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Knowledge is power! Understanding the basics of how rings are made, what metals are made of and so forth empowers you to make good decisions when buying jewelry. Working at a jewelry repair shop taught me a lot about what consumers do not know. I’m hoping blog posts like this one will help people make informed decisions about their jewelry and save them money and prevent a big headache down the road.
One area that confuses and overwhelms a lot of people is gold. Here’s a rundown of the basics of gold.
First, a few tidbits to lay the foundation: Gold is measured in karats. This is a measure of the “fineness” or purity. There are 24 karats in 100% pure gold.
Carat vs. Karat: Outside of the the United States, it is carat. However, the weight of gems is measured in carats and is entirely different than a carat/karat involving gold.
Gold is weighed in troy ounces (not really germane to this topic, but I remember that this fact gave me some clarity when I was first learning about all this).
What it’s made of: Gold is a pure element. It comes from the earth with that yellow color that so many covet. Pure gold is too malleable for everyday wear. It would scratch and quickly lose its shape with daily wear and tear. Alloy metals are added to make gold durable and harder. Yellow gold is often mixed with copper and silver.
Karats: 24k is pure gold or 100% gold. 22k is 91.60% gold18k is 75% gold, 14k is 58.3%, 10k is 41.6% gold
A rule of thumb to keep in mind:
The higher the number, the more gold. The lower the number, the less gold.
Pros and Cons of the Various Karats:
The lower the number means less gold. Therefore, 10k is durable and hard. And since there is less gold, it is less expensive! The con may be mild tarnishing, though if it’s worn frequently it won't be much of an issue.
14k is the most popular karat for rings in the United States. It has enough of the alloy metals to make it durable while looking yellow and bright. This karat also is in a comfortable price point.
18k and 22k gold are both a bit expensive because of the higher percentage of gold and each might be more prone to scratches and tiny dents. This is also due to the higher percentage of gold. Remember, it's a soft element. Keep in mind that the gold needs a nice bit of hardness to keep a gemstone secured in a setting as well as be more resistant to scratches and dings.
What’s it made of: There is no isotope of gold that is white. Those alloy metals step in to help. The gold is often alloyed with white metals (nickel, silver, palladium, platinum or zinc.) Some people have allergic reactions to nickel, so an alloy of platinum or palladium can be used with the gold instead. The result is a hypo-allergenic piece of jewelry, but this option is more expensive because the alloys themselves are precious. Though adding these metals greatly reduce the yellow color, it does not really make the gold “white.” The alloy metals are really gray, not white. So the resulting metal will still have a yellowish gray tint to it.
In order to give white gold a brilliant “white” finish, it is electroplated with rhodium. It leaves a brilliant, mirror like finish on white gold. This finish will eventually wear off. Often the jewelry begins to look slightly yellow. The jewelry can be taken to a jeweler who will clean, polish and re-plate the piece.
Karats: Since white gold is a man-made alloy, there is no pure or 24k version of white gold.
The percentage of pure gold in 10k, 14k and 18k white gold is the same as those for yellow gold.
Rose Gold (also called “pink gold” or “red gold”):
What’s it made of: In order to change that natural yellow of gold, once again, alloy metals must be added to change the color. This time copper and a bit of silver are added to the gold. That large amount of copper means rose gold can be difficult to repair. Without going into a lot of eyes-glaze-over detail about cubic crystal system arrangement, the metal can become brittle if heated too much. Make sure your jeweler is experienced in working with rose gold.
Karats: Since rose gold is a man-made alloy, there is no pure or 24k version of rose gold.
The percentage of pure gold in 10k, 14k and 18k rose gold is the same as those for yellow gold.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of gold. Here's a handy chart to give you a visual of the fineness and percentage of gold for each type of karat.