Gold and Silver Jewelry Guide

While you generally don't need to worry about how to buy gold and silver jewelry or that you'll get either fool's gold or tin, there are enough scams that can make you believe that you bought something a lot more valuable than you did.

Buying gold and silver jewelry isn't just selecting 14K, 18K, 22k or 24k gold or sterling silver. Did you know that a stamp of 14K, 18K or 24k isn't enough to prove you bought the real thing? Do you know what alloys are? Is a vendor trying to fool you by saying that fine silver is better than sterling silver? Learn some gold and silver 101 basics and you'll be able to get a much better deal.

What Is A Gold Karat?

In its pure form, gold is too soft to be used in everyday jewelry, so it is combined with other metals, usually a combination of copper, silver, nickel or zinc. Gold has a wide range of shades: white, pale yellow, yellow, deep yellow, pink (rose), red, and even purple gold (a unique alloy of 80% gold and 20% other metals). Each has different strength and hardness values, and the color attributes reflect which metals and in what proportion they are blended with gold to create a durable alloy. The higher the karat value, the deeper and richer the gold color.

Karats measure the proportion of gold with its various alloys. The U.S. and Germany use karat, and other Western countries use carat. Below is a chart that lists different karats and their characteristics.

Percent means parts of gold per 100, karat means parts of gold per 24 and fineness means parts of gold per 1,000.

% Gold U.S./Germany European  Characteristics
100% 24 karat 1000 fine Highest gold content, however, too soft for solid jewelry use. Generally used to plate or vermeil.
91.7% 22 karat 917 fine Very soft, but hardened by cold-working. Colors are yellow, deep yellow and pink rose.
75% 18 karat 750 fine Highest durability, very resistant to tarnish. Best quality for its high overall characteristics. Color range is green-yellow, pale yellow, yellow, pink, red.
58.3% 14 karat 583 fine Most popular gold jewelry choice. Colors are pale green, yellow and rose.
41.6% 10 karat 416 fine Tarnishes easily. Lowest karat allowed in U.S. to be sold as gold jewelry. Colors range from white through rich yellow, pink and red.

U.S. law doesn't require gold jewelry to be marked with karatage, but if it is marked, it must also be stamped with the manufacturer's trademark. The karats must be equal to or higher than what is stated. The terms pure gold and solid gold can only be used for 24k gold jewelry. There is a lot of "overrated karat" gold being sold in low-end stores and mall kiosks. Even if unmarked, the retailer must indicate what karats a piece of jewelry has. Canada allows 9k and Mexico allows 8k jewelry to be sold as gold jewelry.

White gold is an alloy that was created as a substitute for platinum, which is much more expensive. In the U.S. and Italy, white gold alloys contain nickel, a metal to which some people, especially women, have an allergic reaction. Nickel alloys are being phased out in Europe which has more stringent requirements. There are no true legal definitions of what constitutes "white gold." The U.S. does require that white gold jewelry containing nickel be labeled. European alloys may contain palladium, manganese, chromium or iron.

The price of gold is set internationally: no one can buy gold at 50 percent off the world gold price. Shoppers beware: No jeweler liquidates a gold inventory—all they have to do is to sell it for scrap. If a store claims to sell gold at 50 percent off, they are selling it as a loss leader to get you into their store or else they have marked the item up by 500 percent to make it look like you are getting a discount. Compare actual selling prices with a reputable jeweler: a discount jeweler may not be the bargain you think you're getting.

More Gold Jewelry Terms

  • Gold-filled, gold overlay or rolled gold plate is a layer of at least 10k gold permanently bonded to one or more surfaces of a supporting metal. If the jewelry has one of these terms, it must be labeled as to the karat quality used, for example, 14K gold overlay or 12k RGP. If the layer of karat gold is less than 1/20th of the total weight of the piece, again, it must be labeled with the actual percentage of karat gold, such as 1/40 14K gold overlay.
  • Gold electroplate is a coating of at least 10k gold or gold alloy plated by electrolysis on a base metal.
  • Gold wash or flash is a gold film, less than 7 one-millionths of an inch bonded by electrolysis. These wear away much more quickly than gold-plated, filled or electroplated jewelry.
  • Vermeil is sterling silver which is plated with gold or a gold alloy of at least 10k gold.

Sterling Silver Jewelry

Silver is the most common precious metal, and like pure gold, is too soft for practical use by itself. Sterling silver is 925 parts silver (marked .925) to 75 parts of other metals, with copper being the alloy most used. Silver jewelry weighs nearly half of gold, has more flexibility and durability and is less expensive.

U.S law requires that quality-marked sterling silver also must bear a name or a U.S. registered trademark of the company or person that stands behind the mark.

Sterling silver creates an impressive backdrop for many types of gemstones, so choose which highlights a gemstone best. Silver looks better with some gems, so don't always "go for the gold."

Gold & Silver Jewelry Buying Checklist

  • Quality gold jewelry has a karat and manufacturer's mark.
  • Be sure the karat weight or "sterling silver" is listed on the sales receipt.
  • Company name or U.S. registered company trademark for sterling silver
  • "Nickel silver" or "German silver" do not contain any silver.
  • Factors that also influence price of gold and silver jewelry are total weight, design and construction and any ornamental detailing.
  • Check what type the clasp is. Most jewelry generally uses standard spring ring clasps. Look for these more secure clasp types on finer jewelry: barrel, box, fish hook, lobster, safety or toggle, for starters.
  • Note if the piece seems to be easily susceptible to damage.
  • Ask for special care instructions.
  • Find out before you pay what the store's return policy is and whether you get card or store credit. Make sure that you receive this in writing.

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