Made Simple: Jewelry Metals Explained

Made Simple is a blog series dedicated to demystifying the jewelry industry and equipping you with the information you need to shop with confidence.

When shopping for jewelry, we’ve all found ourselves asking,What’s vermeil? What’s the difference between gold plated and gold filled? Will this turn my skin green? Why did this cost so much if it breaks so easily? 

Finding jewelry you love shouldn’t be overwhelming or confusing—we believe in fine jewelry made simple.Frank & Georgia began as a quest to understand the answers to questions like these, and making the jewelry industry easier to understand remains one of our primary goals. 

Today we’re covering the seven most common types of metal used in jewelry making: solid gold, gold-filled, gold vermeil, gold plated, sterling silver, platinum, and brass. Looking for the SparkNotes version? Scroll to the bottom for the main takeaways from the article.

Solid Gold

They call it “the gold standard” for a reason! Solid gold jewelry is durable, resistant to tarnishing & fading, and one of the most sustainable options available—in fact, it’s one of the only metals known for retaining long-term value! It also comes in a variety of colors, the most common of which are yellow, white, and rose.

What do we mean by “sustainable?”The “fast fashion” industry produces low quality goods using questionable materials & labor, which results in pollution, inhumane working conditions, and waste. We opt for a “slow fashion” approach— we use only ethically sourced materials to create pieces that will last a lifetime.

Considering its many benefits, it’s no surprise that solid gold jewelry is one of the most expensive precious metals. But knowing the piece’s purity can help make gold work for your budget. There are four common grades of gold purity: 24K, 18K, 14K, and 10K (the ‘K’ stands for karat). The higher the number of karats, the purer the gold (and the higher the price). 

Keep in mind that bigger isn’t always better—pure gold (24K) is often quite soft, which can lead to bending and warping. Alloys like 10K and 14K gold are much harder and are therefore more durable, making them perfect for everyday wear. Our advice? Save the 18K and 24K for special occasion pieces. Curious about the exact percentages? Here you go:

  • 24K = 99.9% pure gold
  • 18K = 75% pure gold
  • 14K = 58.3% pure gold
  • 10K = 41.7% pure gold

Don’t’ worry, we don’t remember anything from high school chemistry either. Here’s a refresher.Metals are comprised of single elements, i.e. solid gold.Alloys contain two or more elements that are melted and blended together. 14K gold is actually a gold alloy because gold is combined with other durable metals like zinc, nickel, silver, and copper. 

Gold-Filled

Gold-filled jewelry is manufactured to have the appearance of solid gold without the premium price. Gold is heated and pressure bonded to another metal, usually brass or sterling silver—the gold surface is literally “filled” with a different metal. 

The thickness of the gold varies depending on the manufacturer, but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires jewelry to contain 5% gold compared to the overall weight to be considered gold-filled. 

Though it’s more budget friendly, gold-filled jewelry is known to tarnish and fade with everyday use. That doesn’t mean you should avoid it, but it does mean you may need to replace these pieces more frequently.

Gold Vermeil

Say it with us: ver-MAY. You got it! Gold vermeil is similar to gold-filled, but instead of pressure bonding the gold to another metal, the base metal is electroplated (i.e. dipped) in gold. Another key difference: brass isn’t used for gold vermeil. This is good news for those with sensitive skin—sterling silver is hypoallergenic!

The FTC requires that jewelry have a minimum layer of .0025 mm (or 2.5 microns) of gold to be considered gold vermeil. Like gold-filled jewelry, gold vermeil is known to tarnish and fade with frequent use, so save it for the pieces you won’t wear every day.

Gold Plated

Gold plated jewelry is the least expensive option when it comes to gold jewelry, but that also means it’s the lowest quality choice. The process is similar to the one used to create gold vermeil: gold is electroplated over brass, nickel, or other alloys.

But where gold vermeil jewelry must have a gold layer that is at least .0025 mm thick, the layer on gold plated jewelry can be as thin as .0005 mm (0.5 microns). Because the outer layer is so thin, these pieces are the quickest to fade and tarnish. They are also prone to causing skin irritation as the gold wears off, exposing the non-hypoallergenic alloys underneath. 

Gold Jewelry Types Explained

Sterling Silver

Like it’s solid gold sibling, sterling silver jewelry is durable, hypoallergenic, and sustainable. Though silver does tarnish over time, routine polishing will keep your pieces gleaming. 

In terms of durability, sterling silver is on par with solid gold. But because silver is more common than gold, making its market price cheaper, sterling silver jewelry typically has a price point similar to that of gold-filled and gold-plated jewelry. 

There are two purity levels when it comes to silver: fine (99.9%) and sterling (92.5%). Like solid gold, fine silver is usually too soft to be used in jewelry making, making sterling the most commonly used type. Fun fact: you’ll typically see “925” stamped on sterling silver jewelry to showcase its purity level.

Platinum 

Platinum sits at the top of the pyramid when it comes to jewelry. It’s the rarest and most enduring of the precious metals—it doesn’t corrode, fade, tarnish, or lose shape over time. On top of all that, it’s hypoallergenic, too! So what’s the downside? Platinum’s rarity, market value, and special tool requirements make it the most expensive metal used in jewelry making.

Unlike gold, platinum purity grades are measured in simple percentages:

  • 950 Pt (or 950 Plat) = 95% pure platinum and 5% other alloys
  • 900 Pt (or 900 Plat) = 90% pure platinum 
  • 850 Pt (or 850 Plat) = 85% pure platinum and 15% other alloys
  • 800 Pt 200 Pd = 80% pure platinum and 20% pure palladium

    If there are no markings on the metal it means the jewelry is less than 50% pure platinum. 

    Palladium belongs to the same chemical group as platinum, and until recently was a more affordable alternative. Supply hasn’t kept up with growing demand, however, driving up the market price of palladium to record highs.

    Brass

    Brass is a great budget option—it’s one of the least expensive metals and has a color similar to that of gold—but it has its downsides. Brass jewelry can turn your skin green due to the presence of copper, zinc, and nickel. It also tarnishes easily, so you’ll need to clean and polish it regularly to maintain its color.

    Keep it Simple

    • When possible, opt for solid gold or platinum jewelry—both are sustainable, durable, low-maintenance, and beautiful. 
    • When working with a tighter budget, shop for sterling silver jewelry. Sustainable and hypoallergenic, sterling silver demands a bit more care but is well worth the effort. 
    • Can’t afford solid gold, but not a fan of silver? Go for gold vermeil—it’s less expensive than solid gold and is hypoallergenic when bonded with sterling silver. Keep in mind that it’s best not to wear gold vermeil pieces every day if you want them to last. 

    At Frank & Georgia we only create pieces with solid gold and sterling silver because we’re committed to sustainability. We want to make choices that positively impact future generations, so we ethically source our materials and offer pieces that you can wear every dayand pass down as heirlooms.

    Do you have any questions about jewelry metals? Let us know in the comments below!

    1 Response

    Louanne

    Louanne

    November 07, 2020

    Thanks for all the great information.

    I am looking to have a couple of fine pieces of sterling silver dipped in gold, or whatever you call it. I really like the pieces but prefer gold to the sterling silver. Is that something you guys do or do I need to find Someone who specializes in that. I was also wondering what something like that may cost. Thank you so much

    Leave a comment (all fields required)

    Comments will be approved before showing up.

    Search