There's a lot of confusion about the different types of gold jewelry that are on the market today. Gold Plated, Vermeil, Gold Filled, 14k, 18k, 24k - what do these terms mean, and more importantly, which one should you buy? In this post, I'm going to answer these questions, and explain the differences in quality, value, and wearability of each material so that you can shop for jewelry like an expert, and impress your friends with your incredible jewelry knowledge, lol.
Let's start from the top, and work our way down. First on the list is:
14K, 18K, and 24K Gold
Most have probably heard the terms 14k, 18k, and 24k before. But, you might be wondering what the "k" stands for, and what the numbers actually mean. So, first let me break that down. The letter "k" stands for Karat, which is a unit of measurement (like feet, ounces, or degrees) that measures the amount of pure gold in an alloy (an alloy is a mixture of metals). Pure gold is 24 Karats (24k = 100% gold), so that means that 1 Karat is equal to 1 part gold out of 24 total parts of an alloy (or 4.1666%). Why they chose the number 24 is not what this article is about, but it is the math we have to work with. A little confusing, I know. But, it might make more sense as we talk about why gold is mixed with other metals in the first place.
Let's look at 14k Gold. 14k Gold is not 100% gold. It is actually a mixture of gold and other metals. Remember, pure gold is 24 karats, so 14k gold is 14 parts gold and 10 parts other metals. In other words, it's about 58% gold, and 42% other metals.
But, why on earth would we mix other metals with pure gold? Well, first of all, gold is a very desirable metal (at least that's what we have all decided), and it is also rare. That makes it expensive. So, one reason gold is mixed with other metals is to make it more affordable. Typically, the metals we mix with the gold are not nearly as valuable as the gold itself.
Another reason we mix gold with other metals is because gold is a soft metal, meaning it is very malleable compared to other metals. We can mix gold with other metals to create a stronger alloy. For example, let's say you want to make a durable gold chain you can wear everyday. Gold chain is made using gold wire. Pure (24k) gold wire is much too bendy to make a sturdy chain, so you decide to mix the pure 24k gold with other metals that make it harder, so now you have a less bendy 14k gold wire, which you can then turn into a very durable 14k gold chain. Nice job!
The other reason we mix gold with other metals is to change the color of the gold. 24k Gold is very very gold, meaning a rich, dark, yellow color. By mixing the gold with other metals, we can lighten, darken, or altogether change the color of the gold alloy. For example, Rose Gold is typically a mixture of silver, copper, and gold. The copper (think pennies) gives Rose Gold its rosy color. Another way you can see this is if you put yellow 14k, 18k, and 24k gold side by side. You'll notice that the the gold gets yellower, or "more golden" I should say, as the karats increase. This is because the other metals mixed in the 14k and 18k gold soften the intensity of the yellow gold color.
OK! We've got the basics of gold covered! Now, let's talk about these types of gold and their uses in jewelry.
Jewelry that is 14k and above is considered "Fine" Jewelry. If you can afford it, this is the best category of gold jewelry you can buy. Fine Jewelry includes most gold wedding rings, rapper chains, and royal scepters. Yes, I said royal scepters. When it comes to quality, fine jewelry is the crème de la crème. You can wear it all the time, and it will last until it erodes to dust after millions of years. You might need to clean it every once in a while, but it will be something you can pass down to your kids, or give to one of your daughter in laws and not the other, causing a family divide that lasts generations. There are differences depending on the number of karats, so let me give you the jeweler's breakdown for buying fine gold jewelry:
14k is the most common when it comes to jewelry. It's durable, lighter and softer in color, and it is typically the most affordable option in the realm of fine jewelry.
18k is another great option. It is going to be a bit more expensive than 14k, and you can expect a rich yellow gold color.
There is such a thing as 22k gold jewelry, but it is less common. It is a very rich gold color.
As you can see, the real difference is with price and color, which is really a personal preference. There's no right or wrong choice when it comes to picking fine jewelry. It's all good!
Speaking of price, fine jewelry is (you guessed it) expensive! Just like its quality, it is at the top of the food chain when it comes to cash value. If you read the first part of this book, you'll know that's because fine gold jewelry contains a hefty amount of pure gold, which is a rare and expensive metal. When you're buying jewelry, here are the 3 main things that are going to make up the price:
- The value of the materials used.
- The labor that goes into making the piece.
- The notoriety of the brand your purchasing from.
These might seam obvious, but you would be surprised how much number 3 can add to the cost of your jewelry. This is one of the reasons you'll see low quality jewelry selling for outrageous prices. When it comes to wedding rings and other expensive purchases, working with a small mom and pop jewelry store can save you thousands of dollars, and often times the quality of the work is better than you'd find at many of the larger brands.
