Karat GoldTwenty-four karat gold is pure gold but it's too soft to use for jewelry making, where durability is needed. So jewelry that's made with karat gold commonly uses 14 karat or 18 karat gold. Fourteen karat gold is 14 parts pure gold. Eighteen karat gold is 18 parts pure gold. The rest is alloy, which supplies the necessary hardness for karat gold to be used for making beads and findings (clasps, chains, ear wires, etc.) and to withstand long term use. Karat gold is the most highly prized form of gold there is, and its price reflects that. It's beauty endures forever: lustrous karat gold jewelry has been discovered in tombs that are thousands of years old.
Gold FilledGold filled jewelry is less expensive than karat gold jewelry because a lesser amount of karat gold is used in its production. A gold filled clasp, for example, is made of a layer or layers of gold alloy bonded to a base metal, most often brass. Like 14 and 18 karat gold, gold filled pieces are quite durable.
Gold PlateGold plate occupies the third rung down on the pricing tier. Industry standards require it to be 0.15 to 0.25 mils thick. It's chemically plated or electroplated onto base metal. Gold plated is is not as durable as gold filled, but it's more durable than gold finish. It's often used in jewelry that's purchased as a fashion accessory rather than as an investment or heirloom.
Gold FinishGold finish sometimes goes by other names, including "gold-color" or "gold wash." Jewelry that's designated as gold finish has been electroplated with gold but the gold is of a non-standardized thickness. Of the four categories, gold finish is usually the least durable. Like gold plated, it's commonly found in inexpensive costume jewelry.
The terms "filled," "plated," and "finish" can be applied in similar fashion to other metals including silver, nickel and copper but I've focused solely on gold here for the sake of simplicity.
I hope you find this information helpful when making your next jewelry purchase. There's nothing wrong with buying gold plate or gold finish if your aim is simply to enhance your wardrobe. These pieces are quite affordable and, if cared for properly, can look good for years. (My mother, who used to work in the jewelry business, has costume jewelry that's more than six decades old and it still looks great!) If you like the look of a handmade piece that's made with gold plate or gold finish, the artist who made it may be willing to make a custom piece for you with gold fill or karat gold instead. It all comes down to your needs and what your budget can allow.
©2013 Lynn Edwards