The question I get asked the most at markets other than “what’s the price?” is “what is the difference between solid gold, gold filled, and gold plated?”
In fact, I get asked this so often that I decided to make this handy guide for you.
Now, I love the look of gold jewelry, and I’m definitely not alone. Overall I’d say there’s a half and half split between those who prefer gold metals over silver.
However, with the high cost of gold, a lot of people are looking for a more affordable option. That’s where gold coated jewelry comes in.
Various types of gold coatings mean we can have a gold look, without using too much gold, which makes the price a lot more accessible. Which type you choose really depends on your price point and desired level of maintenance.
Read on for all the info you’ll need to choose the best gold jewelry option for you.
Solid gold simply means that the metal is the same throughout. Gold all the way through. It won’t fade or tarnish with time.
Don’t confuse solid gold with pure gold though. Most solid gold jewelry will be what’s referred to as karat gold. An alloy made up of a certain number of parts of gold mixed with other metals.
Pure gold is rarely found in jewelry because it’s too soft. Mixing it with other metals increases its durability.
Gold purity is measured in parts of 24. So each karat is 1/24th gold by weight. Meaning 18 karat gold is 18 parts gold and 6 parts other metals – 75% gold. The mixture of other metals depends on what colour you are trying to make (yellow, rose, or white for example).
Just remember, the higher the karat number, the purer the gold.
For jewelry, the most common alloys are 18Karat, 14Karat and 10Karat (or 9K outside of North America).
When to choose solid gold
Opt for solid gold if you’re buying a piece that you want to wear all the time and keep forever.
Solid gold is an investment but will retain its value over time – so it’s perfect for heirloom pieces and meaningful gifts for special occasions. The extra initial cost will be worth it in the end for a longer lasting piece that can be passed on through generations.
Solid gold jewelry doesn’t require much maintenance. The occasional cleaning with mild soap and soft brush (such as an unused baby toothbrush) is enough to maintain the shine and beauty of your gold piece.
Gold jewelry can be worn almost all of the time. You just want to make sure to take off your gold jewels when you’re doing anything rough or dirty (sports, gardening), or coming into contact with chemicals (cleaning solutions or chlorinated pools for example).
Gold filled jewelry has most of the benefits of solid gold, without the high price tag.
The outside layer that you see and come into contact with is 10 or 14 karat gold – so it won’t tarnish or stain your skin, and the gold layer is much thicker than gold plating so it won’t fade or wear through quickly.
Since the gold layer is quite thick, you also don’t have to worry about coming into contact with base metals that may trigger sensitivities.
Gold filled metal is made by pressure bonding a layer of karat gold to the surface of another metal – usually brass (but that can vary by manufacturer).
When to choose gold filled
Opt for gold filled when choosing everyday pieces that you want to save a little money on.
Gold filled jewelry is much less expensive than solid gold yet require less maintenance than gold plated. The only limitation is the style of pieces that can be made in gold filled as the pressure bonding method doesn’t lend itself to all jewelry designs.
With proper care, your gold filled pieces can last many years.
Treat your gold filled pieces as you would solid gold. Occasional cleaning with mild soap and a soft brush – that’s it.
Again, gold filled jewelry can be worn almost all of the time. You just want to make sure to take off your gold filled jewels when you’re doing anything rough or dirty (sports, gardening), or coming into contact with chemicals (cleaning solutions or chlorinated pools for example).
Gold plating uses an electrical current to deposit a microscopic layer of gold onto a piece of metal that has been submerged in a chemical solution.
The layer can be very thin (as in the case of flash plating) or fairly thick (as in gold vermeil).
While gold plating is an affordable option, there are a couple of downsides to this method. The first is that the gold layer, being very thin, can wear off quite quickly. Pieces must be given proper care and occasional replating as necessary.
The other downside is the possibility to come in contact with metals that cause sensitivities. Many plating operations use a layer of nickel between the base metal and the gold. Nickel is an inexpensive way to seal the base metal while making the gold layer come out a bit brighter – but many people develop a reaction to nickel so it’s best to avoid it altogether.
Andrea Shelley doesn’t use any nickel in our gold plated pieces – instead opting for palladium. Though this metal is more expensive, it’s hypoallergenic.
Gold vermeil is a specific quality of gold plating. It’s a thickly plated layer of gold over sterling silver. If you are buying gold plated jewelry, gold vermeil is the best quality you can get.
When to choose gold plated
Gold plated jewelry is best for pieces that you intend to wear occasionally. They should be the last piece you put on before you leave the house and the first you take off when you come home.
No matter how carefully you treat your jewelry, gold plating won’t last forever and will need to be redone in time. How often will depend on frequency of wear and your own unique body chemistry.
To make sure your gold plating lasts as long as possible, keep it dry! Avoid exposing it to water, lotions, makeup, perfumes, and cleaning products, which can all make the plating deteriorate.
If your piece needs to be cleaned, reach for the sort of very soft, lint free cloth you’d use to clean eyeglasses, camera lenses, or computer monitors.
Never use any soaps or detergents or anything abrasive.
Store your gold plated pieces individually in a soft pouch to prevent scuffing against other jewelry.
In an ideal world, we could all afford to fill our jewelry boxes with only solid gold jewelry. However, in reality I feel like there is a time and purpose to each of the different types of gold pieces.
My suggestion is to really think about the amount of times you plan on wearing a piece and the amount of maintenance you’re willing to put in. If you can wait and save up for a few truly special solid gold pieces, they will outlast their value in gold plated jewelry over time.
If you’re just looking for a piece to wear for a specific occasion and you’re on a budget, then one of the gold coated options may be right for you.