About Vintage Gold Jewelry
In a previous article I discussed silver jewelry hallmarks – you can read that article here: Silver Jewelry Marks: Learn to Identify and Date Silver Jewelry. I recently came across a piece of jewelry that had a gold filled mark, but was silver in color. It turns out the piece was gold filled white gold. While researching, I discovered that many people are a bit confused by all of the terms used to describe gold content, especially when dealing with vintage gold jewelry, so this article will shed some light and sort things out.
There are several ways gold is used to produce jewelry. These include gold plated, gold filled and rolled gold, and karat gold. The chart below explains these processes
Gold Plated Vintage Jewelry
Most of the vintage gold jewelry that you’ll see is gold plated. It’s created by bonding a very fine layer of gold to a base metal using an electromagnetic process. The gold layer is only a few microns thick, so the plating will wear off in time. Typically the gold plating is 18K or 22K (see the Karat Gold Vintage Jewelry section below for an explanation of these markings). The process involves dipping a base metal, such as steel or brass, into an electroplating solution with a lump of solid gold. An electric current is applied, which deposits a very thin layer of gold on the metal.
The layer of gold in gold plated jewelry is normally a tiny fraction (about one 1,000 to one 1,000,000) of an inch thick. Heavy gold electroplate might be two or three 1,000s of an inch thick (also known as 2 or 3 mils). Gold plated jewelry may or may not contain a purity mark; most gold plated pieces do not.
Gold Vermeil Vintage Jewelry
Gold Vermeil refers to silver jewelery which is coated with karat gold, also known as “gilded silver.” The silver is usually Sterling, which is 92.5% silver, and can sometimes be higher. Using a process called “electrolysis” the silver is treated with electricity and an acid bath, which attaches the gold to sterling. The gold is commonly 18K or higher, although a minimum of 10K may be used to consider the piece Vermeil. According to the U.S. FTC (Federal Trade Commission), Vermeil should have a minimum gold thickness of 2.5 microns (or 1/100,000 inch) on all surfaces. Typically, the thickness is somewhere between gold plated and gold filled jewelry.
Because Vermeil jewelry is made with only precious metals, it is more valuable. In addition, the layer of gold is thicker than plated metals and will keep its color much longer. It’s not unusual for vintage Vermeil pieces that are 20-50 years old to still have a lovely bright color. Some Vermeil pieces have a rose gold finish and some may have both rose and yellow gold to create a “tri-color gold” look. Although Vermeil can tarnish, a gentle buff with a specially treated silver polishing cloth will usually brighten it right up.
Vermeil jewelry is generally marked for the silver content. Typical marks include “STERLING” and “925.” The gold content is not usually specified, although you may come across a piece with both the silver and gold purity marks, such as “STERLING + 14K.”
Vermeil is a wonderful alternative to karat gold jewelry, as it is more affordable. Because it contains only precious metals, there are no allergy concerns and it keeps its value for years to come. Vintage gold jewelry was produced during the World War II era, but it’s more common to see Vermeil jewelry instead of plated jewelry from that period because the base metals used with plated jewelry were needed for the war effort.
Gold Filled Vintage Jewelry
Gold filled, also known as “rolled gold,” jewelry is made with a base metal (usually brass or copper) that is covered with a thick coat of gold. Unlike gold plating, the process used to create gold filled jewelry involves thick sheets of gold that are mechanically bonded using heat and high pressure, not electroplated. This bonding is permanent and the gold is much thicker than that of gold plate. It’s not uncommon to find gold filled jewelry that is fifty years old or older looking almost brand new.
In order to be considered gold filled, the gold content must be 5% or 1/20 of the total weight (1/10 if 10KT) and have a mark that identifies the karat value. Typical marks are “1/10 10KT GF,” “1/20 12KT GF,” “1/20 14KT GF,” and “1/20 18KT GF.” Sometimes you may see a mark like “14/20,” which means the outer 1/20 (5%) is 14 karat gold, the same as the “1/20 14KT GF” mark.
Most vintage gold jewelry that is gold filled is yellow in color, although you may also find pieces that are rose gold or white gold in color
Because the layer of gold is so much thicker than plated jewelry, gold filled jewelry will not peel or flake, and with reasonable care will last as long as 14K gold jewelry. Although the gold can tarnish with age, buffing with a silver cleaning cloth or a very mild cleaning solution will usually restore the lovely finish. An added benefit is that people with sensitive skin will find it safe and comfortable to wear.
Little Known Fact: A great deal of heirloom jewelry from the 1800s was gold filled, which demonstrates that gold filled jewelry is very durable.
Karat Gold Vintage Jewelry
Karat Gold is sometimes also described as “genuine gold” or “solid gold.” Because gold is a soft metal, it is combined with other metals to make the pieces more durable. The marks stamped on gold pieces show how much of the metal is gold. The chart below explains these marks.
The karat is a very old measure of how much gold is in an alloy, or gold-blend. A measure of 1 Karat is where there is 1 part of pure gold and 23 parts of metal alloy – or 4% gold. So 24K is 100% pure gold. 9K is 37%, 14K is 58%, and 18K is 75%
Note: Some people confuse “carat” and “karat.” Carat is a unit of weight used for gemstones, such as a one-carat diamond. Karat is used to measure the amount of gold in a metal piece.
Sometimes the karat value is shown as a ratio, such as “18/24” or “14/24.” This is most commonly seen with gold filled jewelry, as mentioned in the section above.
Vintage Gold Jewelry with European Purity Marks
In Europe, purity marks are commonly shown as percentages. The most common marks are “585” for 14K gold (58.5%) and “750” for 18K gold (75%). The photos below show a 14K vintage gold jewelry Ankh cross marked with the European “585” purity mark, and an 18K vintage gold jewelry coral rose brooch marked with the European “750” purity mark.
The three most common gold colors are yellow gold, white gold, and rose gold. Yellow gold is the traditional color used in most vintage gold jewelry. White gold gives the look of platinum and appears silver in color, and rose gold has a warm, pinkish hue. Various metals are used to produce these colors. For example, white gold usually contains gold mixed with nickel. Rose gold is usually gold combined with copper.
Tri-color gold is a combination of white, yellow, and rose gold and is a very desirable fashion look. This look can be similated with vermeil, silver pieces that are thickly coated with yellow and rose gold. The photos below show a Sterling Silver bracelet that has both yellow and rose gold vermeil to give the look of tri-color gold at an affordable price point.
Alloys Used with Gold
An alloy is a combination of two or more metals. There are virtually hundreds of different metals that can be combined with gold. For example, nickel is mixed with gold to produce a white gold color. Those who are allergic to nickel should avoid white gold. As mentioned, copper is used with gold to produce a rose gold color. 50% gold and 50% silver can be used to create the typical yellow gold color. Small amounts of zinc (usually 2%) will also be added to make the metal hard, as both silver and gold are soft metals. Other metals that may be used are tin, palladium, and manganese. The exact metals used with gold are usually not specified in the stamp, however, the companies that produce gold jewelry will almost always know the composition of the materials they use.
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Thanks so much for visiting the blog and I hope you now have a better understanding of vintage gold jewelry and what the various stamps represent.
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Thank you, Christine 🙂