We at The Crown Jewel love carrying gold-filled jewelry. It has that perfect balance of high quality with a reasonable price that forms our core values. And while solid gold has a very important place in our lives as well, gold-filled is a perfect option for pieces that catch our fancy, like a pair of earrings from a Hawaiian artist, or a necklace handmade in Nashville.
But it is so often I find myself answering the question here in the shop, "What does gold-filled mean?" that I thought it would make a useful blog topic. So, here we go!
Gold-filled - often simply called gold fill - means two layers of 14k gold have been bonded to a base metal, usually jeweler's brass. This material is then formed into jewelry such that only the 14k layer is on the exterior. To qualify as gold-filled, 5% or more of the total material must be 14k gold, or 1/20th. This is why you will sometimes see a 14/20 mark on gold-filled jewelry - 1/20th is 14k gold.
In effect, gold-filled jewelry looks and feels like 14k gold jewelry, and they only part that is visible or touching your skin is indeed 14k gold. The gold will not wear or rub off, and it will not tarnish. With moderate care, these pieces will last forever, just like 14k gold.
What's the difference between gold-filled and gold plated?
On the other hand, gold plated jewelry has only a tiny amount of gold - only .05% to be exact. Put another way, only 5/10,000th of your gold plated jewelry is 14k gold. How do they get so few gold molecules onto the jeweler's brass? Why with a technique you've probably heard of - electroplating. Basically, a current is used to positively charge the gold molecules while the brass base is negatively charged, thus causing them to stick together. That's it!
Now you know why gold plating rubs off so easily. It doesn't take much water, sweat, sun, or wear and the gold molecules are easily persuaded to unadhere from the material. Generally speaking, you can expect the gold plating to last between a few days to a few months depending on conditions and how often it's worn.
Quick note: Some artists will occasionally use heavier plating or what is called vermeil in their materials. This is more layers of electroplating, sometimes over sterling silver, which do last longer than run-of-the mill gold plating. With good care, these gold layers will last longer though not forever.
Why buy gold-filled jewelry?
Not only is gold-filled jewelry sturdy and easy to care for, it is wonderfully affordable. With the current price of gold rocketing past $1,700 per ounce, gold-filled pieces - which retail at a similar price to sterling silver - seem like a marvelous idea. It is an excellent option for those who prefer the look or feel of gold, but don't see the need to pay thousands of dollars. It's also perfect for those whose skin is too sensitive to wear any other metal besides gold. As they only are ever touching 14k gold, these customers will not react to gold-filled jewelry either.
Caring for gold-filled jewelry
Just like 14k gold, gold-filled jewelry will not tarnish unless in extreme conditions, like in the presence of sulfides, for example. So if you're headed for a soak in the hot springs, to an all-day nail salon, or to a very polluted area - by all means, remove all your gold and gold-filled jewelry and tuck it safely away. Otherwise, a gentle soap and water washing occasionally should do the trick.