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All about gold, karats and carats

All about gold jewelry, gold carats and gold karats.

Gold has historically been one of the most popular and most expensive precious metals on the planet. But you might well ask: why is gold so popular and so expensive? What is a carat - and is it different to a karat? And why you should care anyway?

We're here to give you the inside scoop on this truly beautiful precious metal. And you can also check out the gold jewelry we have in a variety of forms in our online shop.

So let's get started ...

Gold: the lowdown

Pure gold is incredibly durable. It's the most non-reactive of all metals: it won't react with oxygen or most chemicals, meaning it won't tarnish, rust or perish. This makes it perfect for use in jewelry and high status objects which are intended to retain their value and finish indefinitely.

It's also very pure in the form in which it's found naturally, unlike many other metals which can be difficult to extract from their ores.

As a result humans have been working with it for a very long time: gold is one of the metals of antiquity (the others being silver, copper, tin, lead, iron and mercury) which were used by prehistoric humans. Although we don't know the origins of its early discovery and use, we do have evidence of the Egyptians using gold as far back as 3000 BC.

Gold is also a very workable metal, which is another reason jewelers and goldsmiths love to use it in their designs.

Plus it's also a truly beautiful metal, displaying a broad spectrum of colors depending on how it is alloyed with other metals. The purest gold is a luminous, rich and warm color, unmatched by any other metal.

Finally, gold is relatively rare and often difficult to extract in quantity, making it particularly precious (and therefore expensive). It's estimated that only 171,300 tonnes of gold have been mined globally: around about enough to fit into a single Olympic sized swimming pool.

Solid gold stacking rings in our online jewelry shop.

So how expensive is it?

The short answer is: very. At the time of writing this article 24ct gold is priced at AU$60.27 per gram. Compare that to pure silver - another much loved precious metal - which is currently AU$0.80 per gram.

To help that to sink in: gold is currently 75 times more expensive than silver.

This is the reason why we primarily use sterling silver or gold vermeil (heavy gold plating on silver) in our jewelry designs, while only making small pieces or highlights with solid gold.

What is a gold carat?

A carat - when used to refer to gold - is a measure of purity.

The purest gold is 24 carats, but when it comes to making useable objects, 24 carat gold is generally too soft. This is why gold is often alloyed with a metal like copper or silver which makes it harder and better to work with and wear, but this reduces the purity.

A single gold carat is 1 part of a possible 24. So 18 carat gold is an alloy of 18 parts pure gold and 6 parts of another metal (most often copper).  9 carat gold has 9 parts gold and 15 parts another metal.

You'll also see the word 'carat' used in relation to gemstones, in which case it's a measure of mass rather than purity.

What is a gold karat?

A 'gold karat' is exactly the same thing as a 'gold carat': it's simply that in US English the word is spelled with a K instead of a C as it is in standard English.

The English have been spelling the word as 'carat' since around 1300 and this is the spelling that continues to be used in the UK, Australia and other countries.

When it comes to gemstone mass, US English spells the word as 'carat' ... just to add to the confusion!

Gold hallmarks

The different purities of gold are usually identified by a hallmark (or stamp) with the number of carats accompanied by a letter or letters.

For example, depending on where your jewelry was made and the stamps available to the maker, for 18 carat gold you'll most commonly see: 18, 18ct, 18kt or 18k marked on the metal. 

Solid gold ruby stud earrings in our online store.

Different carats of gold 

24k gold

Pure gold is generally considered to be too soft to make jewelry with on its own, however, it may be used for gilding, plating or for making ceremonial objects. It has a luminous, rich and warm golden color. Given it's purity, 24k gold is also the most expensive version of gold by weight.

22k gold

22k gold is 22 parts pure gold, making it 91.67% pure. The remainder can be made up of alloyed metals like zinc, copper, silver and nickel which are responsible for its enhanced strength. Gold jewelry made with 22k metal is reliably durable, but it still retains much of the beautiful color of 24k gold, making it a good compromise. However, it's level of purity also makes it expensive.

18k gold

18k gold is of 75% gold and 25% other alloyed metal/s. In many countries this is the most commonly used purity of gold used in jewelry as it offers a very good compromise between price and purity (and excellent color). It is regarded as the European standard purity of gold.

14k gold

This caratage is commonly used in the United States. It's 58.3% pure gold, yet still retains a good gold coloring, making it a good compromise when cost is important.

9 or 10k gold

These are generally the lowest carats of gold you will see as most countries regard lower purities as too low to be referred to as gold. 10k is the minimum in the United States, while 9k is the minimum in Australia. These caratages are around 40% pure gold and are not as golden colored as higher purities.

Solid gold stacking rings available in our online jewelry store.

Different colors of gold

You've probably seen a variety of gold colors when looking at jewelry. The variations are all down to alloying with other metals.

You can identify 24k gold by its rich and warm golden color. However, when you add copper, the resulting alloy is pink colored and is known as rose gold, red gold or pink gold.

White gold includes a substantial amount of nickel, manganese or palladium. The white gold jewelry you will see in jewelry shops is almost always plated with rhodium, giving it a bright white color. Unplated white gold is more of a warm grey and is not widely used in jewelry.

The parting shot

Gold jewelry, especially in its purer forms, is truly exquisite and I think everybody needs some of it in their jewelry collection.

With some care your gold jewelry will retain it's good looks and value for longer than any of us will be around. Not only will you be able to hand your gold jewelry down to future generations, but you'll look great wearing it in the interim.

What's not to love?

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Simone Walsh is an artisan jewelry designer and maker who has been creating unique handmade jewelry designs for over 25 years. She lives and works in a beautiful seaside location outside Adelaide in South Australia, where she enjoys views of the ocean and rolling hills. Simone is the Founder & Creative Director of Simone Walsh Jewelry.

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