ALL THAT GLITTERS....
(...is not gold)
Buying gold jewelry is not always cut and dry. If you're not careful you could end up with more brass or pot metal than gold!
Gold is a rare, neutral or non-corrosive metal. Because of this low corrosion factor it makes an excellent material for teeth fillings, protecting electronics from harsh environments (such as outer space -- most space probes have their components covered in gold to keep them safe over long periods of time) and for decorative jewelry.
Purity of gold is rated in karats (which is a different measurement system than used for diamond weight, which is done in carats) and 24 karat gold is considered to be totally pure (99.9%). It's rare to find this type of gold anymore, largely because of cost -- pure gold is currently sold at $269 US an ounce.
Decorative jewelry is found in one of several formats: Solid, filled, pressed or plated.
Solid gold does not necessarily mean pure gold. If you find a "solid" gold anything, that is rated at 24 karats it is definitely pure gold. Mostly what you find in rings, chains and necklaces is solid gold rated at either 10, 14 and occasionally 18 karats. This is a mixture of gold and some other non-precious (and hopefully low corrosive) metal. The metal that gold is mixed with can vary from source to source. At 14 karats what it means to you is that this given item is 58% pure gold and 42% of something that is not gold. (The jewelry may also be stamped with a purity value, .417 for 10 karat items, .585 for 14 karat gold and .750 for 18 karat -- if the number stamped does not match the advertised karat rating, don't buy the item! A stamping of .925 usually indicates the item is not gold but vermeil, which is sterling silver, plated with gold. These items would be priced at 90% of what a comparable solid gold article would sell for -- you will find lots of vermeil being offered on TV shopping shows.)
One of the primary reasons for mixing gold with another metal (making it an alloy) is strength. Pure gold is very malleable. You can squeeze a pure gold ring and flatten it out with just pressure from your fingers! So for chains, necklaces and especially the clasps found on jewelry, a stronger metal means less chance the jewelry can break or deformed from its original shape. Another reason for mixing gold with another metal, is of course, cost. Making an item of 14 karat gold brings the price down to a more affordable level, while keeping it strong and durable.
White gold is a mixture of gold with silver and nickel. Green gold is mixed with zinc. Rose gold is mixed with copper.
Another commonly found process of making gold is called "filled." To make filled gold you start with a base metal. What this base metal is can be anyone's guess. Since the metal will be totally covered in gold it can be anything, even copper (which turns green when exposed to the elements of nature). Next you take a solid gold alloy (which is a mixture of metals), generally of a 14 karat weight (which as we already know has 42% base metal mixed in to begin with) which is then rolled or pressed over all exposed sides of the piece of plain base metal. Much like how they make a candy bar, with chocolate (gold) covering the white nugget center (base metal). There is an industry standard for calling something "gold filled" -- at least 0.02% (about 1/2 karat) of actual, solid gold.
So taking the base metal mixed into the gold, plus the amount of base metal in the filled gold, the total karats of gold in a given gold filled chain or bracelet drops to around 0.5 to 2 karats of total gold composition... That's not a lot of gold.
Gold filled items should be much lower in cost and generally more durable than a solid gold item, but they are also not as precious or valuable. Once the gold outer layer is worn away you will see the base metal, which isn't very pretty. The item may also cause skin irritation or even discoloration.
Gold plated items have the lowest amount of gold. As little as a single molecule of 10 or 14 karat gold fixed to a large mass of base metal, which, again, can be anything including copper or brass.
The big problem with gold plated (or even gold filled) materials that are worn against the skin, is that after a time they may corrode and turn green or leave dark marks on the skin. (Many wire-rim glasses are filled or plated and after a while the oils from hair and skin mottle the gold making the temples or nose piece turn a dark, icky green.)
Gold plated items are good for pens or broaches. Something that will not rub against the skin like a chain, bracelet, ring or earring.
Pierced ears, by the way, can often react badly to some base metals found in even solid gold. For those with very sensitive skin, you need to find 18, if not pure 24 karat, solid gold studs, both of which are rare to come by in this century!
When buying gold chains, lengths vary generally from 14 inches to 24 inches. The 14 or 16 inch chain is good for a smaller neck when you want the chain (or pendant) to hang down only a little. For a larger neck or in an instance where the pendant is to hang into the cleavage area, an 18, 20, 22 or 24 inch chain will do the trick! You also want to make sure the thickness (rated in millimeters -- mm) is enough to support the weight involved. For a small pendant at least 1.5 to 2mm in a rope or link chain design may work well. For a decorative necklace without a pendant, a herringbone or omega chain design in 7 to 8 mm looks quite nice.
Chain styles above from l - r: Omega, Herringbone, Box, Pendant, Byzantine.
Finally, remember that when you're looking at buying gold jewelry, find out of they are talking solid, filled or plated with their 14 karat trinkets!
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