Few accessories can go as well as gold jewelry with that special evening gown or that expensive suit. Of course, if you want to own a statement necklace or bracelet, you will have to pay a bit more for the full-gold item, which is why so many people decide on gold-plated jewelry instead.
But what does gold-plated mean, exactly, and how is it different from gold-filled? This article is here to help you figure that out.
What Is Gold-Plated Jewelry?
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If you were to research this topic, you would probably see a lot of terms being bandied about. Some people will claim that what you have is ‘vermeil’; does that refer to plating or the full-gold item, or something in between? Are there any other terms for this practice, and how would knowing them affect the price of your piece of jewelry?
Defining the Term(s)
We will touch upon vermeil a little later in the article. For now, let’s focus on plating.
To highly oversimplify, the answer to What does gold-plated mean? is Any metal item that has a thin layer of gold (or what looks like gold) covering it. In other words, you can buy a ring made of bronze, copper, aluminum, or zinc, but with a gold finish, so to speak.
Of course, in reality, gold-plated can mean a variety of things. In fact, the US Federal Trade Commission has an actual system for naming these items based on how thick the layer of gold is. This classification is as follows:
• Gold-plated items
• Heavy gold-plated items
• Gold electroplated items
• Gold-flashed (or gold-washed) items.
Regular plating involves a gold layer thickness of .5 microns, with the heavy plated items being at 2.5 microns. Anything that’s below .5 and around .175 microns of plating falls under the gold electroplate category. Finally, anything below .175 microns is included within the gold-flashed classification.
Of course, to make the matter even more confusing, every single category above technically falls under the ‘gold electroplates’ category, since the same process is used to get the desired results. Basically, if you want to make an item coated in gold, you will:
• Dip it in a solution containing gold or a gold-colored alloy
• Introduce an electric current to cause a chemical reaction
• Take the item out once the layer of gold fully takes over.
In other words, what does gold-plated mean is a question with many answers, depending on who you ask. Not only can it vary depending on the thickness of the coat, but it might even technically not be gold-plated. After all, experts can use alloys that don’t contain an ounce of gold, but look remarkably similar to it.
Other Types of Plating
Aside from asking what does gold-plated mean, people often wonder if other metals can be used as the plating material. More specifically, they inquire about other valuable metals that can be worth as much as gold.
As it turns out, you can coat your metal items in many different plating materials. For instance, there’s white gold. Usually a mix of yellow gold and palladium, this material can be coated with white rhodium to maintain its milky-white shine. Other metals you can use as coats aside from gold and rhodium include:
• Black ruthenium.
Most often, experts use electroplating to get the desired results. But recently, a different method known as ion plating has become popular. The process goes as follows:
• You clean the surface of the metal of any impurities with a method called sputtering
• You prepare the coating material, like gold
• Aside from coating material, you also prepare a bonding agent, ex. Titanium nitride
• You vaporize both the coating and the agent using an electrical charge
• Vapor is propelled onto the bonding material
• You introduce an opposite electrical charge
• The charge forces the substrate and the coating to bond.
People often choose this particular process because of a few reasons. Firstly, it’s not particularly difficult to do. But more importantly, the jewelry that comes out will have a more durable coat than the rest. In fact, the coating can last up to several decades without showing signs of wear and tear.
Is Gold-Plated Jewelry Worth Anything?
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Since gold-plated jewelry is so common, people are curious whether it’s actually worth something or not. After all, if it holds some value, it can always be resold, right?
The truth is, the only part of gold-plated jewelry that holds any real value is the base metal. And that value can vary from maybe $50 to nothing, and only if the base item is made of sterling silver. Otherwise, other metals and metal alloys like bronze, copper, etc. aren’t really worth much.
In addition, trying to ask someone to separate the gold from the piece is pointless, especially if you have a gold-washed item. The actual amount of gold, as stated earlier, is measured in fractions of microns, making them realistically barely valuable.
Furthermore, the process of separating the gold from the base is long, tedious, and expensive, so it’s not even worth anyone’s time. And take into account that your gold-coated piece might not actually be coated in gold, to begin with, but a substance that merely looks like gold.
Broadly speaking, you can expect to get maybe $15 or $20 per one pound (455 g) of gold. Naturally, you can only amass such an amount if your piece was heavy-plated. In addition, the piece would have to contain 24K gold. Anything below that will earn you nothing.
Is Gold-Plated Jewelry Real or Fake?
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Now that you know how gold-plating works and what the piece actually contains, the question remains: is this type of jewelry considered real? Are millions of people around the world simply duped into buying worthless bracelets, rings, and necklaces, or is there at least some value to them?
