I'm going to be practicing a bit at answering your FAQs today. So we're going to just kick it right off.
One of the more frequently asked questions I get at shows is the ever tentative and worried:
"What is the material? What is this metal?"
As soon as I get this question, I know exactly what the worry is, because I had this same concern as a young 12-year-old (allergies hit me hard by age 8, but we really didn't know it and thought I was just a funny rashy kid. Aw, so funny). So, getting this question is always my favorite and really relies on the person understanding basic body chemistry (you have a skin pH) and knowing that metals are alloys of various metals. I try to go into a lot of detail on this but sometimes that goes beyond what is familiar and I feel bad. So, I will start from the very beginning.
What is an alloy? It's a mixture of metals. 14k gold is an alloy. WHAT?! But, Kim! 14k gold is solid gold! -- No my dear curious reader, it is not solid gold. Solid gold would be 24k gold. 14k gold is an alloy of 24k gold. Or rather than saying an alloy of 24k gold, one could say it is a mixture of metals with 24k gold.
What is 14k Gold?
So what the heck is 14k gold? 14k gold is a material alloy that is a percentage of gold, copper, and silver typically. Sometimes a poor alloy if 14k gold might even contain nickel. On very very rare occasions there are folks that tell me they are allergic to gold, which always has me wondering about (1) their gold source, (2) how they can trust that alloy is not muddied by impurities. Gold is one of those elements that is non-reactive. It doesn't actually corrode. So, knowing your material alloys is really important if you have serious skin allergies.
A 14k gold alloy is 58% gold (58% of the 24k gold) -- that's why it reads as 14k. If you divide 14 over 24, you will get 58% -- and it's as simple as that! The rest of the alloy is typically composed of copper, silver, and zinc. More copper can be allowed than silver and zinc in order to achieve a "rose gold." But 14k gold and 14k rose gold, will always (legally) have 58% gold alloyed.
What is 18k Gold?
So, can you predict what 18k gold is composed of? It's worth taking a minute to make sure you understand the concept of what and why we say "karat" for gold alloys. The answer is 18k gold is about 75% of the 24k gold.
There are some rare and wonderful folks that experience a more etching effect with 14k gold. So, often, they can go up to 18k gold and experience more stability because there are essentially less reactive metal alloys mixed in the material body. I mention an etching effect because silver and especially copper are corrosive, reactive metals. And combined with the natural acid sweat chemistry of a human body, it can create a sort of galvanic cell reaction: where the final chemical ingredient from the wearer's particular body chemistry causes a battery reaction to form; thus causing natural and gentle etching that overtime, will create a beautiful wear pattern, and leave only the 24k gold and zinc behind. It's more often randomly and rarely observed in material alloys for mokume gane designs. This could be observed with Shakudo and/or Shibuchi (certain % alloys that are given names have a specific standard for them to be referred to by such names). I would also remind that it is dependent on each individuals particular body chemistry. I like to joke, well how much coffee do you drink! But, it's not a direct correlation at all, so not anything easy to fix unless you can keep your hands really really dry after washing them, and additionally, washing them more frequently of your relentless and healthy skin oils.
What is 14k Gold-filled?
So now we come to the part where I want to share about 14k gold-filled metals! I will keep it succinct for now, as I have a whole other blog article linked here that you can read about. 14k goldfilled (see how it was written differently again?) is not so much an alloy, but a combination of distinct metal alloys. That sounds like I just said the same thing but here it is again, said differently: 14/20k gold (the 14 represents the k, and the over 20 represents 1/20th of the 14k gold = 5%) is one solid sheet of 14k gold (58% gold, along with copper, silver, zinc) + another solid sheet of a brass alloy (copper and zinc). These two unique metal alloys are then combined through heat and pressure to form a very unique metal. The legal standard of gold required to meet this unique quality to be labelled as 14k gold-filled is that it must contain 5% of the overall product weight (Hence the 14/20k nomenclature) of the total gold content.
What is Gold Plated metal?
Which is why 14k goldfilled can seem pricey when compared to its very unrelated cousin in the dark, shadowy corners of... my mind? The plated metal. Yes, plated metal does not meet any standards nor does it have to as it is only 0.05% gold adhered to metal as a particle. Some will tell you it is "thickly" plated. Which... means to tell you without telling you that maybe it got up to 0.08% in gold particle thickness. This is measured in microns, that's how thin it is plated. That isn't enough to even reclaim. It often fools many a jeweler that doesn't know or work with 14k goldfilled, as they think they are one and the same. I have heard jewelers talk about gold "burning" away. And, you kind of know they don't work 14k goldfilled metals because (yeah) it's pretty difficult to work with and costs as much as nice silver. So, they often mistake it for plated metals. Plated metals are coated with such a thin amount of gold, it is enough (or rather, not enough!) to quickly be etched away because just a slight scratch or the pH from our skin will strip such a thin plating away and cause great issue for those of us with skin allergies -- or as I like to say, a normal healthy skin!
The only time one should ever consider plated gold is say for like... a piece of purse hardware, or something really unlikely to be touch by human skin. But for jewelry? Plated jewelry is really for costume jewelry or very rare occasional wearing, but that's typically. not why people want to buy jewelry from large commercial stores. It's going to be worn, and it will be enjoyed for a very short amount of time before it wears down. It's all a consumer choice and I think we're lucky to be able to learn and make our own decisions about it. Nothing is wrong with costume jewelry, so long as your expectations are real and you aren't comparing it to jewelry that is made with higher contents of gold, since we all know, individual materials each have their own costs.
Thank you for reading to the end! If you have any questions, send an email via the contact page down at the bottom of this website. I'm happy to try and answer your material questions or wonderings about your passed down, inherited jewelry.
If you're looking to learn more about 14k goldfilled vs plated, I love this blog article written up in 2017 by HalsteadBead.com It offers great visuals for those of you that are visual like me. It will help you to remember what our industry is actually doing and the legal standards that we are required to follow. Too often I see online shops with jewelry being passed off as "gold" and because a design can tell so much, you can tell they are passing off plated gold as 14k gold. I have even caught shop owners sharing that something is 14k goldfilled, when it would be impossible to do on a scuplted/sculptural cute animal piece complete with sweet little leggys, because it can't be cast since it isn't an alloy: it is a composition of laminated metal alloys. It's possible the re-seller forgot that it was 14k gold plated, and the chain is probably what is 14k gold-filled, but at that point, where do you begin to trust the information again? Knowing and sharing all material info is the right of the consumer and that's why it is legally important to be giving the correct information and let us consumers decide how we want to decorate our lives.
One last forum style that had some interesting sharings from jewelers and may be worth a gander is this chat via Ganoskin, a Jewelry Discussion board.