If you’re shopping for gold jewellery, you might find yourself a bit lost in jewellery jargon. What does it mean when a piece of jewellery is described as gold vermeil or gold filled? How are those different to solid gold or gold plated jewellery? What is rose gold or white gold?
What are the pros and cons of each type of gold? And why can one piece of gold coloured jewellery be so much more expensive than another?
We’re here to help with our rundown of the different types of gold you’re likely to encounter when jewellery shopping.
Gold is one of the most precious elemental metals and one of the most widely used when it comes to making jewellery.
It’s also one of the most expensive metals, which is why real solid gold jewellery always comes with a hefty price tag. Luckily there are other options available if you love gold but find that the price tag for solid gold is too high for you. However, less expensive types of gold jewellery each have pros and cons.
It's a great idea to educate yourself about the differences before you go shopping. Scroll down to get the lowdown ...
Pure solid gold isn’t often used in jewellery making because it’s very soft. Instead the gold is alloyed with other metals to make it harder and better wearing. The higher the carat, the higher the gold content in the metal, with 24ct gold having the highest purity and 9ct having the lowest.
Most gold jewellery that you'll see is made in yellow gold, but there are other colours available, all of which are alloyed with different metals to change the colour. You can learn much more detail here, but here's a quick rundown on the two best known examples:
Solid rose gold is real gold, but in this case the pure gold is alloyed mostly with copper and some silver. The more copper included, the redder the colouring of the metal.
There is no such thing as pure rose gold: it is always an alloyed metal. The higher the carat number (or karat) of the rose gold, the more pure gold is included in the alloy. We generally use 14ct rose gold in our rose gold jewellery.
Solid white gold is also an alloyed metal. It's made of pure gold and other metals such zinc or nickel, which give it a whiter colouring. There is also no such thing as pure white gold as it is also always an alloy.
However, white gold is not actually white: it's generally more of a warm grey colour. The white gold you see in commercial jewellery outlets is almost always plated with rhodium, giving it a bright white finish. If you purchase white gold jewellery, at some point you will need to get it re-plated to keep the white colour.
We don't sell white gold jewellery primarily for this reason. We recommend you stick with silver jewellery if you like the silver colour. Alternatively, if your budget can afford it, go for platinum, a very hard and high value precious metal which many commercial jewellery manufacturers will sell.
About precious metals
Learn more about gold and silver in these other handy articles:
Pros of solid gold jewellery
Solid gold jewellery is highly valuable and if cared for it will retain that value for many years – potentially even centuries – to come. Higher carats of gold are unlikely to tarnish and you’ll never wear away the finish to a different coloured metal beneath.
Solid gold jewellery signifies wealth and opulence, but it’s also a very portable form of financial security as it can always be melted down and sold as a commodity in times of crisis.
Cons of solid gold jewellery
The only con is simply expense. Gold is many times more expensive than silver and jewellery made in gold will always cost considerably more to buy than pieces made in silver or other lower cost metals. Don't believe anyone who tells you that there is such a thing as cheap gold jewellery: if it's truly cheap, it's almost certainly not real gold (and definitely not solid gold).
But if you can afford to invest in beautiful solid gold jewellery: you're golden!
Gold vermeil jewellery
Gold vermeil jewellery (pronounced ‘ver-may’) is made of either pure or sterling silver which is heavily plated with gold. You might also see it referred to as silver gilt or gilded silver. This is one of our favourite finishes to use in our jewellery designs as a solid gold alternative, along with gold filled. It's much better than gold plated jewellery given the heavier plated finish and use of precious silver.
To be considered gold vermeil, the United States requires that the minimum gold purity used be 10ct gold. United States regulations also require that the plating be at least 2.5 microns thick, making it a heavy plated finish.
You’ll find that most jewellers around the world are likely to meet these requirements for gold vermeil finishes, including Simone Walsh Jewellery, where our gold vermeil jewellery is heavy plated and is generally 14ct, 18ct or 24ct gold.
Pros of gold vermeil jewellery
The main pro of gold vermeil jewellery is simply affordability. Gold vermeil is a great alternative to solid gold. Most jewellers are able to create this finish much more easily than gold filled (which requires expensive specialist machinery), so you'll find that it's more regularly used in unique designs made by small to medium sized jewellery businesses.
In addition, as with any gold plated jewellery, the finish can potentially be repaired by re-plating by a manufacturing jeweller or a specialist plating business.
Finally, you also have the added value of the entire piece being made of precious metals, with the metal beneath the heavy gold plating being real silver rather than a base metal. This will help it to retain its value over time. Even if all of the gold plating eventually wears off, you'll still be left with a piece of solid silver jewellery.
Yes, we're big fans of gold vermeil! But read on to learn some of the cons.
Cons of gold vermeil jewellery
The cons are that the gold plating will wear over time, particularly in exposed areas or in pieces that get a lot of wear and tear (particularly rings, chains and bangles), but in the case of gold vermeil the plating is almost always heavier than standard gold plated metal, meaning it will wear better and the finish will last longer, especially with proper care.
We never use gold vermeil for our rings, chains or bracelets for this reason. Our gold rings are all solid gold and any alternative gold coloured chains or bracelets we create are gold filled (see below).
Gold Filled Jewellery
If you’re looking for a less expensive but hard wearing form of alternative gold finished jewellery, then gold filled jewellery is your friend.
