Demystifying Gold and Silver Jewelry

Buying jewelry can be very confusing and it's important that shoppers are able to make informed decisions. There's a big difference between an of-the-moment necklace that you wear out to a party, and an heirloom piece that you want to see passed down to your grand children. Below, we explain the meanings behind common terms used to identify jewelry.

Can a Necklace Really Be Gold Dipped?

Gold dipped

Gold dipped (or more accurately, gold plated) is a term that's used a lot lately in the jewelry industry—it's actually really just marketing lingo. It sounds a lot more romantic and more precious than gold plated, which is what it actually is. Considering that the melting point of gold sits at just under 1700 degrees fahrenheit, anything immersed in it would simply melt. The truth is that gold dipped jewelry is generally base metal jewelry (often containing highly allergenic nickel) that has been electroplated with around 1/1000 of a millimetre of gold. If you are going to buy this type of jewelry be aware that the plating will eventually wear off. If you are an eco conscious shopper, you should also be aware that many plating solutions contain cyanide, a poisonous compound that is highly toxic to both humans and the environment.

Gold vermeil

Gold vermeil (also know as “gilded silver”) is a more upscale practice of gold-plating wherein the base is always sterling silver. According to U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (16 CFR 23.5), the plating in gold vermeil must be:

  • 10 karats or higher
  • 2.5 microns thick (0.0001 inch)

Regardless of what’s inside, vermeil plating is still sensitive to scratching and damage, so keep that in mind before purchasing.

Gold Filled

Don’t be fooled by the name: the outer layer is gold, but the piece itself is filled by another metal (usually silver, copper, or brass). Gold filled jewelry is more dependable than gold-plated or vermeil because, legally, gold must constitute 5% of the piece’s total weight. It is also mechanically bonded to enhance its strength. These extra treatments mean gold filled jewelry survives longer than pieces subjected to other coating methods, sometimes lasting decades before the base metal starts to show.

Gold filled jewelry is marked with a “GF” and sometimes shows the proportion of gold in its total weight, presented as a fraction.

Rolled Gold Plate (RGP)

While rolled gold plate is often used synonymously with gold filled, in reality there are small variations between the two worth mentioning. RGP is a slight step down from gold filled in terms of quality: it requires that only 2.5% of the piece’s total weight be gold. Still, RGP shares the same mechanical bonding process as gold filled jewelry, so it’s still more reliable than plating or vermeil.

Karats

Karats define the amount of pure gold in a piece of jewelry, to differentiate gold mixed with other components. Karats are measured on a scale of 24 parts:

  • 24K gold is 100% gold. There are no other metals in its makeup.
  • 18k gold is 18 parts pure gold 6 parts other metals (75% gold)
  • 14K gold is 14 parts pure gold and 10 parts other metals (58.3% gold)
  • 10K gold is only 10 parts gold, which is less than half (41.7%). In the U.S., 10K is the minimum requirement to legally call a product “gold.”
  • 9K is the legal minimum requirement for gold in Canada.

Each country has its own standards for the acceptable minimum of karats that still qualifies as gold. France, Switzerland, and Italy accept nothing less than 18K, while England and Canada accept 9K, and Germany requires 8K.

The Science of Silver

Silver-Plated and Silver Filled

As with gold, jewelers often coat base metals with silver so they can both charge more and make their products seem more luxurious. However, because silver is less durable than gold (see below), silver coatings are even more susceptible to markings and deterioration.

Like gold, silver filled jewelry is marked with an “SF” or “FS,” sometimes followed by a fraction representing the proportion of the weight of silver to the total weight.

Sterling Silver

Sterling silver is 92.5% pure silver that is alloyed (combined) with other metals to strengthen it (for this reason, sterling silver is considered better than pure silver). The type of metal that constitutes the remaining 7.5% varies; copper is a common choice, although silicon, germanium, boron, zinc, and platinum can also be used to help reduce tarnishing.

Quality Marks

The quality mark on a item of jewelry is supposed to denote what metal the piece is comprised of but it's a little known fact that anyone with a stamp can mark any piece, regardless of the actual content. In Canada and the US, only jewelers with a registered trademark can legally stamp their jewelry with a quality mark (ie 10k, 14k, 18k or .925) which must be applied to the piece along with a trademark stamp. In the UK, each piece of jewelry must go to the assay office for regulated testing and stamping of the metal before it can legally be for sale.

Despite this fact, many hobbyist jewelry designers routinely sell their illegally marked pieces to unsuspecting consumers. With the escalating values of gold and silver, this is becoming more of an issue than ever. If designers don't abide by the trademark laws, what's preventing them from being truthful about actual silver or gold content? A registered trademark stamp along with a quality mark is your only assurance that the maker will be held accountable for the metals being used. Caveat emptor.