Precious metals are often bonded with other materials for a number of reasons. When this happens, the metal is no longer pure. You can buy 100% pure gold, called fine gold, but this soft metal isn’t durable enough for many purposes. Gold can be alloyed with harder base metals to create a product which has all the benefits of precious metal, but much stronger than pure gold.
Karats are a system used to measure the purity of gold, and to tell buyers and investors exactly how much of the precious metal they’re getting. Gold karats range from 100% purity to only smaller quantities of gold, so there’s a big variation in what you might come across. In this article, we’re going to teach you about recognizing different karat of gold, as well as the symbols we use to label precious metals.
Whether you’re shopping for a new piece of gold jewelry, or want to make a new investment into bullion, you need to know what gold karat means. There’s no single type of gold used for all jewelry, and gold coins have all sorts of purity levels. When diving into the wonderful world of silver and gold, the best preparation is to be informed. So firstly we’re going to explain what exactly karats are.
What are Karats?
A karat is a unit of measurement we use to quantify the fineness of gold. This is usually represented in numerical form, stating the weight of pure gold in proportion to the total weight of the item. In gold, karats are written as a fraction out of 24 parts, therefore 24 karat gold is pure, fine gold. It’s not possible to have a purity higher than 24 karats for gold, which can also be written as .999 fineness.
What’s the Difference between Karat and Carat?
You might have also seen the word Carat written down, and when spoken it’s the same as Karat. Carats are also a unit of measurement used to show purity, but they are not the same as karats. In fact, diamonds and other gemstones are measured in carats, in parts per 200mg. Larger diamonds are higher carat, but the number of karats in a piece of gold is not defined by size.
Karats tell you the purity of gold, whereas carats tell you the size of a diamond or another precious stone. Some countries state the purity of their gold using carats, but this is an alternative spelling- it cannot tell you the parts per 200mg of gold. If you see carat used to describe gold, it means the same as when written as karat. However, remember the actual meaning in the context of precious stones.
Explaining All The Different Karats of Gold
There are 7 total different karat numbers used to label gold. From 9 up to 24 karats, gold can range from 37.5% to 99.9% purity. However, most countries don’t recognize gold under 12 karats, or 50% purity, as real gold. The karat number on gold also tells you the item’s purity, as well as the parts of gold out of 24 and the millesimal fineness. Here’s every gold karat number you might see explained:
- 24-Karat: 24K gold is 24/24 parts gold, promised to be a minimum of 99.9 percent pure. It has a fineness of 999, but can also be .9999 in some cases.
- 22-Karat: 22K gold is 22 parts out of a total 24, or 91.7 percent gold. Its millesimal fineness can be written as 916 or 917.
- 18-Karat: 18K gold is 75% pure gold, or three-quarters precious metal. The fineness of 18-karat gold is 750.
- 14-Karat: 14K gold is 14/24 parts fine gold, or 58.3%. 14K gold can also be recognized by the numbers 583 or 585.
- 12-Karat: Exactly half of a 12K piece of gold is made from the metal, with a millesimal fineness of 500.
- 10-Karat: Only 41.7% of 10K gold is the precious metal, fineness 416 or 417. 10K gold is 10 parts out of 24 pure gold.
- 9-Karat: Barely a precious metal at 357 fineness, 9K gold has a purity of 37.5 percent.
What is Millesimal Fineness?
Millesimal fineness is another system used to denote the purity of gold, but it’s different from gold karats. Millesimal fineness measures the parts per thousand of pure metal mass, and it’s also used for silver and platinum. Millesimal fineness is a broader purity measurement which informs you of the true metal content of any valuable item. We mentioned that 24-karat gold has a fineness of 999, meaning it’s a gold alloy with only one part of a thousand made from base metal. So how can a metal have 9999 fineness?
A millesimal fineness of 9999, which is actually 999.9 parts of a total 1000, is possible using an advanced refinement process. In the United States and Europe, gold purity standards are set at 99.99%. This amount of gold qualifies as pure, 24K metal, but new technology has made it possible to create even higher karat gold. The Royal Canadian Mint along with other nations began to produce bullion of 9999 millesimal fineness, such as the Gold Woodland Caribou.
