Let’s talk about gold! Jewelry that looks gold, is not always gold. In fact, even fine jewelry that actually is gold, is not pure.
Gold plated jewelry is often referred to as costume jewelry. It’s only an extremely thin coating of gold on some other type of metal. This is done to change the finish of a piece, and usually also to reduce cost while keeping the appearance of gold. Sometimes it is solely for the finish though, like with white gold which is usually plated with rhodium. White gold by itself is a mixture of pure gold, which is naturally yellow, and alloy metals that give it a more silvery appearance. Rhodium is a whiter metal naturally, so coating white karat gold with it gives the true white gold appearance you see in big box jewelry stores.
The thickness of gold plating is measured in microns; the thicker the plating, the more gold you have, the more valuable the jewelry is. Gold plating is just 0.5 microns thick and will wear off after a fairly short amount of time. Gold plating also requires a chemical process that uses cyanide, which is not only a dangerous process for the individuals involved but is bad for the environment. Overall, gold plated jewelry is usually not worth the money at all.
Gold-filled is another term you may hear, which means there is a thicker layer of gold on the base metal and the manufacturing process is a bit different, but it’s essentially a better, more valuable type of plating. Gold-filled materials have an actual layer of karat gold on the surface, rather than a microscopic film applied electrochemically.
Gold-filled components and findings are labeled with specific numbers to indicate the karat purity of gold used, and the quantity of gold in the layer. While these pieces may be more resistant to oxidation because of the gold layer, they are not tarnish-free like karat gold is. These pieces are a step above gold plated items in terms of value and longevity, but still nowhere near a fine jewelry level.
Vermeil is a significantly finer type of gold plating. To be called vermeil, the jewelry materials must meet a couple specific standards: 1) the base metal must be sterling silver, and 2) the gold layer must be at least 2.5 microns thick.
Similarly to gold-filled pieces, vermeil is not applied with a chemical process, so it is better for the environment. Vermeil pieces do tarnish because of the oxidation of the silver, but there are ways to care for the pieces to reduce tarnishing.
This is a good way to get a gold look with a little more value, but it still is not true fine jewelry. The main pro for vermeil is that you can get bigger, bolder pieces with a gold finish at a significantly lower price point. However, these pieces are less likely to become heirlooms that get handed down for years to come because a layer of gold always wears down over time and the monetary value isn’t there.
All three of these are options for making jewelry appear gold. Now, let's talk about real, solid gold:
Alloys & Karat Gold
Karat gold is what fine jewelry is made of! Whether it’s white gold, rose gold, yellow gold, or some other unique type, it’s a mixture of pure gold, which is 24 Karats, and an alloy, which is a combination of other metals. The higher the number of karats, the higher the amount of pure gold is in the piece. There are specific standards for gold, including a minimum karat to be called gold. Here in the US, 10K is the minimum, but we have higher standards. Geralyn doesn’t use anything that is less than half gold, so the majority of our gold jewelry is at least 14K. Just like you would use a recipe to bake different kinds of bread, you use different recipes to create different types of karat gold.
It is impractical if not impossible to create quality, lasting pieces from pure, 24K gold. Pure gold is extremely malleable, so wearing 24K gold jewelry is not very realistic. That is why pure gold is mixed with other metals to create jewelry you can wear every day.
“Alloying is fun because you can use a recipe or you can experiment,” Geralyn said, “I’ve made white gold, orange gold, green gold… there are so many possibilities.”
Pure gold is a regulated commodity, and the market price of gold changes every day. That is why there are such specific standards for gold in all its applications and they are all regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). While karat gold is the highest price of all these options, it is the only one that can make up truly high quality, fine jewelry.
So, why do we choose karat gold?
Geralyn’s simple answer is “we make fine jewelry.” She went on to explain that for the reasons we’ve already covered in this article, any kind of plating, including vermeil, is low quality. “You can’t solder with it, you can’t fabricate with it,” she says, “it’s just not fine jewelry.”
Geralyn’s designs are often connected to nature, which is another reason gold is a favorite medium. “Gold is from the ground and beautiful as it is. That’s why I like yellow gold,” she explains, “It’s natural. It’s gorgeous. It’s permanent. It’s meaningful.”
Geralyn is a straight shooter. She’s not interested in faking it and she doesn’t think jewelry should either. “I’m just not interested in making something to look like something it’s not. I don’t want to make things that just get thrown in the box and have no value or meaning.”
“I want to make things that are valuable and meaningful and can be handed down to your grandchildren. Then they have something meaningful and if they love it that’s great and if they don’t, they can melt it down and make something new and love it again. With gold, it keeps the value and it keeps the sentiment.”
Want to learn more about goldsmithing and jewelrymaking? Check out our Goldsmithing Page!