If you've been shopping for gold jewelry as a gift or for someone special, you might have noticed that it comes in a variety of different options. Of course, there's solid gold, but then there's also gold-filled and also gold plated. What exactly does gold filled mean? Is it like a Twinkie with a cream filling - not exactly! But there when it comes to gold filled vs gold plated, there's a big difference.
So, how exactly is a piece of jewelry gold-filled? The name is actually quite deceiving. The piece of jewelry that you're looking at is not filled with gold like cream fills a Twinkie, rather it is filled with brass with a nice big thick layer of 14k gold on top.
But isn't that called gold plating? Again, things are not what they appear! While the concept is similar to gold plating, gold-filled jewelry is actually much better in terms of quality and durability. It's just not as expensive as solid gold and not as inexpensive as gold-plated pieces.
The Composition of Gold Filled Jewelry
If you were to take a piece of gold-filled jewelry and cut it in half and did the same with gold-plated jewelry, you would see the difference instantly.
With gold-filled, you will see a small base layer of metal, most commonly brass, and a thick layer of pure gold. With the gold-plated piece, you would see a huge layer of metal with a very thin layer of gold. Herein lies the difference! Unlike gold-plated jewelry, gold-filled has a much more substantial layer of gold and is more like wearing solid gold jewelry than its gold-plated counterpart.
Gold-filled is an actual composite metal that is either single-clad or double-clad to the brass base, the latter having more thickness to it than single-clad. The gold is bonded to the brass under massive amounts of heat and pressure.
Gold-filled is required to be at least 5% gold alloy by weight. Jewelers are also required to refer to it by its full name "gold-filled" and never shorthanded to gold, as that would be a complete misrepresentation of the product. They are also required to disclose the karatage of the gold layer. For instance, 14K GF or 12k GF.
The Composition of Gold-Plated Jewelry
On the other hand, you have gold-plated jewelry. Gold-plated is not subject to the strict rules of gold-filled. Gold-plating is not necessarily a simple process, but it does only consist of a thin layer of gold placed onto a base metal. This is the main difference. Gold-filled jewelry is required to be 5% gold, while gold plated may be 0.05% gold. From the outside looking in, the two types may appear the same, but based on the jewelry's total weight, they are not.
Gold-plated jewelry is popular as costume jewelry as it is the least expensive form of gold jewelry but at the same time will hold its sparkle and shine for quite some time if cared for. However, over time, the gold plating is subject to chipping, flaking, or rubbing off. With gold-filled pieces, you don't have to worry about these problems.
How is Gold-Filled vs. Gold-Plated Made?
To make gold-filled pieces, the core metal of jeweler's brass is sandwiched between two layers of gold alloy. It is then heated and passed through a roller multiple times. This process was created during the 19th century in England, when they would use other base metals as well, such as copper. Because of the rolling process, gold-filled is often referred to as "rolled gold" as well. The gold coating that results is thick and pressure-bonded for the highest quality.
During the gold plating process, the core brass is placed inside of the melted gold and an electric current is used to negatively charge the base, which attracts the positive charged gold ions. The gold ions form a layer of gold on top of the brass core.
Both pieces can be thickened by repeating this process. However, with gold-plated jewelry, there are typically only two options - heavy and thin. Either way, the gold-plated pieces will never have the same thicker layer of gold that gold-filled can achieve.
The Longevity of Gold-Filled Jewelry
If you are looking for a jewelry piece that can withstand the test of time, then you'll definitely want to consider gold-filled pieces over plated jewelry. As mentioned above, the process of creating gold-filled ensures that there's a nice thick layer of gold on top of the brass. This means that it will wear just like solid gold. If it is well-cared for, gold-filled jewelry will last a lifetime.
On the other hand, gold-plated jewelry does not have this kind of longevity. It is affected much more by everyday wear and tear and the environment. It will not stand up to regular day wear, heat, or water.
Tarnishing is an important issue to consider when comparing gold plated vs gold filled as well. Gold-filled jewelry is not as susceptible to tarnish. It can under extreme situations or if it is exposed to harsh chemicals, but it is like pure gold in that it rarely happens. Gold-plated on the other hand is different. Because the layer of gold is so thin, it can easily wear off, allowing it to tarnish due to the core metal being exposed.
Caring for Fine Jewelry
The care of your jewelry is important, no matter which option you choose. Just like real gold, a gold-filled piece should be cleaned with a soft untreated cloth and mild soapy water. For gold-plated it is recommended to use only a cotton ball and only clean it if you absolutely must because it has less gold and is more susceptible to damage. For both types, avoid scrubbing.
What About Gold Vermeil?
While you're shopping, you might come across vermeil jewelry. This process is very similar to gold-plated. With gold-plated, the core is usually brass, but with a vermeil piece, the core is sterling silver.
This might have you wondering about the differences between vermeil jewelry vs gold plated jewelry. In reality, they are very similar, just with a different base metal. The silver is plated with a gold alloy that is at least 10 karats. The gold plating must be at least 2.5 microns thick.
Unlike plated brass pieces, vermeil pieces are a notch above in terms of quality than gold-plated but not quite as good as gold-filled. This is simply because of the quality of the sterling silver as well as the thicker layer of gold.
Like gold-filled, vermeil jewelry is regulated by the FTC. It cannot be marketed as solid gold, just as gold filled cannot. It must be labeled as vermeil. However, not all countries are created equally in terms of regulations. The gold layer on a vermeil piece in Canada only has to be 1 micron thick as opposed to the US requirement of 2.5.
What About Allergies or Sensitive Skin?
Gold-filled jewelry is popular amongst people who are prone to allergic reactions to various metals. Every body is different and our chemical makeup can cause metals to react differently. For instance, copper can turn your skin green and so you may want to avoid gold-plated jewelry with a copper base. If you are prone to an allergic reaction, you will likely want to choose gold filled as it wears like pure gold.
With gold-plating, you run the risk of the plating wearing off and exposing the core metal due to the lower quality layer of gold. Most reactions to jewelry are because of the core metal coming into contact with sensitive skin.
Choosing Gold Filled Over Plated
While it seems like the obvious choice for most would be gold-filled jewelry over gold-plated, the price tag and the design may be a factor. Gold-filled pieces are often classic pieces without a lot of detail. This is because the process of creating it is somewhat restrictive. Gold-plated pieces tend to have more intricate designs.
If you're looking for something to wear with a costume or a night out on occasion, then gold-plated can certainly fit that bill. If you're looking for longevity and perhaps a family heirloom, gold-filled will withstand the test of time.