Both .999 and .9999 fineness are considered pure gold, as only a tiny percentage of the metal is alloy. However, for investment purposes, this higher quality of gold bullion is a fantastic opportunity. To benefit from owning gold, purity, and fineness are always qualities to strive for. Gold jewelry is a different matter; in this case, pure gold isn’t necessarily the best choice. Read on to find out why sometimes lower karat gold alloys are better.
Why Isn’t Pure Gold Always Used?
There are several reasons why the highest purity of gold isn’t used in most situations. Gold coins and bars are only one of the many ways we use gold in our lives, and for other purposes, purity isn’t the priority. Around 50% of all gold in the world exists in the form of jewelry; accessories are made to be attractive, ornamental, and wearable.
Gold is a very malleable material, it’s one of the softest metal elements. When made into an intricate shape such as a piece of jewelry, pure gold will easily scratch, bend, warp, and disfigure. This makes 24 karat gold a poor choice for jewelry, as it’s just not durable enough for everyday wear. Jewelers rarely use pure gold because it won’t remain attractive for long, eliminating the reason most people wear jewelry.
The second reason we don’t see pure gold used often is also aesthetic. Although it’s considered attractive, most people don’t like to wear pure gold because the yellow is very bright. Alone this element is almost orange, so alloying it with other materials offers different colors for jewelry. For example, rose gold is made from an alloy of gold and copper, simultaneously creating a stronger metal, while producing a beautiful pink shade.
Finally, gold is expensive. We all know the price of gold is high, it’s one of the most valuable elements on earth. For items made for everyday wear, even those as special as engagement rings, gold just isn’t an economical choice. The most popular purity level for gold jewelry in the US is 14 karats; pure gold contains almost double the precious metal. Most of the time, jewelry and other gold products are made using 18, 14, and 10 karat gold. Now, we’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of each option.
18 Karat Gold
If you want to get a piece of jewelry with as high a gold content as possible, 18k is an excellent choice. This level is as pure as you can get while still receiving a practical item. Made of 75% pure gold, 18k jewelry is hypoallergenic and highly unlikely to produce a skin reaction. It shouldn’t bend or warp when put up to the challenges of everyday wear, but 18 karat gold will still scratch quite easily.
You might want to think carefully before choosing 18k jewelry, as this high purity metal doesn’t come cheap. This material is still three-quarters gold with a price tag to match, so it’s best kept for the most important occasions. The color is a classic yellow hue that’s recognizably gold, which looks rich and attractive against most skin tones. This highly saturated color is not possible with lower karat options.
- Pure but practical
- Attractive yellow color
- Very hypoallergenic
- Not the most durable for everyday wear
14 Karat Gold
14 Karat gold is considered one of the best options for all uses, as it offers a fantastic balance between all aspects. At 58.3% gold, the metal is durable and won’t scuff or scratch in most situations. This metal’s color is a little toned down in comparison to 18-karat gold, but it comes down to personal taste as some prefer a less saturated yellow. 14k gold is still rich and attractive, and a very popular choice for jewelry in most countries.
Rings, necklaces, and other 14k gold items are much more durable in comparison to 18 karats. Longevity is much better as this gold alloy is harder and more difficult to damage. In addition, 14k gold is more affordable than higher karat metal. By purchasing a piece of jewelry in 14 karat gold, you’ll benefit from a beautiful and valuable investment without breaking the bank. The only reason you may need to avoid lower karat gold is if you’re worried about skin allergies. Check if the alloy (which makes up 41.7% of the metal) is a potential irritant before buying 14k pieces.
- Lower gold content makes it more affordable while remaining attractive
- Much more durable than soft 18k gold
- Color is toned down which some people may prefer
- Higher percentage of alloy metal could cause skin allergies. (Check for nickel, zinc, copper, iron)
10 Karat Gold
As the lowest widely-available gold purity level, 10k is an affordable option. Because 58.3% of this material is an alloy, it’s strong and durable and much hardier than other gold. Unfortunately, this higher concentration of base metal is more likely to trigger skin allergies, so it’s not recommended for this with sensitivities. Most countries still recognize 10k gold as “real gold”, but at 41.7% the content isn’t very high.
