What you see isn’t always what you get. Below you will find a quick and easy primer on how metals are sometimes dressed up to look like other metals, what different terms and markings tell you about the metals, and how to avoid being treated to a trick when buying jewelry.
What metal is it?
If you want to know what metal is used in a particular piece of jewelry, try the following tests. Don’t panic or break out the lab equipment, the only tool you might need is a magnifying glass.
Start by looking carefully at the item to see if you can find any marks. Marks are typically stamped into a piece on the back, or near a clasp, or in some other out of the way spot. They are an engraved word, initials, or number and can be either stamped or engraved on to the piece. You might need to use your glasses, or even a magnifier, as the mark can be smaller than a pea (and even as small as a grain of rice.)
Is it silver colored? (If not, skip this and move to the next section.)
All jewelry that is made out of sterling silver – metal that is at least 92.5% pure sterling – is legally required to carry a permanent mark identifying its content. The accepted marks for sterling are “sterling” or “.925” (or more rarely “925/1000”). Ideally, the maker will also mark it with their company or name as further security of its content. For example, my sterling pieces are hand engraved with “Carina R” and “.925.” So, if you find any of these marks, then you know that you are holding sterling silver and can stop here.
Another mark you may find on a silver colored piece is “.999” or “999/1000” meaning that the piece is made of essentially pure silver. Pure or “fine” silver is an element that is softer in its pure form than in its sterling alloy form and is therefore rarely used in jewelry. So, if you find this mark, know that you are holding a piece made out of precious metal silver but that you have to treat it with extra care.
If the gods are smiling down upon you, the item may have a mark that reads “950,” “Plat,” “Pt,” or “Platinum.” According to legal requirements, the piece is at least 95% pure platinum. In rare cases you will see “850 Plat” or “850 Pt” to show that the piece is 85% platinum.
If you haven’t found any of the marks above, you have a piece made out of “base” metal alloys (mixes of metals) like bronze, pewter, or brass. If it is “silver plated” and has a mark that says so (or more commonly “SP”), don’t get all excited. The amount of actual silver on the piece is negligible. A metals trader told me that you can silver plate an entire Navy battleship with a teaspoon of silver – a very graphic way to think about it! Silver plate does not have any significant metal value so enjoy the piece for what it is and forget about selling it to a pawn shop.
There are many other metals that one can plate (cover an object with in a thin surface layer) onto base metals that will make the final piece look like sterling silver. You may find that you have allergic reactions to some silver colored jewelry and not other items – all depending on what the surface metal is touching your skin.
Is it gold colored? Oooh, lets get excited now! Start by looking for any marks stamped or engraved into the piece. All jewelry made of gold is legally required to have a mark that specifies its karat content of gold. Pure gold pieces will be marked either “999” or “24K.” If it is 22K, meaning it is 22 parts pure gold and 2 parts some other metal alloyed in to the mix, it will be marked “22K” or “916” or “917.” If it is marked “18K” or “750” or “18KP,” then you have a piece that is made of 18K gold (18 parts pure gold plus 6 parts other metal.) The most common jewelry gold is 14K, which is marked “14K,” “585” or “14KP.” The lowest karat gold that you will likely see used in jewelry is only 10 parts gold plus 14 parts other metal and is marked “10K,” “417” or “10KP.” Find any of these markings and you are golden!
Remember that gold can come in different colors. While 24K gold is always going to look like the yellow metal color that you see in the Crayola crayon box, all other karat levels of gold can come in a range of colors. Depending on what metal is used in the parts of the mix that are not gold, you can find rose gold, green gold, white gold, pink gold, and even tri-color gold (spectrum of these colors).
No luck yet? Let’s see if you are holding a piece of “gold vermeil” (pronounced “ver may”.) Marked with a “GV,” this is a nifty combination of precious metals where you get the look and feel of gold without the price tag of gold. Gold vermeil is legally defined as a piece that is made of sterling silver and coated on the surface with gold of at least 10K fineness in a layer that is at least 2.5 microns thick. Sometimes the mark will specify the karat level of gold used in the plating, but if the mark includes “GV” know that they are taking about just the surface content.
Gold vermeil can also come in all of these colors depending on what type of 10K gold is used to plate the sterling. This combination of metals has been around since 1750 and used to involve a lot of mercury (and jewelers going blind) but is now most commonly achieved with electroplating.
Gold vermeil will last for many years without tarnishing and without the gold plate wearing away. Avoid wearing gold vermeil jewelry in the bath, shower or swimming. Most importantly, do not have gold vermeil jewelry machine polished (typically performed by a jeweler), as this can quickly wear away the gold layer.
Another gold looking but not all gold metal is called “gold filled” and marked “GF.” Unlike what you would expect, this jewelry is not filled with gold (so stop seeing dollar signs!) Gold fill jewelry is mainly brass with thin layers of (at least 10K) gold bonded (by heat and pressure) to the outside. While this layer of gold is typically thicker than that used in gold vermeil, you are still not looking at a lot of actual gold. The United States requires that gold filled jewelry have at least 1/20th of its weight in gold. Some jewelers who use higher ratios will stamp the piece with that information.
If your piece is marked with either “gold plated” or “GP,” then it has a microscopically thick layer of gold that was coated on top of the other (unknown) metal. This thin layer is not 14K and will typically wear off within a short time with normal wear and use. There is no standard for the thickness of the coating, or the process to adhere it to the piece. Again, you could probably gold plate an entire battleship with a teaspoon of gold.
If you haven’t found any of these marks, then you have a nice piece of costume jewelry with no metal value. Wear it while it is in fashion and send it off to Goodwill when it is past.