Well, it all depends on how you define fake.
In terms of whether the gold is real, it will vary on a case-by-case basis. A huge number of pieces out there contain coating from metals that have a distinct golden hue, but not the same chemical structure or durability. These items can indeed be classified as fake, but only in the sense of not having any genuine gold. They can still be real jewelry to a degree (ex. a sterling silver ring coated in a gold-like metal alloy).
Now, the items that are coated in gold do contain that metal. Not a lot of it, granted, but it’s still there. On the other hand, the base metals are more often than not just that — metals. Copper might have a lot of uses in construction and other industries, but it simply isn’t a precious metal of high value.
How to Tell Gold-Plated Jewelry from 100% Gold Items
There are plenty of ways you can tell if an item is made of pure gold or simply gold-plated. A shortlist of some foolproof methods include:
• Stamp tests
• The skin test
• Size and weight tests
• The magnet test
• The float test
• “Scratching the ceramics” test
• The water test
• Acid tests
• Machine tests
• Asking the jeweler.
Each gold piece comes with a set of stamps. Those include purity numbers (under two different systems) and manufacturer names, as well as abbreviations (ex. GP for gold-plated, 18K for eighteen karats, etc.).
The Skin Test
A lot of plated pieces of jewelry will react to human perspiration by discoloring the skin upon contact. Sometimes that discoloration on the sweaty spot will be green, other times brown, black, or even dark purple.
Real gold, however, does not react in any way nor does it leave a trace when you rub it against sweating skin. The only exception is if you wear a liquid foundation, so wash your hands clean before trying this test out.
Size and Weight Tests
Fake gold is usually lighter than real gold, and a fake gold coin might actually be too large for its weight. The best way to figure out what kind of coin you have is to use some calipers and a jeweler’s scale. Alternatively, you can compare it to a real gold coin or use a Fisch Tester.
The Magnet Test
Real gold is not magnetic. So, if you take a big magnet and your piece of jewelry sticks to it, you probably have fake gold.
The Float Test
Unlike a lot of metals that go into gold-plated jewelry, gold is quite dense. If you dropped real gold into a pot of water, it would sink to the bottom and stay there. If the item in your pot of water floats even a little bit, it’s not pure.
Scratching the Ceramics
For this test, you will need an unglazed ceramic plate, though a tile would also do. Simply take your piece of jewelry and scratch it against the surface of the tile. Gold will leave a trace in its own color, fake gold will not.
The Water Test
Testing gold using water displacement is an old technique. It’s not all that complex, and anyone can do it at home. It will only take a bit of calculating to get it right.
You can use either vinegar or nitric acid to check the purity of your gold piece. With vinegar, you simply need to apply a drop or two on the surface of the piece, and if it’s real gold, it won’t change colors.
On the other hand, you can rub your piece on a black stone and then apply some nitric acid onto the visible mark. If it remains, then it’s real gold; you can further test that by pouring nitrohydrochloric acid, which actually does dissolve gold.
These tests are a bit more complex because they involve the use of specific devices. In the case of gold, the devices you will want to use are either a sigma metalytics machine or an XRF spectrometer.
By far, your safest bet is to take the piece to a jeweler and ask them to look it over. Experienced jewelers can tell if a piece is not real gold based on its weight, look, and feel alone. But more importantly, they will track down any potential stamp or symbol that can help verify your piece.
Vermeil is a term you might have heard around while shopping for jewelry. However, you should be careful, because some jewelers take advantage of inexperienced buyers and sell them worthless gold-plated items as vermeil.
In short, this term describes a piece made of sterling silver, coated in a gold layer that is 2.5 microns thick. Furthermore, the gold has to be at least 10K in fineness. 10K vermeil pieces tend to have a light yellow hue, while 24K ones are colored in intense, deep yellow.
So, how can you tell if a piece of jewelry is vermeil? Well, try to look for a ‘925’ stamp. That indicates the contents of your piece — it is 92.5% sterling silver.
Methods of Cleaning Gold-Plated Jewelry
Keeping your gold-plated pieces clean takes a bit of work. After all, you have to make sure that they don’t chip, fade, wear, or tarnish. Here are a few simple methods of doing so.
The first method involves dishwashing detergent and warm water. All you have to do is soak your items in this mixture, take them to a dry spot and leave them there for a while. However, don’t use antibacterial soap as it might contain chemicals that tarnish your jewelry.
