In the world of gold-colored jewelry, there is a huge range of quality and value options available to the buyer. Everybody knows that solid gold is best, but most people can’t afford such a luxury item. That’s why other possibilities came about; to make gold jewelry more accessible and available to a wider audience. Nowadays, you can get gold plated, gold vermeil, and gold-filled pieces, but what exactly do these different labels mean?
In this article, we’ll explore how different types of gold jewelry are made, and the benefits to each separate process. You’ll learn all about what gold-filled jewelry is, and how it compares to the more popular gold plated pieces. With differences in price, quality, gold content, and more, it can be difficult to straighten out all the options. Read on to discover how you can make a decision between plated and filled gold, and the most important advice to keep in mind while you think about your next purchase.
What Is Gold-Filled Jewelry?
Gold-filled jewelry is not made from solid gold, now is it created from an alloy of gold and another metal. In fact, any metal which is labeled gold-filled will have a core of base metal, often jewelers brass. This base is then coated in a layer of solid gold to create a gold-filled piece of metal. There are several different types of gold-filled jewelry that serve different purposes. Single clad gold-filled pieces have all their gold content located on a single surface of the piece. Double-clad gold has two layers, one on each side. It is also possible to get gold-filled wire, where the layer of precious metal wraps around the entire spool.
So far, gold-filled jewelry probably doesn’t sound so different from gold plated jewelry, but there are a few important distinctions coming. Firstly, gold is bonded to the base metal using heat and pressure, before it’s sold in large sheets or lengths of wire. However, the most important thing you need to know about gold filled jewelry is that it must be a minimum of 5% gold by weight. This can be calculated using the number of karats of the gold used. This means that all gold-filled jewelry is a minimum of 1/20th pure gold.
Most gold-filled jewelry is made with 12 of 14 karat gold, layered perfectly over brass or occasionally, 925 sterling silver. These products are often labeled with signage such as “14/20 Gold-Filled” or “12/20 GF”. If you see a stamp or imprint on a piece of gold jewelry with one of these labels, you can work out the karatage from the first number, while the second assures you that at least 5% of your product is quality gold.
What is Gold Plated Jewelry?
Gold plated jewelry is easily the most affordable option if you want gold without the massive price tag. To create a piece of gold plated jewelry, it is firstly cast from a base metal like brass. Then, a process called electroplating is used to bond a thin layer of gold to the surface of the metal. This technique is much more high-tech than the mechanical coating of gold-filled jewelry and uses an electric current to reduce dissolved particles of gold and adhere them to brass creating a gold coating. Base metals used for gold plated jewelry can also include silver, nickel, and copper.
The gold metal used for plated jewelry is usually 14, 18, or 24 karats, however, it really doesn’t make much of a difference. The layer of precious metal is so thin that it makes up less than 1% of the total mass of metal, so a gold-plated piece of jewelry wouldn’t really be considered real gold. The metal content of these pieces is so minuscule that you don’t benefit from the majority of reasons to own gold; gold plated jewelry exists for purely aesthetic purposes.
Gold plated jewelry is not very durable. The layer of gold is soft and thin; it will wear away over time. For this reason, gold plated jewelry is never really considered a long term investment, nor an item to be handed down through the generations. If you want a piece of gold jewelry that will really withstand the test of time, then gold plated is not a great option.
Because the layer of gold metal is so thin with gold plated jewelry, it will wear away as it comes into contact with your skin. As this happens, it can lead to discoloration of both your skin and the jewelry piece, and even lead to nasty skin reactions. Although gold is unreactive, the base metal used for gold plated jewelry is usually less kind to the skin, so watch out for allergic reactions when the gold has worn away.
How To Tell If a Piece of Jewelry is Gold-Filled or Gold Plated
If you’ve purchased or acquired a new piece of gold jewelry, and want to know what it’s made up of, there are a few different methods you could try. Your first port of call should be, as with any new precious metals investment, to perform a thorough visual inspection. The only other ways to identify if a piece of gold is filled or plated require professional knowledge and equipment. That’s why starting to figure out the composition of your piece of gold is easiest with a simple look.