On the other side of the coin, there are companies out there that are offering Fine Jewelry at very low prices. Now, this might sound like a good deal at first glance, but look a little deeper and you might not be so excited. The reality is, gold has a standard price around the world. That means that these companies have to pay the same amount for gold as everyone else. The only thing they can save on is the cost of labour. A lot of these companies are also marketing that their jewelry is handmade. So, if it's gold, and it's handmade, and it's cheaper than everywhere else, the question that should be forming in your mind is, who is hand-making this jewelry, and how much are these companies paying them?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is the same one you'll find in a lot of the fashion industry. Most companies offering really low prices are using oversees factories that exploit workers and violate human rights. I'm not telling you what to do, but I will say it's probably a good idea to take a close look at a company to find out what its values are before buying from them. Cheaper isn't always better. Sad, I know.
One more thing to note about Fine Gold is that it is a highly regulated metal. It is illegal to call something gold when it is not gold, or over exaggerate the gold content of something. You don't even want to imagine paying $4,000 for what you were told was a 14k Gold necklace only to find out it's a 14k Gold Plated necklace that's not even worth $40! I'm sorry, I just made you imagine that, but it should now be obvious why that is illegal. It still happens all the time, so again, make sure you trust the company you're purchasing from! Ok, on to happier topics.
That just about covers the Fine Gold Jewelry category. All the other types of gold jewelry are based off of this one, so you made it through the longest and most over-explained part of this novel. Congrats!
First of all, who even came up with this word? Gold Filled. That just sounds confusing. It's something filled with gold, right? Wrong! But, you wouldn't be the first person to logically derive that meaning from this very poorly named metal. Gold Filled is actually really cool! It is essentially a casing of gold that is filled with another metal. Gold that is Filled, get it? Now we have the name figured out, let's break it down.
Gold Filled is often confused with Gold Plated, which it should not be! For starters, Gold Filled is a regulated metal, just like Fine Gold. Gold Plated on the other hand, is not regulated. In order for a piece of jewelry to legally be labeled Gold Filled, it must be at least 5% gold. Plain and simple. The layer of gold on a Gold Filled piece of jewelry tends to measure around 100 microns or more in thickness. What is a micron you ask? A micron is a microscopic inch, which doesn't mean a lot to you, does it? The real question is, is Gold Filled good quality? We'll get to that in a minute, but first, a little about how it's made.
The manufacturing process for Gold Filled is very unique. Basically, you take two bars of gold, and a big bar of brass, and make a gold and brass sandwich, with the gold as the bread, and the brass in the middle. You then heat the metals and press them together using a huge machine that flattens the gold and brass sandwich into a large sheet. During the heating and flattening process, the metals are fused together, but the thick gold layer remains on the outside, while the brass remains at the core. Once the flattening process is completed, the sheet is cut into shapes and strips which are used to make Gold Filled wire, and all kinds of jewelry components.
Gold Filled jewelry is in a category called "Demi-Fine Jewelry." which is one step below Fine Jewelry. It is excellent quality, and it is also typically much more affordable than Fine Jewelry. One of the great things about Gold Filled Jewelry is that it looks just like Fine Jewelry. This is because the outer gold layer is very thick, so the brass underneath does not affect the color of the gold. The outer gold layer can be made with 14k, 18k, or 22k gold, so you can achieve the same color variations that you can with Fine Jewelry.
When it comes to wearability, Gold Filled Jewelry is by far the best alternative to Fine Gold Jewelry. Because the outer gold layer is so thick, and because the gold is fused to the brass core during manufacturing, Gold Filled can typically be worn for decades without losing its outer gold layer. It is tarnish resistant, and because skin only comes into contact with the thick outer layer of gold, it is hypoallergenic for most people.
If it's so great and affordable, why doesn't every jewelry company use it? Interestingly enough, Gold Filled can be hard to find. The main reason for this is because it is a very difficult metal to work with. Remember how I said all of the jewelry components are cut from that big Gold Filled sheet? Well, using a sheet to make jewelry is pretty difficult, especially when compared to other methods like casting and plating. We'll talk more about casting and plating in the next section.
The main takeaway here is that there is an extra level of skill that is required to work with Gold Filled, which keeps many jewelry designers from using it. It's a shame because it's such a great metal, and can be offered at really great prices. If only there were more companies out there that used it (ahem, KOZAKH).
Next on the list would be Vermeil, but I need to explain plating first, so we're going to go a little out of order. Don't worry, it will all make sense by the end. On to Gold Plated jewelry!
Gold plated jewelry is a very common type of jewelry that has been around for many centuries. Typically, gold plated jewelry is categorized as Costume or Fashion jewelry, which is the lowest on the jewelry totem pole. So, what is it? Simply put, gold plating is a technique that applies a thin layer of gold to another material. Theoretically, you can plate any material gold, however, when it comes to jewelry, the most common plated materials are brass, stainless steel, silver, rhodium, and sometimes plastic. These base materials are casted (molded) into a shape, and then a thin layer of gold is applied for color.
