How are there so many different kinds of gold used in jewelry? What the heck do they all mean? Which gold is the best kinda gold?
Gold is a naturally occurring chemical element and is found on ye olde Periodic Table with the symbol Au and the atomic number 79. It’s a bright yellow metal that is quite soft and bendable by hand. Gold is also one of the least reactive chemical elements.
Gold has a legendary status for us humans. For millennia, and in nearly every civilization, it has been prized for its color and scarcity. It has been used as adornment, as currency, as an investment, as a status symbol, as medicine, and in electronics and spacesuits. So, it’s valuable and expensive.
As a jewelry maker, if you want to keep your costs down or you want your jewelry to have different properties than what pure gold offers, then there are several ways to use gold that we cover in this article: gold alloy, gold filled, vermeil, gold plated, gold tone, and gold flash.
Pure gold is rarely used in jewelry because it is so soft. A ring or necklace made of pure gold would not withstand the bumps and yanks that come with daily wear. So, jewelers mix other metals with the gold to change the properties of the metal. Silver, copper, zinc, palladium, nickel, iron, aluminum, and platinum are the most common metals mixed with gold to create a gold alloy.
The ratio of gold to other metals in an alloy is measured in karats (not the yummy kind). Gold jewelry is stamped with the karat measurement followed by K. Generally speaking, the higher the karat, then the yellower, softer, more resistant to tarnish, and more expensive the gold is.
24K gold is pure gold and not an alloy. As mentioned above, it isn’t usually used by itself in jewelry because it is too soft. Ever see someone bite a gold coin in a movie? They’re testing its purity. If they see their teeth marks in the metal, they know they have the real thing.
22K gold is 91.7% gold and 8.3% other metals, usually silver, copper, and zinc. Another way to look at the ratio… 22 parts of this alloy is gold and the other 2 parts are another metal. 22K gold is sometimes used for plain gold jewelry, but it is still too soft to hold stones securely.
18K gold is 75% gold and 25% other metals, usually silver and copper. This gold is used a lot for jewelry. It has a rich, subdued yellow hue. If you’re allergic to some metals, this is the gold to choose for your jewelry. Rose gold is usually 18K gold with the other 6K being copper to give it a pink color, and white gold is usually 18K gold with 6K zinc and nickel. (Rose gold and white gold do come in different karats.)
14K gold is 58.3% gold and 41.7% other metals, usually silver and copper. 14K gold is the most common gold alloy for jewelry because it has a lower price and is tougher than the higher karat alloys and it retains most of its gold color and resists tarnish better than the lower karat alloys.
10K gold is 41.7% gold and 58.3% other metals, usually silver and copper. With less than half the alloy being gold, 10K gold is a very pale gold color. It’s very sturdy, relatively inexpensive, and you’ll find it used in simple chains and rings. If you’re allergic to some metals, This gold alloy might not be your best choice. 10K gold is the least pure gold alloy that can be legally marketed and sold using the word “gold”.
Keep your gold jewelry away from bleach and other cleaning products (except a couple drops of plain ole dish soap in warm water is actually good at removing dirt), and out of swimming pools and salty seas. Exposure to such chemicals could discolor or even disintegrate the gold. A quick wipe with a gold polishing cloth removes any smudges and brightens the shine of your gold.
That covers solid gold. Other ways gold is used in jewelry involves layering the gold on another metal.
Gold filled metal (abbreviated GF) is 10K, 12K, 14K, or 18K gold that is mechanically bonded under heat and pressure to a base metal, usually brass. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the gold in a gold-filled item must equal at least 1/20th the total weight of the item. This makes the gold layer significantly thick at 5 microns (a micron is 1/1000th of a millimeter) or greater, which is at least 10 times thicker than gold plating. The gold layer does not wear off and it stands up to daily wear.
Stamps for gold filled jewelry can vary. We’ve seen stamps like “1/20 14K”, “1/20 14K GF”, “14/20” and “14/20 GF”. In the last two, the purity is indicated in front of the “/20”.