You can use a magnifying glass to look at small details on a piece of jewelry; you want to look out for one of two things. Firstly, a hallmark or jewelers mark may tell you the exact manufacturing process that produced your item. Tiny stamps of numbers and letters are often found on the inner band of rings, or the clasp of a necklace. Here are a few common labels for gold-filled and gold plated jewelry:
- GP- The most common stamp, meaning gold plated
- GEP- Gold electroplated
- RGP- Rolled gold plate
- HGE or HGP- Heavy gold electroplate
- GF- Gold-filled
If you don’t find one of these markings on a piece of jewelry, it doesn't mean that the gold is fake. Certain jewelers and old antique jewelry may not use hallmarks in their production. Additionally, these stamps can always be faked by counterfeiters so they aren’t a certain indication of validity. On a gold-filled piece of jewelry, you may also see a fraction such as 1/10 or 1/20 which signifies the percentage of pure gold in your item. Both gold-filled and gold plated pieces may also carry an indication of their karatage, which can be written in any of the following ways:
- 22 karat: 22K, 22kt, 917
- 18 karat: 18K, 18kt, 750
- 14 karat: 14K, 14kt, 585
- 10 karat: 10K, 10kt, 417
Aside from a label on the metal, you can also examine all parts of your jewelry item to look for any marks or discoloration. Watch out for any areas where a gold plating could have rubbed away to reveal the base metal beneath. Any changes in color, tarnish, or corrosion indicates that the gold is not genuine. Under magnification, many of these signs are easily visible and you will be able to make an educated guess about the composition of your gold item.
There are two techniques that professionals use to validate gold metal, but these are difficult to do at home. If you take your jewelry for formal testing, either an acid test or an electronic test may occur. Acid testing is common as the results are easy to interpret; place a drop of acid on your gold item. If the piece is gold plated, the thin layer of plating will dissolve straight away.
The other option requires a special tool that will electronically measure the thickness of gold alloy on your jewelry piece. A thin layer indicates simple plating, whereas a thicker and more durable layer of gold precious metal reveals that you own gold-filled jewelry. In most cases, the desired outcome of testing is to discover gold-filled jewelry. Gold plated pieces don’t have a very high value, and are barely even worth the cost of validating the metal.
4 Key Differences Between Gold-Filled and Gold Plated Jewelry
Now you know a bit more about what gold plated and gold-filled jewelry pieces are, we’ll dive deeper into some of the complexities which separate the two. The basic differences between these two techniques are easy to understand; gold-filled is more durable and valuable, gold plated is quicker and cheaper. But how do you make an investment decision when it comes down to the two? We’ll now break down each of the most important differences between gold filled and gold plated jewelry, and how these facts come into your decision as a buyer.
1. Manufacturing Process
Obviously, there’s a big discrepancy between the manufacturing process for gold-filled and gold plated products, the two use very different techniques and technologies to produce a similar result. The production process for filled gold products is slightly outdated and relies on pressure and mechanics to bond real gold to the core metal. As a time-intensive process, making filled gold can cost quite a lot, whereas electroplating is quick and easy.
The process of gold plating uses much more modern technology than gold-filled items, but far less precious metal. The brass core, or whichever base metal your item is made from, is dipped into a chemical solution while an electrical current runs through. This attracts gold ions in the chemical solution to the surface of the metal, adhering them in a gold layer about 0.5 microns thick. This is the standard width of gold plating, however, it can vary between manufacturers. This technique of coating a cheaper metal with gold is cost-effective, and items can be easily mass-produced. However, the reduced expense means a compromise on quality, as gold plated items aren’t as long-lasting as gold-filled products.
There’s another technique used to manufacture gold plated jewelry, in an even cheaper manner than regular gold plating. Gold flash plated jewelry is made in the same way as gold plated, with a thin layer of precious metal over a cheaper material such as brass. However, in the case of flash plating, the coating of gold is even thinner at only 0.175 microns. This minuscule layer of gold has almost no value, and can only be expected to last a few years at best.
If we compare these three manufacturing processes, it seems that gold-filled jewelry is best. This technique produces the longest-lasting results, and actually offers precious metal which has intrinsic value. However, from an investor's perspective, golf-filled products may not seem economical as the process is old-fashioned and challenging. Gold plated items in all forms are much easier to find and cheaper to purchase. Unfortunately, they don’t represent much of an investment and are little more than costume jewelry.
2. Production Limitations
Another important difference we need to point out between gold-filled and gold-plated jewelry is the limitations on what can be produced. In this area, gold plating has a significant advantage. Almost any metal item can be plated in gold- all you need is a base metal that can be dipped into the gold solution and electroplated. This means that the shape can be cast in any way before it’s covered in a layer of gold.