There are many many brands that sell Gold Plated Jewelry. The quality varies greatly between brands, and that is mainly due to the fact that there is no regulation for Gold Plated jewelry. This means that the outer layer of gold can be as thick, or more likely, as thin as the maker wants it to be. Most Gold Plated Jewelry has a gold layer that measures 0.5 microns - 2 microns in thickness (down from 100+ microns on Gold Filled). Believe it or not, some "Gold Plated" jewelry doesn't even have any gold on it at all, just gold coloring.
So why does everyone and their great aunt sell Gold Plated jewelry? Well, quite simply, it's easy and very affordable to make, and it looks pretty good (for a while at least). With a virtually non existent layer of gold, the main cost of making gold plated jewelry is the base metal and the manufacturing. The fact that you can plate just about any affordable metal or plastic makes it perfect for making cheap mass produced jewelry.
The only problem, and I'm sure many of you have experienced this, is that Gold Plated jewelry tends to lose its thin gold layer rather quickly, and then it doesn't look so nice anymore. When the gold wears down it leaves the base metal exposed (which already looks bad) and leads to tarnishing (oxidizing). When oxidation builds up, the jewelry looks rusty, green, or grey, which can sometimes stain your skin. Have you ever had a green band on your finger after wearing a gold plated ring? That's good old oxidation for you!
Now, don't get me wrong. Most of us have some Gold Plated jewelry in our jewelry boxes. It isn't all bad. There is a lot of really and interesting cool Gold Plated jewelry out there, but you definitely get what you pay for. Just be aware that your Gold Plated jewelry will lose its gold layer over time (maybe even a short period of time) and tarnish, so don't be disappointed when it does. The good thing is, you probably didn't pay too much for your Gold Plated Jewelry, so you won't care as much when it starts to look bad.
Gold Plated Jewelry, covered! Well, almost. There is one more type of Gold Plated jewelry that we need to go back to. Let's wrap this encyclopedia up, and talk about Vermeil.
Vermeil is sold as a higher quality type of Gold Plated Jewelry. So what is it? Quite simply, Vermeil is Gold Plated Sterling Silver. In other words, a thin layer of gold over a Sterling Silver core. Vermeil is a regulated metal. In order to call something Vermeil, it must have a Sterling Silver core, and it must have a gold layer that is at least 2.5 microns thick. The outer gold layer must be 10k or higher.
Vermeil Jewelry is in a category that we in the jewelry industry call "Bridge Jewelry." Bridge Jewelry as a "bridge" in quality between Demi-Fine and Costume/Fashion Jewelry. In other words, it's 2nd from the bottom in our jewelry quality totem pole.
A lot of people like Vermeil because it is more affordable than fine jewelry, and they like the idea of the gold layer being over another precious metal - Sterling Silver. This means that when the gold wears down (which at only 2.5 microns, it will), the metal underneath will be another valuable metal. The only problem is, the gold doesn't come off everywhere all at once. So, if you were hoping to have your nice nice looking Gold Vermeil necklace transition into a nice looking Sterling Silver necklace, that probably won't work out too well. You're more likely going to end up with a splotchy and uneven gold and silver necklace that's not going to look very nice.
Having said that, it is possible to have your Vermeil Jewelry re-plated. If you have a jeweler in your area who can reapply a gold layer to your jewelry, it might be worth it you to have them do that. The Sterling Silver core will last forever, so you can re-plate with gold as many times as you'd like. What that will cost you depends on the jeweler you're going to, the size of your jewelry, and the thickness of the plating applied. You can probably expect to pay at least $100 just for the re-plating service, so keep that in mind if you're shopping for Vermeil.
And that concludes our lesson! You made it to the end, and you are now ready to go out and find the gold jewelry of your dreams! I hope you found this information interesting and helpful. If you did, feel free to leave a comment, or send me a message. I'd love to hear from you!
P.S. You can check out my wife's amazing Gold Filled jewelry right here on our website - www.kozakh.com.
William Fisher is the husband of jewelry designer Cyntia Kozak Fisher. They founded KOZAKH Jewelry together in 2013.
Greatly appreciated, very well described and great in detail. Thank you for such a great effort. I got a clear idea about gold jewelry.
Very interesting article. Always wanted to know about gold jewelry & how it is graded.
Enjoyed your article and it was very informative. Thanks for helping me understand the world of gold a lot better. Jamie
This was very valuable information. I am venturing into the jewelry making business but don’t have the capital to work with solid metals yet so I wanted to see if gold fill or plated chains would work better for my jewelry designs. I think from what I read, I’m going gold filled. Thank you.