One of the most common questions I get on Etsy is a variation on ‘what is gold-filled? Is it real gold?’. Precious metals and their various purity ratings can be a real minefield, when all you really want is to know you’re buying something that won’t turn your skin unexpectedly green or tarnish the second you wash your hands…
That’s why this week I’m going to break it down for you, with a handy guide on some common metal purity ratings and how to select the right one for your needs and your budget…
I’m going to decode precious metals, if you will… (Yep, you guessed it – I’ve been watching a LOT of Ancient Aliens while fulfilling your orders this week! Sorry not sorry…)
What are precious metals?
Precious metals are rare, naturally occurring metallic elements, prized for their scarcity. The two precious metals you’re most likely to come across when buying jewellery are silver and gold, so let’s focus on them for now (I might do a follow up post on other metals like palladium and platinum in the future).
The purity (and therefore value) of these metals is measured by how much of the metal is made of the precious metal, and how much is made up of ‘base metals’, or other precious metals (e.g. silver is often used in gold alloys). Base metals is the term used for any non-precious metal, such as copper, nickel and zinc. These are added to the relatively soft precious metals following mining, in order to strengthen them, and sometimes they form naturally-occurring alloys with precious metals.
There are three main types of silver alloy which you are likely to come across when shopping for jewellery: fine silver, sterling silver, and silver plated metal. There are other variations in fineness available, but today I’ll focus on the three main options you might come across while doing your holiday shopping…
Fine silver has a purity of 99.9% silver by weight. This means it is virtually pure silver (100% silver is extremely difficult to create, as the purer the metal, the harder it becomes to remove impurities).
Pure silver is also what is created when silver clay is fired, because the binding agents of paper, cloth and water in the clay burn away.
Good old sterling silver is one of the most popular metals for less expensive jewellery designs. To be classified as sterling silver, an alloy must be at least 92.5% silver by weight, and maximum 7.5% other metals.
Many of the items I make in silver are crafted from sterling silver, because it’s affordable for most customers, good to work with, and has a high enough purity level that it’s suitable for all but the most sensitive skin.
In cheaper jewellery pieces, silver plated metals are often used. Silver plating is where base metals are plated with either fine silver or sterling silver by being dipped into an electrolyte bath.
Plated metals can give you the dreaded green-skin effect over time, as the layer of silver begins to rub off and the internal alloy (often copper) is revealed and comes into contact with your skin. How fast this happens depends on how thick the layer of silver on top is, and whether there’s a barrier layer between the base metal and the precious metal on top.
Gold comes in various different colours, but the purity ratings are the same for yellow, white and red/rose gold. Sometimes high-quality rose gold will be referred to as ‘red gold’ in jewellery stores, which can be a bit confusing, but it has the same pinky-gold colour that you would expect from rose gold
As you probably already know, gold is measured in carats – but what does that actually mean? Well, the carat rating system measures the amount of gold per 24 ‘parts’. So 24 carat gold is virtually pure gold (999/1000 parts gold), whilst 18 carat gold is 75% gold and 25% other metals. Gold jewellery is also commonly sold at 9, 10 and 14 carats, although 15, 20 and 22 carats are sometimes available (20 and 22 being used more widely for gold coins).
So, the higher the carat rating, the higher the percentage of gold in your jewellery, and the more you’re likely to be spending on it.
But how do I pick which purity I want?
An important thing to consider when buying jewellery is that 24 carat gold is much too soft for jewellery which will be worn regularly, particularly wedding and engagement rings.
For durability, 18 and 14 carat gold has the best balance of pure gold and other metals, so this is the one to pick if you’re choosing a wedding or engagement band, or another piece you expect will get a lot of wear over the years.
For affordability, as long as you’re not planning to wear the item on a daily basis for a long period of time, 9 carat gold is well worth considering, since it is still very durable, and a lot easier on the purse strings than other options, without sacrificing quality!
In much the same way as silver-plated metals tarnish over time, gold-plated metals are not the best pick for durability, although they are more affordable than pure gold or gold filled options. Gold plating is generally done via the same method as silver plating, but because gold is a softer metal, it wears even less well than its silver cousin. Not recommended for any jewellery you’re planning to wear a lot, but fine for more costume pieces or less frequent use.
To be labelled as gold-filled, an alloy’s weight must include at least 5% gold. Gold-filled metal is made up of a solid layer of gold which is mechanically bonded to a base metal or sometimes to silver. Because the gold is bonded rather than just layered on top of the other metal(s), gold-filled metal is a more durable option than gold-plating, but still has the bonus of being much more affordable than purer, carat-rated gold.
This is why many Tiding of Magpies designs feature gold- or rose gold-filled materials – pretty, durable jewellery, without the hefty price tag!