Ever wonder what the difference is between gold-filled and gold-plated? Or what the “karat” means in 14 karat? Or, what the heck is vermeil - and how do you say that word, anyways?? Before I became a metalsmith, I wondered about these things and so I thought I’d explain them, just in case you feel the same.
Pure Gold and Gold Alloys
When people talk about the “Price of Gold” or the “Spot Gold Price” or “Gold Bullion” – they are talking about pure elemental gold. Pure gold is so soft, however, that it is rarely ever used to make jewelry because it cannot hold up to daily use. For example, a pure gold ring would constantly lose its shape and any stones set in it would be at risk of coming loose. Rather, most jewelry is made from a “gold alloy”. An alloy is a combination of any two metals. Gold alloys are made by melting down pure gold and combining it with another metal. Depending on the color of gold the other parts may be copper, silver, nickel, zinc, tin, palladium, and/or manganese. 99.9% of the gold jewelry on the market today is made from a gold alloy of some type.
Because gold jewelry is usually sold in alloy form, it is important to know how much pure gold it contains – and thus its inherent value. In the United States, and countries which export heavily to the United States, the Karat system is used. In the Karat System, pure elemental gold is referred to as 24K gold. There is no higher standard in the Karat System than 24K (though even most 24K gold usually has minute traces of other metals in it). That’s why even fine gold bullion is labeled 99.999% Gold instead of 100% Gold.
Gold alloys are represented in the Karat System based on the number of “karats” of gold contained in each alloy.
- 14 Karat Gold consists of 14 parts (aka “karats”) gold and 10 parts (aka “karats”) some other metal (58.3% pure gold).
- 10K Gold consists of 10 parts gold and 14 parts some other metal (41.6% pure gold).
- 18K Gold consists of 18 parts gold and 6 parts some other metal (75% pure gold)
Gold-filled is constructed in two or three layers. The core metal is jewelers’ brass. The gold alloy is then bonded to one or both surfaces of the brass core with heat and pressure. The bonded raw material is then sold as sheet or wire to jewelry manufacturers for use in designs. Gold-filled is legally required to contain 5% or 1/20 gold by weight. This 5% is then described by the karatage of the gold alloy. Most gold-filled is 12kt or 14kt gold-filled. It is most accurately labeled with the karatage, the “/” symbol, and then 20 to reflect this construction. Products are identified as 14/20 Gold-filled or 12/20 Gold-Filled; alternatively, 14kt Gold-Filled or 12kt Gold-Filled are also acceptable.
Gold-filled is usually a lifetime product because the gold layer bonded to the brass core is quite thick. Gold-filled does not de-laminate or peel like plated or "dipped" products. Gold-filled is a reasonably priced, quality alternative to solid gold. Most gold-filled items are made in the USA. Gold-filled is tarnish resistant, it does not flake off, rub off or turn colors. Anyone who can wear gold can wear gold-filled without worries of any allergic reaction to the jewelry. Gold filled jewelry is an economical alternative to solid gold. Gold-filled should be cared for just like gold jewelry – it should be cleaned with a soft cloth with mild soap and water.
Gold plating is a miniscule layer of solid gold applied to a brass base. The plating does not compose any measurable proportion of the product’s total weight. It is estimated to be 0.05% or less of the metal product compared to gold-filled which must contain 5% gold, so approximately 100 times the amount, by weight, more than gold-plated jewelry. Since the plating is quite thin, the plate, and therefore the color, on the piece can wear off and expose the brass base product. It does not stand up to heat, water or wear over time. Because the gold layer on gold plated jewelry is so thin, anyone who is allergic to the base metal may experience a skin reaction, such as a black rubbing or rash if they are allergic to the metal underneath.
Vermeil is a French word that is pronounced ver-may. Vermeil is sterling silver that has been gold-plated. This sterling base is the main difference between vermeil and gold-plated jewelry. Like gold-plated, the layer of gold used for vermeil jewelry is very thin. To be considered vermeil in the US, the gold must be at least 10 carat (42%) and have thickness equivalent to at least 2.5 microns of fine gold (a 12 carat [50%] plating would need to be 5 microns thick). In the US, sterling silver covered with a base metal (such as nickel) and plated with gold cannot be sold as vermeil without disclosing that it contains base metal.
Moral of the Story
As a metalsmith, when using gold metals, I use only gold or gold-filled metal to create my work. They are both very durable and tarnish resistant and will last for many years of use. As a consumer, I don’t want the jewelry that I buy to peel or wear away so that it no longer looks the way that it looked when I purchased it and I assume that my customers feel the same way. Although gold and gold-filled tend to be somewhat more expensive, they retain their value and can be worn for a lifetime which makes them well worth the price in the end.