean up the tarnish without removing the gold. So, much like gold plated, I don’t recommend you buy vermeil for items you will wear every day, day in and day out, especially things like rings that get banged around a lot. Never try to roughly buff vermeil or plated jewelry. You can get away with that on sterling or fine silver but in my opinion with vermeil you are running the risk of scratching away the layer of gold. That said, vermeil shouldn’t tarnish if you treat it nicely, avoid spraying it with perfumes or other chemicals, and you take good care of the piece. (If you live in a humid or salty climate, store your vermeil and silver pieces in some of that tarnish preventing cloth called Pacific Cloth). I have a lot of vermeil jewelry and I find that it holds up great, even in Hawaii. Some darkening of the color may occur over time, but that is often considered part of the charm. Vermeil is still one of my favorite choices for gold, as it kind of reminds me of the color of ancient golden jewelry. Here is a pair of 22k vermeil earrings with amethysts and crystals that I sell in my shop.
The next step up in the quality chain is “gold-filled”… You have probably seen this term in some places. Gold filled is different from gold plated. It does NOT mean that the item is filled with gold. In fact, what it means is that there is a thick layer of gold wrapped around another metal. It is sometimes called “rolled gold”...
Gold-filled jewelry is created by applying a sheet of gold to the jewelry surface. You may see items marked with a code describing how much and what type of gold was used in the layer. Example: a marking of 1/20 14K G.F. means that the piece is at least 1/20th 14K gold by weight. Gold filled items are much more durable than gold plated, and it is unlikely that you will wear the layer of gold off to reveal the metal underneath. So, given the choice between gold-filled and gold-plated, you should always take gold-filled, if you can afford it. Unfortunately, you don’t often see gold-filled items that are 18K or 22K. It’s usually 14K. Personally I wouldn’t bother choosing a gold-filled item over gold plated if it’s less than 14K. I like the color of 22K gold, which is why I often choose vermeil over gold filled in my designs. But both are good!
Now we get to our favorite 70s and 80s dance show: Solid Gold! Oh, wait, we were talking about jewelry. Well, of course, solid gold will have the highest quality and value, but it is really expensive. So don’t bother with solid gold unless you 1) want to be able to melt it down or sell it for its gold value some day, 2) you plan to wear it every day for the rest of your life, 3) you just really like high quality stuff, or 4) you are rich (in which case, send me some money!). And like I said earlier, 24K solid gold really isn’t a good choice for jewelry that you want to survive the wear and tear of every day. Its just too soft. I don't have any solid gold items in my shop because those are the sorts of things you buy at Tiffany's, not online on Etsy or Artfire...
FINALLY... Is it really gold at all??? If you see the term "gold tone" or "gold toned" then it is most likely not gold at all, but maybe nice shiny brass or even some other sort of alloy. So, buyer beware. If you want something shiny and gold colored and you don't care if its gold, then this is fine. But if you suffer metal allergies you will want to delve deeper into what exactly the metal is that they used.
3) What other metals are mixed with gold?
This can be problematic if you have allergies to certain metals like nickel, or much more rarely, silver. As you saw above, many different kids of metal can be mixed with gold. In cheaper white gold, nickel can be mixed in, causing problems for some people. The most commonly used metals in gold alloys are silver, copper, and zinc. (I'll discuss metal allergies in another blog, check back again soon). You may find that some of the cheaper gold plated items you have will tarnish. This is common in humid climates, or if you have acidic skin or use a lot of products and don't clean your jewelry regularly. And here you thought gold never tarnished!!
Here are some examples of the various mixtures: 22K yellow gold is 91.67% gold, 5% silver, 2% copper, and 1.33% zinc. 18K White Gold can be: 75% Gold, 25% Platinum or Palladium or it can be 75% Gold, 10% Palladium, 10% Nickel and 5% Zinc. So, if you are allergic to nickel, you might want to avoid white gold unless you can with certainty ascertain that it does not contain nickel…
By the way, purple gold is 80% gold and 20% aluminum. (Who knew?) ;-))
So, that’s about it for today -- this blog is getting too long. We still have a lot to cover about the other precious metals. For example, did you know that you have to polish sterling silver more than fine silver? I’ll explain why, and discuss other interesting things about silver next time.