If you’re shopping for gold jewelry, you might find yourself lost in jewelry jargon. What does it mean when a piece of jewelry is described as gold vermeil or gold filled? How are those different to solid gold or gold plated jewelry? And why can one piece of gold jewelry be so much more expensive than another?
We’re here to help with our rundown of the different types of gold jewelry you’re likely to encounter when jewelry shopping online.
Gold is one of the most precious elemental metals and one of the most widely used when it comes to making jewelry.
It’s also one of the most expensive metals, which is why solid gold jewelry comes with a high price tag. Luckily there are other options available if that price tag is too high for you.
Let's dive in ...
Solid Gold Jewelry
Pure solid gold isn’t often used in jewelry making because it’s very soft. Instead the gold is alloyed with other metals to make it harder and better wearing. The higher the carat, the higher the gold content in the metal, with 24k gold having the highest purity and 9k having the lowest.
If you want to learn more about solid gold (including karats and carats) you should read our article: All about gold.
If you’re generally interested in the metals that go into the jewelry you wear (and you should be!), also check out our article about silver.
Pros of solid gold jewelry
Solid gold jewelry is highly valuable and it will retain that value for many years – even centuries – to come. Higher karats of gold are unlikely to tarnish and you’ll never wear away the finish to a different colored metal beneath.
Solid gold jewelry signifies wealth and opulence, but it’s also a very portable form of financial security as it can always be melted down and sold as a commodity in times of crisis.
Cons of solid gold jewelry
The only con is simply expense. Gold is many times more expensive than silver and jewelry made in gold will always cost considerably more to buy than pieces made in silver or other lower cost metals.
But if you can afford to invest in beautiful solid gold jewelry: you're golden!
Gold Filled Jewelry
If you’re looking for a less expensive but well wearing form of alternative gold finished jewelry, then gold filled jewelry is your friend.
Gold filled metal is made by applying a layer of gold over a base metal core, which is then rolled under very high pressure until bonded. To be called ‘gold filled’ the gold content must be no less than 1/20th by weight of the total metal content, which is why you might see gold filled metal referred to as 1/20 gold. This finish is up to 10 times thicker than regular gold plated metal.
Purities of 12k, 14k or 18k gold are most often used in this process. The most commonly used base metal core used is brass as the color makes it less noticeable if the outer gold layer wears through.
Pros of gold filled jewelry
Gold filled jewelry is far more affordable than solid gold jewelry, which is the biggest pro. It’s also a great solution for those who have metal allergies and need to wear gold but can’t afford for all of their pieces to be made from solid gold.
It also wears much better than regular gold plated jewelry as the outer layer of gold is a lot thicker. With care, chances are you’ll be able to enjoy your gold filled jewelry for many years to come without it losing its gold finish.
Cons of gold filled jewelry
The main downside is that gold filled jewelry won’t stand the test of time in the way that solid gold does. This is the trade off for the lower cost. However, if you take care of your gold filled jewelry and avoid wearing the finish away, it will look great for years to come.
Another downside is that gold filled jewelry can’t be fully repaired to the same finish it had to begin with, given the mechanical process required to make the metal. However, you could take these pieces to a manufacturing jeweler or specialist gold plater to see if they can be plated to repair any wear.
Gold Plated Jewelry
Gold plated jewelry (sometimes called ‘gold plaque’) contain the least amount of gold. Gold plate is created by applying a thin layer of gold (usually between 0.175 microns and 2.5 microns thick) over a base metal using electrical or chemical deposition. Flash plated or gilt refers to very thin and often badly wearing gold plated finishes which are usually less than 0.175 microns thick.
Of all the alternatives to solid gold, gold plated jewelry usually contains the least amount of gold. As such it will wear more quickly, especially if flash plated.
Pros of gold plated jewelry
The main pro is that the price will be a lot lower than other finishes given the small amount of gold. Also wear on gold plated jewelry can often be repaired by having it plated again by a manufacturing jeweler or specialist gold plating business.
Cons of gold plated jewelry
The significant downside is how easily gold plated (and especially flash plated) finishes will wear through to the base metal beneath. Those with metal allergies are likely to find that the solid gold finish will wear quickly enough that the base metal beneath may give them problems sooner rather than later, especially for pieces like rings and bangles that take a lot of wear and tear.
Gold vermeil jewelry
Gold vermeil jewelry (pronounced ‘ver-may’) is made of either pure or sterling silver which is heavily plated with gold. You might also see it referred to as silver gilt or gilded silver. This is one of our favorite finishes to use in our jewelry designs as a solid gold alternative, along with gold filled.
To be considered gold vermeil, the United States requires that the minimum gold purity used be 10k gold: we most often use 14k, 18k or 24k gold in our vermeil finishes. United States regulations also require that the plating be at least 2.5 microns thick, making it a heavy plated finish.
You’ll find that most jewelers around the world are likely to meet these requirements for gold vermeil finishes.
Pros of gold vermeil jewelry
Once again, the main pro is simply affordability. Gold vermeil is a good alternative to solid gold. It won’t wear quite as well as gold filled, but most jewelers are able to create this finish much more easily than gold filled. In addition, like regular gold plated jewelry, the finish can be repaired by re-plating.
Also you have the added value of the entire piece being made of precious metals, with the metal beneath the plating being real silver rather than a base metal. This will help it to retain its value over time.
Cons of gold vermeil jewelry
The cons here are the same as with gold plated jewelry, but in the case of gold vermeil the plating is almost always heavier than standard gold plated metal, meaning it will wear better and the finish will last longer, especially with proper care.
Gilded gold jewelry
I’ve created a few gilded jewelry designs over the years using an ancient technique called keum-boo that I was taught by a Korean friend way back when I was at college. The technique involves heating sterling silver and applying 24k gold foil to it, then using a tool to burnish the gold so that it bonds with the silver. This produces a beautifully rich gold colored finish over silver.
This jewelry generally wears well, but has similar pros and cons to that of gold plated jewelry and these pieces should be treated with care.
My best advice about brass jewelry is: generally steer clear. It can be given a lovely gold-like finish, but it is a base metal and has downsides. It’s likely to turn your skin green or black and you may develop an allergy to it. You’re much better off spending a bit more for an alternative gold finish that uses real gold and will give you a lot less grief and provide a lot better value for your money.
The parting shot
If you’re looking for jewelry that will truly stand the test of time and can afford it, solid gold jewelry will always be the best option for you.
However, alternative gold finishes (especially gold filled and gold vermeil) are great when you’d rather spend less and when you’re shopping for fashion jewelry type pieces rather than sentimental or heirloom jewelry.
Keep in mind that all of these alternative gold finishes will wear over time and that some are likely to be easier to repair than others.
Gold filled and gold vermeil jewelry pieces especially are likely to keep looking great for years to come, especially if you look after your jewelry. All of them are a better option than purchasing gold colored base metal jewelry, including brass.
When shopping for jewelry it's important to always be aware of the types of metals used. If the seller hasn't made this clear you should always ask or shop elsewhere: just because a piece looks like gold doesn't mean it's actually gold and if the price is very low then it almost certainly contains no gold at all.
Learn more about this and other mistakes to avoid in our handy article: 12 jewelry mistakes we wish you'd stop making.
Simone Walsh Jewelry carries a range of gold jewelry designs, including solid gold, gold vermeil and gold filled. We occasionally have some handmade gilded jewelry designs as well.