If you’re the type of person who appreciates vintage and antique jewelry, you’ve probably come across jewelry that’s described as “Gold”, “Gold Filled” “Gold Plated” or one of a dozen other phrases with the word Gold in it. When shopping for vintage and antique jewelry, whether on eBay or in your local antique mall, it’s important to know the difference between these common phrases. Not all “Gold” is created equal.
In order to get a real understanding of all these terms, you have to first understand some basics about gold itself.
Gold is an elemental metal. This means that pure gold is made up of nothing but gold atoms. Other examples of elemental metals include copper (made of nothing but copper atoms); iron (made of nothing but iron atoms) and aluminum (made of nothing but aluminum atoms). In its natural form, gold is orangish-yellow in color (sometimes called “buttery” yellow), has a bright shine (high luster), is very soft (it scratches easily) and is very malleable (it can be hammered and stretched easily with iron tools).
Example of Elemental Gold In Its Natural “Nugget Form”
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. For example – brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Brass is made by melting down copper and zinc and “stirring” them together.
Similarly, gold alloys are made by melting down pure gold and combining it with another metal (usually silver, copper or tin). 99.9% of the gold jewelry on the market today is made from a gold alloy of some type.
Indicating Gold Content
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. There are two common systems (known as “Fineness Marking”) for indicating gold content in jewelry – the Karat System and Numeric System.
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 gold (you will sometimes see scams where people claim to be selling 25K, 26K and 28K Gold – this is simply an attempt by a dishonest dealer who is trying to take advantage of an unknowledgeable customer).
24K gold is gold in its purest form without any other metal added (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. For example, in the United States you will commonly see 14 Karat and 10 Karat Gold. 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). Other common indications are:
- 18K = 75% Pure Gold
- 12K = 50% Pure Gold
- 9K = 33% Pure Gold (common in British and Antique Pieces. It is technically unlawful to represent 9K gold in the U.S. as being solid gold)
Example of a 14K Gold Mark with the manufacturer’s name “Esemco” beneath. U.S. Law Requires All Manufacturers to include a maker’s mark along with the fineness mark.
While not very common in the United States, you will sometimes encounter 20K, 21K and 22K Gold items. These are usually of Middle Eastern (e.g. Kuwaiti) or Far Eastern (e.g. Hong Kong) origin.
Outside the United States (and a few other Western Countries), the dominant fineness marking system is a numeric system that indicates the amount of pure gold a basis of parts of one thousand. For example, if something is 18K gold (75% pure gold) then it is 750 parts out of 1000 pure gold. It’s a fraction – 750/1000 = 0.75 or 75%. In the Numeric Marking System (sometimes called the “European System” or “Convention System”) you use the first number. So an item that was 75% gold (18K in the Karat System) would just be marked 750. Similarly, an item that is 58.5% Gold (very close to 14K in the Karat System) would be marked 585. Other common markings are:
375 = 375/1000 or 9K Gold
875 = 875/1000 of 21K Gold
Example of a 750 Mark with the manufacturer’s mark “RA” above.
While most countries will use either the Karat System, Numeric System or a combination of both, a few countries still use a pictorial hallmarking system. Hallmarks are slightly different from fineness marks because they indicate that the fineness of the metal has been approved by a governmental or quasi-governmental entity. Under a pictorial hallmarking system, the amount of pure gold contained in a piece of jewelry is indicated by a specific picture or symbol – for example – a common animal or the profile of a person. Modern jewelry will almost always also have a numeric marking in addition to the pictorial hallmark. Antique pieces, however, will often have just a pictorial mark or no mark at all.
If there is no marking, how can you tell whether or not something is really gold?
The first thing to keep in mind here is that a fineness mark or hallmark is just a label put on something by a person or machine. While these marks are a good indication that something is actually gold, the mark is only as valuable as the person who put it there. Anyone can order a set of hallmarking stamps off a website and stamp non-gold with 14K, 18K, 750 or any other mark. The only way to know you are getting real gold is to buy from a trusted dealer or test it yourself.
Gold can be tested in several different ways. In our store, we use two methods – Acid Testing and X-Ray Fluorescence. They both have advantages and disadvantages. For more information on gold testing – see our article “Gold Testing Basics”.
Gold Plated and Gold Filled Jewelry
Now that we know what gold and gold alloys are, it’s time to talk about gold plated and gold filled jewelry.
Gold Plated Jewelry:
Gold plated jewelry is NOT gold jewelry. Gold plated jewelry is jewelry made of a base metal (e.g. copper) or silver that has a very thin layer of gold applied to the top. The layer is so thin, that it can usually be rubbed off with a coarse pencil eraser in a few swipes. Some plated jewelry has a “thicker” layer of gold than other plated jewelry, but the difference is insignificant on the grand scale of things. When buying gold plated jewelry, you should consider the gold plating as nothing more than a coloring (an aesthetic attribute) – there is almost no inherent value to the gold applied. It doesn’t matter if it’s 24K, 14K or 18K.
