How much gold is in that gold jewelry, anyway?
Gold is expensive. It always has been and as long as people want it, it’s likely to stay that way. It’s not super rare, though. There are about ten tons of gold mined every year for every ton of platinum, for example. But platinum kind of looks like less-expensive silver, and gold looks like – gold.
That’s why people like it, and that’s why gold remains popular. But when you’re buying vintage jewelry, you need to be aware that not every piece that looks like gold is gold, or at least, it may not be all gold.
There are gold-filled pieces, gold vermeil pieces, gold plated pieces, and pieces that are made from …wait for it…gold.
So what’s the difference?
Most of the “gold” jewelry you’ll see is actually gold plated. Gold plating is a thin layer of gold (often just microns thick) that has been applied to a base metal using an electromagnetic process. The result is real gold on top of a non-precious metal, so it looks like the real thing. The problem is that there really isn’t much gold there, and in time, it will wear off, leaving you with a piece of jewelry that isn’t all that attractive anymore.
Gold vermeil jewelry is a bit better; it still involves gold plating, but the base metal is silver. The pieces are usually marked, and you’ll likely see them marked as “sterling,” or perhaps “.925.” These marks indicate the silver content, as the gold content, as with gold plated pieces, is relatively negligible. On the other hand, gold vermeil pieces tend to wear better than gold plated ones, and they also tend to hold their value better, as the entire piece consists of precious metal.
Gold filled jewelry is made using a slightly different process, but it still involves a layer of gold on top of a base metal, which is often brass or copper. Gold filled jewelry, on the other hand, must use at least enough gold to comprise a minimum of 5% of the total weight. These pieces will also be marked, and you’ll see marks such as “1/10 10KT GF,” “1/20 12KT GF,” “1/20 14KT GF,” and “1/20 18KT GF.”
Finally, you’ll see pieces that are actually made from gold, but they’re not “solid gold,” as they’re often called. There’s a reason for that – gold is actually a fairly soft metal, and anything that’s made from 100% gold is going to be too soft to use for any length of time. Because of this, jewelers mix other metals with the gold to make it more durable.
The term “karat” (with a “k”, rather than a “c,” which is used for gems) is used to denote the percentage of gold in a piece, as follows:
- 24 karat = 100% gold
- 22 karat =91% gold
- 18 karat = 75% gold
- 14 karat = 58% gold
- 12 karat = 50% gold
- 10 karat = 42% gold
There are other variations and marks, as not all jewelers around the world use the same standards of marking. But these four classifications should give you a good idea as to what you’re looking at when you see a piece for sale and you’re not sure if it’s “really” gold or not.