Alternatively, you can buff the rings with a microfiber cloth and some elbow grease. And if you wore your pieces throughout the day, give them a wipe with a soft cloth or a cotton ball.
Storing your pieces is also important if you want to keep them clean. One such method includes storing them in a zip-bag and vacuuming out all the air. Additionally, you can place them in a clean, soft cloth separate from other pieces.
Naturally, there are a few things you will want to avoid:
• Don’t put them on before you apply lotions, perfumes, or makeup
• Don’t wear them if you have to handle something hard and sturdy
• Remove them when you’re entering the swimming pool
• Remove them if you need to shower or if you’re sweating a lot
• Don’t store them in a humid place like your bathroom
• Don’t store multiple items one against another in the same spot.
Can You Replate Your Jewelry with Gold?
The short answer to that is a resounding yes, though the question is how you should go about doing it.
Some people suggest replating the pieces by yourself. And while it might take a while, that’s definitely possible. In fact, many people actually use DIY plating to coat items that previously had no gold, to begin with. That skill might come in handy if you want to make a custom gift for someone special.
Naturally, the more expedient method is to take the piece to your jeweler and have them replate it. The process itself is actually not that expensive. Furthermore, unlike the DIY method, you know that the person doing the plating is an expert. They will apply the coat evenly and make your piece look as good as new.
The Pros and Cons of Gold-Plated Jewelry
Now that we’ve answered what gold-plated means, it’s time to discuss why someone might or might not want to buy that type of jewelry. Some people might assume that there’s no point in buying something of such low value, especially when there are items made of pure gold out there. However, owning some gold-plated pieces does come with a set of benefits.
Summing Up the Pros
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As nice as it is to be able to own a solid gold ring or necklace, they are quite expensive. For instance, you can buy an electric car for the price of one 24K golden ring. And that’s barely a gram of gold.
On the other hand, a typical gold-plated piece of jewelry can cost anywhere from $5 to $50, depending on the base metal. With the current economic climate, owning low-grade jewelry is probably the best option for most buyers out there.
Depending on who crafts the jewelry, it can look remarkably close to actual gold. Obviously, an expert would be able to tell the difference. But if you don’t mind the value and simply want something golden in hue, then a gold-plated piece is definitely up your alley.
Let’s say there’s a popular fad, like fidget spinners or diamond-encrusted phone cases. Those trends tend to be short-lasting, so investing tens of thousands of dollars into a solid gold fidget spinner might be a bad choice. After all, why bother putting up real money for something that will be out of style in a matter of months, if not weeks?
On the other hand, gold-plated items are easy to make and just as easy to customize. If you’re buying a necklace with that popular KPop band engraved on it, you might as well pick a gold-flashed piece. When that band inevitably fades into obscurity, simply take the necklace to your local jeweler and have them modify it to a current trend.
As valuable as solid gold is, it’s also incredibly soft and easy to mold into different shapes. One of the reasons for gold being so valuable is precisely this trait. That’s why engineers, jewelers, fashion designers, and even cooks use solid gold for so many applications.
In order to retain its shape, gold has to be bound to different metals or alloys. One advantage of gold-plated items is that they are hard, sturdy, and not that easy to break or change shape. A copper ring will stay the same while a golden one will bend and twist.
Using gold-plated pieces is excellent if you feel creative. You can add them to any outfit or accessory and they will fit in perfectly. And if you happen to lose them, you can easily replace them in any shop for a low price.
Summing Up the Cons
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The base metal underneath the gold coat will not stay there forever. Eventually, its molecules will surface and react to the coat, making the piece lose its luster. For that reason, these pieces require a lot of rebuffing, shining, polishing, and maintenance. Ultimately, they can’t always retain their golden hue and simple chemistry will inevitably lead to tarnishing.
Can’t Swim with Them
And speaking of simple chemistry, water and gold-plated jewelry don’t go hand in hand. If you submerge these items in water for long enough, the gold layer will eventually wear off.
Furthermore, the chlorine in the pool or the salt in ocean water will also react to the base metal underneath the coat. That can cause both tarnishing and chipping to happen.
Scratching and Chipping Inevitable
Chipping is a common problem with these items. If you were to run a gold-washed ring against a coarse surface, you will see scratches and the gold will be flaking off. Remember, the base metal underneath the gold might be durable, but the gold itself is rather soft. And it’s especially soft if it’s only a fraction of a micron thick.
Low Value Compared to Solid Gold
We stated it earlier in the article, but it bears repeating: unless they are vermeil, gold-plated items are largely worthless when compared to other precious metals. In other words, reselling them for a decent price is impossible.