Gold filled metal is made by applying a layer of gold over a base metal core, which is then rolled under very high pressure until bonded, which is why you might see it also referred to as rolled gold.
This requires expensive specialist machinery to do, so you'll generally only find gold filled finished on pieces that are mass produced, including chains which are made by machine (which most delicate chains are).
To be called ‘gold filled’ the gold content must be no less than 1/20th by weight of the total metal content, which is why you might also see gold filled metal referred to as 1/20 gold. This finish is up to 10 times thicker than regular gold plated metal, making it an excellent alternative to solid gold.
Purities of 12ct, 14ct or 18ct gold will generally be used in this process. The most commonly used base metal core used is brass as the colour makes it less noticeable if the outer gold layer does eventually wear through.
Pros of gold filled jewellery
Gold filled jewellery is far more affordable than solid gold jewellery, which is the biggest pro. It’s a good compromise for those who have metal allergies and need to wear gold but can’t afford for all of their pieces to be made from solid gold.
It also wears much better than regular gold plated jewellery as the outer layer of gold is a lot thicker. With care, chances are you’ll be able to enjoy your gold filled jewellery for years to come without it losing its gold finish.
Cons of gold filled jewellery
The main downside is that gold filled jewellery won’t stand the test of time in the way that solid gold does. This is the trade off for the lower cost. However, if you take care of your gold filled jewellery and avoid wearing the finish away, it will look great for years to come.
If you have an allergy to base metals, then you should take this into account when shopping for gold filled jewellery: the base metal core may eventually cause you some problems.
Another downside is that gold filled jewellery can’t be fully repaired to the same finish it had to begin with, given the mechanical process required to make the metal. However, you could take these pieces to a manufacturing jeweller or specialist gold plater to see if they can be plated instead to repair any wear.
Finally, gold filled jewellery is complex to make given the specialist equipment required. As such you will generally only find mass produced jewellery and components that use this finish.
Gold Plated Jewellery
Gold plated jewellery (sometimes called ‘gold plaque’) contains the least amount of gold of all of these alternative gold finishes.
Gold plate is created by applying a thin layer of gold (usually between 0.175 microns and 2.5 microns thick) most often over a base metal using electrical or chemical deposition. Flash plated or gilt refers to very thin and often poorly wearing gold plated finishes which are usually less than 0.175 microns thick.
Of all the alternatives to solid gold, gold plated jewellery usually contains the least amount of gold. As such it will wear much more quickly, especially if flash plated. This can provide you with an interestingly aged piece of jewellery as the gold wears over time, especially if the plating is over sterling silver, but it's up to you whether you like this look.
Pros of gold plated jewellery
The main pro is that the price will be a lot lower than other finishes given the small amount of gold used to create this jewellery. Additionally wear on gold plated jewellery may be able to be repaired by having it plated again by a manufacturing jeweller or specialist gold plating business.
Cons of gold plated jewellery
The significant downside is how easily gold plated (and especially flash plated) finishes will wear through to the metal beneath, which may be a base metal.
Those with metal allergies are likely to find that the solid gold finish will wear quickly enough that if a base metal has been used it may give them problems sooner rather than later, especially for pieces like rings and bangles that take a lot of wear and tear.
This is a reason why we recommend heavier plated gold vermeil jewellery which has silver beneath the plating rather than simple gold plated jewellery.
I’ve created a few gilded jewellery designs over the years using an ancient technique called keum-boo that I was taught by a Korean friend way back when I was at university. The technique involves heating silver and applying 24ct gold foil to it, then using a tool to burnish the gold so that it bonds with the silver. This produces a beautifully rich gold coloured finish over silver.
This jewellery generally wears quite well, but has similar pros and cons to that of gold plated jewellery and these pieces should be treated with extra care.
My best advice about brass jewellery is: steer clear. It can be given a lovely gold-like colouring, but it is a base metal and has downsides. Brass is likely to turn your skin green or black and you may develop an allergy to it over time.
You’re much better off investing a bit more for an alternative gold finish that uses real gold, like those outlined above. These finishes will give you a lot less grief and provide a lot better value for money than any base metal.
The parting shot
If you’re looking for jewellery that will truly stand the test of time and can afford it, solid gold jewellery will always be the best option. However, alternative gold finishes (especially gold filled and gold vermeil) are great when you’d rather spend less and when you’re shopping for fashion jewellery type pieces rather than special sentimental or heirloom jewellery.
Keep in mind that all of these alternative gold finishes will wear over time and that some are likely to be easier to repair than others. If you have metal allergies, you also need to consider the potential downsides of gold filled and gold plated jewellery which made use base metals beneath the gold.
Gold filled and gold vermeil jewellery pieces especially are likely to keep looking great for years to come, especially if you look after your jewellery. All of them are a better option than purchasing gold coloured base metal jewellery, including brass.
When shopping for jewellery it's important to always be aware of the types of metals used. If the seller hasn't made this clear you should always ask or shop elsewhere: just because a piece looks like gold doesn't mean it's actually gold and if the price is very low then it almost certainly contains no gold at all.
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Learn more about this and other mistakes to avoid in our handy article: 12 jewellery mistakes we wish you'd stop making. You might also like to read our article about whether to choose gold or silver to suit yourself.
Simone Walsh Jewellery carries a range of gold jewellery designs, including solid gold, gold vermeil and gold filled. We occasionally have some handmade gilded jewellery designs as well.
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