It does not tarnish, but, just like real gold, keep it away from cleaning products (again dish soap is okay), swimming pools, and oceans. A quick wipe with a gold polishing cloth removes any smudges and brightens the shine of your gold.
This is a great gold jewelry option because it costs less than solid gold but you still get the durability and color of gold.
Think of vermeil (we pronounce it vehr-may) as a really thick layer of gold that is electroplated or mechanically bonded to sterling silver. The gold must be above 10K, preferably higher than 14K to minimize tarnish and the need to polish the gold. The thickness of the gold must be 2.5 microns or greater, which is 5 times thicker than gold plating. The base metal must be sterling silver.
You should see a “925” stamp indicating sterling silver and a purity stamp for the gold, like “22K”.
If any silver shows in the piece, that silver will tarnish. Use a polishing cloth to remove the tarnish from the silver but avoid polishing the vermeil with this cloth. To polish the vermeil, gently rub it with a microfiber cloth for eyeglasses. Avoid exposure to cleaning products (the rare cleaning with dish soap being an exception) and keep it out of the shower (soaps, shampoos, and conditioners may react with the metals and quicken the degradation of your jewelry), swimming pools, and oceans. You might eventually want to take your gold vermeil jewelry to a jeweler to have the gold reapplied.
If you’re looking for great looking jewelry that stands the test of time with proper care, that is more hypoallergenic than lower quality metals, that costs less than solid gold jewelry, then vermeil jewelry is an answer.
Gold plating is the process of applying thin layers of gold (usually 14K or higher) to a base metal, which is usually sterling silver for jewelry. Silver atoms will diffuse into the gold and will eventually make the gold look faded and the silver’s tarnish will show through. To slow that diffusion process, the sterling silver is plated with a barrier metal, like nickel, copper, palladium, or rhodium, and then the gold is plated over the barrier metal. The thickness of the gold is around 0.5 micron, and it will not last as long as the options above.
If the base metal is sterling silver, you should at least see a “925” stamp indicating sterling silver. Hopefully, there is also a purity stamp for the gold, like “24K”. You may even see “GP” indicating gold plated.
Care for gold plated as if it is vermeil (see above), but perhaps be even gentler with the gold plated areas. Gold plating can be reapplied by a jeweler when it has lost its luster.
Gold plated jewelry is another great option to get the gold look without shelling out the bills for the more expensive options mentioned above. If you suffer from metal allergies, look for nickel free gold plated jewelry.
Gold tone is a very short plating process, with the goal of applying enough to color the base metal. This gold layer (usually 14K or higher) is typically about 0.175 micron thick. Expect this layer of gold to last one year. If you’re really careful with it, maybe more. Less gold means a lower price, and the gold can be replated by a jeweler. Gold tone is often used in costume jewelry.
Gold flash or gold wash is yet another plating process. As you probably guessed, this gold layer (usually 10K) is even thinner, at less than 0.175 micron thick. The goal is the same as gold tone: keep the cost down and still have gold color.
Which One Is Best?
The best one is… the one that fits your situation. Choosing which class of gold jewelry to wear depends on many factors and is really a balance of the pros and cons of each of the above options that is particular to you.
Is it more likely to be knocked around, bumped, and scratched?
Consider a gold option nearer to the top of this article.
Is your jewelry budget low?
Consider gold filled or an option nearer to the bottom of this article.
Have a metal allergy?
Pure, 24K gold is hypoallergenic (meaning, not likely to cause a reaction), so go with the thickest layer of gold you can afford. 14K, 18K, and 22K solid gold and gold filled are perfect options to avoid a metal (probably nickel) allergy. Or, if the gold doesn’t touch your skin, then vermeil and gold plated sterling silver are also great options. And, don't forget to ask your jeweler to see their nickel free jewelry.
We’ve been there. The heart wants what the heart wants.
Take the time to consider each of the gold options above. You might decide that a pair of 14K rose gold filled hoops is a better choice than solid rose gold hoops because it means you can afford that Rutilated Quartz necklace you’ve been eyeballing.