To make gold-filled materials, the metal cannot be cast. Casting requires the raw materials to be meted into a liquid and then poured into a mold, where it can harden and be removed. Gold-filled metal is a layered material, with base metal in the middle and one or two layers of gold on the outer sides. If you were to melt down-filled gold to cast, the layers would be destroyed and create an alloy instead, which is not the intended result. Gold-filled metal can only be produced in sheets, tubes, or wires, and then these raw materials can be formed into jewelry. For this reason, there are many limitations to what it is even possible to create using gold-filled metal.
From the buyer’s point of view, there are a few different ways these limitations can affect your decision. Primarily, the choice comes down to what kind of jewelry item you want. Common items such as rings and chains are relatively easy to find gold-filled. On the other hand, intricate pieces, like small jewelry charms, aren’t possible to make gold-filled. If you need more specific or intricate gold jewelry, either solid gold or electroplating are your only options.
3. Gold Content
Gold is a valuable asset, one which investors have recognized for many years as one of the best ways to store your wealth. While gold bullion coins such as the American Eagle remain the most popular way to own gold, there are many investment opportunities when it comes to jewelry as well. As we’ve mentioned previously, the core metal of a gold-filled or plated piece is essentially worthless; the only thing which gives your jewelry value is the layer of gold that surrounds it.
Gold-filled pieces have their gold content measured in weight rather than thickness. For an item to qualify as gold-filled, a minimum of 5% of the total weight must be pure, solid gold. This means the gold content of a gold-filled product is guaranteed, and it’s easy to work out if you have the hallmark too. Let’s say you have a gold chain marked with 1/10 14KT GF. If the piece weighs 30 grams, this means there are 3 grams of 14 karat gold contained.
Gold plated jewelry of any kind has its gold layer measured in thickness rather than weight. The average layer of gold is half of a millionth of a millimeter (0.5 microns) which represents an absolutely minuscule proportion of the item’s total materials. It doesn’t matter what kind of gold plated jewelry you have; the value of real gold contained is minimal. The golden layer on a plated piece serves purely aesthetic purposes and has no value as a precious metals investment.
4. Tarnishing and Skin Reactions
When you invest in a piece of gold jewelry, you probably want it to last. This means your item should be durable, and not degrade over time. Solid gold will never tarnish or dull, but gold filled and plated items are a different story. While the layer of gold remains intact on your item, there should be no tarnishing or allergic reaction with your skin. However, eventually, this layer will begin to wear away.
A regular gold plated piece with a thickness of 0.5 microns can be expected to last two to three years before the plating wears thin. When this starts to occur, you will notice discolorations as the base metal peeks through the gold layer. As well as being unattractive, cheaper metal can leave markings on the skin, and even cause an allergic reaction.
Gold-filled jewelry still doesn’t last as long as solid gold, but the coating of precious metal is much thicker. A piece of gold-filled jewelry can be worn for a period of 20 to 30 years before signs of wear become apparent. The layer of gold is much thicker than plated items, so it takes much more time to wear through, but it too will eventually wear down to the base metal. At this point, the same skin issues can occur as with plated gold.
What’s The Difference Between Gold-Filled and Gold Plated Jewelry?
The main difference between gold filled and gold plated jewelry is the quantity of precious metal you’ll actually receive with the piece. Both follow the same theory: coat a cheaper metal in gold. But gold-filled jewelry is always at least 5% pure gold, so this coating is thicker and more durable. Most gold plated jewelry pieces are less than 1% gold, meaning the gilding is thin and basically worthless. Most gold plated jewelry is for costume purposes, and not considered valuable.
On the other hand, gold-filling is something of an outdated process, one seldom carried out in the modern-day. Gold-filled jewelry isn’t as popular anymore because it’s costly and time-consuming to make. The old fashioned technique is nowhere near as economical as modern electroplating technology, so finding gold-filled jewelry is difficult. Unfortunately, while gold-filled jewelry might seem like the perfect longer-lasting alternative to plated metal, the product just isn’t worth the cost.
From an investors perspective, gold-filled jewelry offers a more promising future if you can get hold of it. Additionally, if you're searching for an item to be passed down through the generations, gold-filled pieces will have much more luck. If you only need a piece of jewelry that looks like real gold, and the quality and durability don’t matter, gold-plated jewelry is a much cheaper alternative. Just remember that you won’t enjoy any of the benefits of owning gold.