Example of a Designer Gold Plated Bracelet with Natural Agate
This doesn’t mean gold plated jewelry is “junk” or “uncollectible”. To the contrary, much of the vintage and modern gold plated jewelry on the market is very desirable and a pleasure to wear. Common marks for gold plated jewelry include:
- 14KGP — (Note: don’t confuse 14KGP with just 14KP. 14KGP means 14K Gold Plate. 14KP means 14K Plumb – which is “dead on exactly” aka “plumb” solid 14K Gold) The “14” can be substituted with 10, 12, 18, 24 etc.
- 14K HGE — 14K Heavy Gold Electroplate. This means the gold plating layer was applied using electrolysis. The “14” can be substituted with 10, 12, 18, 24 etc.
- 24K Gold Plated — This means the plating layer is 24K gold. It usually indicates electroplating.
- Vermeil — Means gold plated sterling silver or fine silver. It’s regular old gold plating – except the underlying metal is sterling silver of fine silver instead of a base metal.
- Gold Over Sterling Silver —Same as vermeil.
- Gold Wash — Regular old gold plating with a nicer name.
- Gold Clad / Karat Clad — In a technical sense – clad means that gold layer was pressure bound to the underlying base metal. However, “gold clad” is a common synonym for any type of gold plating.
- Bonded Gold — Here again – this just means gold plated. As with all gold plated jewelry, some bonded gold jewelry has a thicker layer of gold plating than others – but the difference is negligible.
- 10 Microns / or another number followed by the word microns or the symbol for micron “µ” – this means that the layer of gold plating is 10 microns thick
- Plaque Or – usually followed by a number of Microns. This is seen on French / Swiss pieces, especially watch cases. It means gold plated.
Gold Filled Jewelry
Gold filled jewelry is NOT gold jewelry. Gold filled jewelry is made by taking one or more sheets of solid gold (14K, 12K, 18K, etc) and wrapping them around a base metal under intense pressure. The gold sheets are effectively “filled” with something other than gold. Unlike gold plated jewelry, gold filled jewelry has a commonly measurable amount of actual gold in it. Like gold plated jewelry, some gold filled jewelry has a thicker layer of gold than other gold filled jewelry. In some instances, the weight of the gold is actually marked on the gold filled jewelry.
For example – mid 20th century and later pieces are very often marked 1/20 12K Gold Filled. This means that 1/20 of the metal weight of the item consists of 12K Gold (remember that 12K gold itself is an alloy consisting of only 50% gold – thus a 1/20 12K Gold Filled item is 1/20 12K gold and 1/40 pure gold). Common gold filled marks include:
Example of the 12KT. G.F. mark on a rose brooch
- G.F. (stands for Gold Filled – U.S. Law requires that items marked this way be at least 1/20th gold by weight )
- 1/20 12K G.F. (this is one of the most common marks)
- 1/10 12K Gold Filled (The “12K” can be substituted with 10K, 14K, 18K etc.) (1/10 of the piece is gold weight).
- 12KT G.F. (The “12” can be substituted with 10, 14, 18 etc.).
- 20/12 — This is shorthand for 1/20 12K Gold Filled (you will also sometimes see 14/20, 12/10 etc.)
- Gold Filled — (same as “G.F”)
- 14K Rolled Gold; 14K Rolled Gold Plate; R.G.P.; 1/30 R.G.P.; 1/40 R.G.P. – all of these markings stand for “Rolled Gold Plate” which is usually, but not always 1/30th or less solid gold.
- ¼ 14K Shell — This means ¼ of the metal weight of the item is solid 14K gold. (The “14” can be substituted with 10, 12, 18, 24 etc.)
- 1/5 14K Shell — This means 1/5 of the metal weight of the item is solid 14K gold. (The “14” can be substituted with 10, 12, 18, 24 etc.)
- Guaranteed 10 Years; Guaranteed 20 years; Warranted – seen on watch cases. This means the watch is supposed to have a thick enough gold layer to last 10 or 20 years of normal handling before wearing off. Gold weight values – but the 20 year watches are usually at least 1/10 10K gold by weight.
- 1/20 14K G.F. Sterling Silver — This means that instead of a base metal, the gold layer is wrapped around solid sterling silver. Common on pieces from the 1940’s and 1950’s and also in new studio jewelry.
Occasionally you will encounter jewelry that is made of Solid Gold and another precious metal. This jewelry will often be marked with a gold fineness mark and a fineness mark for the other metal (e.g. Silver, Platinum, Palladium).
The example below is a U.S. Marine Corps Ring. The Marines emblem on the ring is solid 14K Gold. The remainder of the ring is sterling silver. The ring is thus marked 14K and also .925, which is the numerical marking for Sterling Silver (925/1000 silver). See our article on silver for more info on Sterling Silver.