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Choosing the right metal for your jewelry will largely be driven by personal taste and the aesthetic that each metal offers. That said, it is important to understand the durability and unique properties of each metal before making your final decision.
Throughout this article I will explore the common misconceptions, strengths, and weaknesses of each of the metals, plus I will cover how best to use the metals to enhance your jewelry.
Before delving into the different forms of this multi-functional metal, it is important to understand the basics.
Gold Facts: The Basics
- Gold is a naturally occurring chemical element. In its purest form it is bright yellow in color, and very soft and malleable
- Gold has a rich history of being used in jewelry and decoration. Gold artefacts such as crowns, hats, and disks have been dated back as far as the 2nd millennium BC
- The finesse of gold is expressed in karats
- Of the gold produced, 50% is used in jewelry, 40% is investment and the final 10% is used for industrial purposes
- Gold is inextricably linked with ideas of wealth, purity, and divinity. This is due to the rare nature of gold, and the historical perception of its ‘other-worldly’ appearance, making it a natural choice for jewelry
Understanding Karat & Fineness
A karat is the unit used to express the fineness of gold. The fineness is the weight of the fine metal present in proportion to the total weight (which will include the alloys that the pure metal is mixed with).
Karats are measured per part 24. For example, 24 karat gold is considered 100% pure, while 18k gold would be expressed as 18/24 = 75% pure.
Setting the math aside, each fineness of gold has different properties that determine their suitability for use in jewelry, and this is the part that you need to know:
24 Karat Gold – 24K is the highest possible purity of gold (although considered 100%, it is closer to 99.9%). This fineness of gold will give the brightest color but will also be extremely malleable. For this reason, it is rarely used in jewelry, particularly in the Western world. 24 k gold is sometimes used in Indian jewelry and is prized for its vivid gold color, enhancing the bright colors adopted in Indian wedding and celebrations. However, is you are looking for gemstone jewelry, or something that can be worn every day then do not choose 24k gold.
22 Karat Gold – 22K gold contains around 8% alloy (such as nickel, zinc, copper, or silver). This strengthens the metal, making it more appropriate for use in jewelry. It is, however, still unsuitable for setting gemstones, as the metal is still too soft.
18 Karat Gold – 18k gold is widely regarded as the most suitable fineness of gold for creating fine jewelry and setting gemstones. It is around 75% pure, and the addition of the alloys balance the gold color with a durable disposition. If compared side by side with 24k gold, you will notice the color is duller due to the addition of other metals, however when worn it still offers the distinctive warmth that is desired from yellow gold. I would advise 18k gold as a first choice for gold jewelry.
14 Karat Gold – 14k gold is often favored by American jewelers; the lower purity means a lower price, while it is only marginally different in color from 18k gold. If a budget is tight, moving from 18k to 14k gold is something that can be considered to lower the cost. It contains around 58% pure gold compared with the 75% pure gold found in 18k.
9 Karat Gold – 9k gold has a dull finish and very little of the yellow vibrancy desired from gold jewelry. At this level of purity, the jewelry can tarnish and also leave the wearer with black or green marks due to the high percentage of alloys. While it is a cheap option, it is not suitable for fine jewelry, and very few reputable jewelers will offer it as an option.
With the exception of 24k gold and differences in color, the properties of each fineness of gold are the same for yellow, white and rose gold.
Yellow gold is not enhanced in any way; the color of the gold is determined by the fineness and polish. It is because of this, that the color will stay the same, regardless of wear.
The warm tones of yellow gold can be used to enhance not only colorless diamond jewelry, but also gemstone jewelry.
This sapphire and diamond ring from Leibish shows the yellow gold enhancing the deep blue of the sapphire. Similarly, if a colorless diamond is out of your budget, a yellow gold setting will make the diamond appear whiter.
Pros of Using Yellow Gold
- As it is such a popular choice, you will find a huge selection of styles to choose from
- It can be used to improve the look of a white diamond, or enhance the depth of a colored gemstone
- The natural color means there is no need to re-plate
- Yellow gold is extremely flattering on a variety of skin tones due to its warm hue
- It is precious, rare, and when the right fineness is chosen, it is the perfect choice for gemstone jewelry
Cons of Using Yellow Gold
- Over time, yellow gold can become scratched and thin as the gold wears away. If a yellow gold ring does not fit properly it will also begin to bend
- Its unique color may not be to everyone’s personal taste, or suit their skin tone
I remember when rose gold first become the trend, many people were curious if it is made out of real gold.
The beautiful hue of rose gold color is a result of gold mixing with copper. Much like yellow gold, the final color of rose gold is determined by the percentage of copper; a higher percentage will give a duller appearance but with a more intense red color, while a lower percentage will give a rosy, champagne hue with a brighter shine.
Rose gold is an alloy, therefore it can never be described as ‘pure’. If you see a jewelers advertising ‘pure rose gold’ this is simply untrue.
The most suitable (and most common) fineness for rose gold is 18k.
The romantic appearance of rose gold makes it popular in the creation of vintage or fairy-tale style engagement rings, such as this Verragio three stone ring.
Equally, the popularity of rose gold in the 21st century also sees it being using in more contemporary designs.
While yellow gold suits a wide variety of colored gemstones, rose gold looks best when set with white diamonds, or gemstones on the warmer end of the spectrum.
This ring from Leibish shows rose gold being used to enhance the earthy tones of a brown diamond with stunning results.