10k gold wouldn't be considered investment grade and is generally reserved for jewelry. It’s a good material for items that need to be durable, but not the right choice for earrings which are much safer when they’re hypoallergenic. More high-end jewelers and luxury brands may not offer 10 karat jewelry as an option. Gold which is 10 karats is a good choice when you’re shopping on a budget, or need an especially durable item.
As with other gold alloys, 10-karat gold has a different color than other options. The yellow of 10k gold is more reserved and pale than higher karat numbers, an aspect which has always come down to personal preference. Some customers prefer this pale gold option, but many like the true yellow color of gold to shine through. If you don’t like yellow hues, why not consider a different precious metal such as palladium?
Do Higher Karats Mean Better Gold?
Many people assume that a higher number of karats means a higher quality of gold, but this isn’t quite how it works. Karat numbers denote the purity level, or gold content, of a specific item, but this number does not reflect on quality. A higher number of karats means there is more gold contained, making your item more valuable. The materials used to construct your gold product decide its value and karat number, but the quality is all about the producer.
A high-quality piece of jewelry can be made from any karat number gold, the metal can have any percentage of gold contained. If you buy from a quality jeweler, the difference in karats only changes the value and price of the item. Lower karats mean better affordability and durability. Higher karats mean purer materials and a higher price. Neither option offers a better quality of gold, only a higher quantity.
What About White Gold?
You might be wondering how many karats white gold has, as the color of this precious metal is quite different from others. Don’t worry; white gold isn’t created by adding higher concentrations of base metals. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, white gold contains more valuable materials than the same karat number of yellow gold.
To achieve the white hue, a gold alloy is first made using silver, nickel, zinc, or palladium. White gold is usually 14 or 18 karat and contains the same amount of gold as the yellow version. Once the item has been made, it’s plated in another precious metal called Rhodium. This thin layer of a very white metal covers any yellow hue remaining, creating a pure white gold precious metal.
How Many Karats is Gold Plating?
Gold plated jewelry is jewelry made from base metal and then covered in a thin layer of the more expensive material. This is a much cheaper option than solid gold jewelry, however, it isn’t very durable or valuable. Most people don’t consider gold plated items “real gold” because the gold content is so low. The actual plating of gold plated jewelry is made from pure gold, but the layer is only a few particles thick. Technically the material is 24 karat gold, but gold plated jewelry has zero karats.
Which Karat Gold is Best?
Choosing the number of gold karats you buy goes beyond pieces of jewelry. As our first real store of monetary wealth, many people buy gold as an investment. In this situation, 24 karat gold is the optimal choice, as higher gold content and millesimal fineness represent a more stable opportunity. The only reason to own gold in this scenario is for the fiscal value, so higher karats mean a larger price tag.
On the other hand, jewelry is arguably a much more common purchase than bullion. When buying an accessory most people aren’t aiming to spend as much as possible. Rather, a balance between affordability, durability, and of course attractiveness is the goal. Even within jewelry, no single karat gold is best, and the right choice for you comes down to the individual situation.
For the general consumer, 14 karat gold will fulfill the majority of desires. This metal offers a rich gold color which is true to the metal while being durable enough to not scratch through everyday wear. Gold of 14 karats is affordable as well as beautiful, making it the go-to option for most jewelry purchases. If you want more luxury, 18 karat gold contains more of the precious metal. However, this option is more expensive and doesn’t offer much durability. Those needing a cheaper option will find hard-wearing jewelry in 10k gold but must be willing to sacrifice on appearance.
There is no element or material more famous than gold; it’s been one of the most sought after substances on Earth for thousands of years. The place of gold in our society is deeply ingrained, and its importance cannot be underestimated. Gold is not just valued for its beautiful appearance. This metal is also a vital building material in electronics, a component in medicine and dentistry, and above all, it’s the currency around which we have built society. Through this, we can see that no single form of gold is best.