Pros of Using Rose Gold
- It will not tarnish or lose its color over time
- Flattering on a variety of skin tones
- Suitable for setting gemstones (at 14k and 18k)
Cons of Using Rose Gold
- Due to the copper content, rose gold is not considered hypoallergenic
- Certain colored gemstones do not suit the unique color of rose gold
- Less selection than yellow and white gold
The properties of white gold are entirely dependent on the percentage of different alloys used. Some are added for strength, while others are added for weight and durability.
Very few jewelers will disclose the percentage of alloys used as it is not deemed particularly necessary. This is due to the fact that almost all jewelers will rhodium plate white gold to give it a uniform color.
So, what is white gold? Well, there is no such thing as ‘white gold’. The color we have come to identify as white gold is the result of a thin layer of white rhodium plating the metal, giving it its distinctive, bright white appearance.
White gold gives a clean, contemporary appearance that makes it a fantastic choice for an engagement ring.
As seen in this James Allen solitaire, the shine of white gold can perfectly finish a simple style engagement ring.
Pros of Using White Gold
- Clean, contemporary appearance
- Suitable for setting gemstones (at 14k and 18k)
- Excellent for a huge variety of colored stones
- Wide selection of styles available
Cons of Using White Gold
- Requires more maintenance. Over time white gold will need to be rhodium plated to bring back its bright white finish
- Its white appearance can make lower quality diamonds look more yellow (usually around an H and below)
Platinum is a highly durable metal with a lustrous, natural white finish. It is dense yet malleable and is perfect for making jewelry.
The purity of platinum used in jewelry is expressed out of 1000; 999, 950 (95% platinum and 5% alloys) and 900 (90% platinum and 10% alloys) and 850. Due to the purity, platinum is hypoallergenic.
Platinum is rarer than gold and around four times stronger. While gold will naturally thin and wear away over time, platinum does not. It will develop a unique and attractive patina but can also be polished to bring back its shine.
Pros of Using Platinum
- It is denser and better wearing than gold
- It does not require as much maintenance and will not thin or discolor over time
- Bright, appealing appearance
- Will hold gemstones securely
Cons of Using Platinum
- It is less mined than gold, making it much more expensive
- Its high melting point means repairs or alternations will be costly as the gemstones will often have to be removed and reset
- It only comes in one color
- It is much heavier than gold – while this is preferable in terms of durability, some people find the weight of a thick platinum ring too cumbersome on their hand
|14k White Gold||Rhodium plated thus appearing the same as 18k white gold||Good percentage of alloys creating a durable metal. Will still thin over time but will take much longer||Will need rhodium plating to maintain white, smooth appearance. I recommend every six months||Very well priced. Relatively easy to work with for repairs, however the cost of regular rhodium plating may also be a factor||Perfect way of keeping cost down while still being wearable and precious|
|14k Yellow Gold||Slightly duller, less bright appearance. Not as rich in color||Good percentage of alloys creating a durable metal. Will still thin over time but will take much longer||Fairly low maintenance. Will need annual polishing to remove scratches||Very well priced. Relatively easy to work with for repairs||Perfect way of keeping cost down while still being wearable and precious|
|18k White Gold||Rhodium plated to give a bright white appearance||Slightly softer. More vulnerable to thinning over time. Good for setting gemstones||Will need rhodium plating to maintain white, smooth appearance. I recommend every six months||Medium to high price range. Higher gold purity increases color and rarity, plus additional cost for rhodium plating||The best possible karat for jewelry in all categories. Contemporary finish|
|18k Yellow Gold||Distinctive, bright appearance. Deep, rich gold color||Slightly softer. More vulnerable to thinning over time. Good for setting gemstones||Fairly low maintenance. Will need annual polishing to remove scratches||Medium to high price range. Higher gold purity increases color and rarity||The best possible karat for jewelry in all categories. Flattering finish|
|18k Rose Gold||Rosy, champagne color with a bright finish||Slightly softer. More vulnerable to thinning over time. Good for setting gemstones||Fairly low maintenance. Will need annual polishing to remove scratches||Medium to high price range. Higher gold purity increases color and rarity||The best possible karat for jewelry in all categories. Romantic finish|
|Platinum||Lustrous, bright white finish||Dense and hardwearing. Perfect for long term wear and setting gemstones||Low maintenance. Some people prefer the natural patina that platinum develops over time. Bi-Annual polishing to bring back shine||High price. Rare and always of a high purity. Additional costs will occur for repairs and adjustments due to high melting point||The best overall metal for gemstone jewelry. Limiting on color but ultimately the best wearing|
|Silver||White, shiny appearance||Soft. Must be mixed with a huge percentage of other metals. Will tarnish and turn black over time and is not suitable for any gemstones||High maintenance. Does not retain natural color and can turn the skin black or green. Not suitable for every day wear||Cheap||Unsuitable for gemstone jewelry and every day wear|
In the battle of the metals, there are pros and cons in every corner. By ruling out unsuitable metals and fineness, you are left with a selection of stunning metals, each with unique properties and appearances that can all enhance your gemstone jewelry.
Where budget allows, my recommendation would always be to go for platinum if you desire a white finish, or 18k yellow or rose gold if you are looking for warmer tones. Many jewelers will also give you the option of having platinum claws on your gold jewelry, which will add additional security to the center stone.