February 14, 2022
If you are confused about the difference between gold fill, gold vermeil, and gold plate you are not alone. It is one of the most common questions I get from customers. And while I had a pretty good understanding of the subject, I realized that I could use a little more detailed information too. So I’ve done a deep dive on the topic, and am going to summarize what I learned for you here.
What they share is that all three of these categories have some amount of gold on the surface of a piece to create the look of solid gold, at a more affordable price.
When you get something that is gold vermeil, the piece is created in its entirety in sterling silver, either by fabricating it by hand or casting it from a mold, and is then electro-plated at the very end with a fine coating of gold. You often see 18k gold used to create vermeil, which makes it sound very fancy, and like you are getting a high quantity of gold, but if you look at the diagram you will see how thin that layer of gold really is. So it’s great that the middle of the piece is sterling silver, which is also a nice, non allergenic (to most) metal. But because the layer of gold is so thin it is likely to begin wearing away soon after purchase.
Gold plated jewelry is a low-end metal electroplated with a thin layer of gold. It is done much in the way of gold vermeil, but instead of having silver inside, it has something cheaper, like copper or nickel underneath the thin layer of gold. This is the lowest quality, and usually the least expensive of the three options, and when the gold starts to wear off, which can happen quite quickly, what is exposed underneath can often cause skin irritation, like turning your skin green or causing an allergic reaction.
Gold fill is the highest quality of the non-solid options, having a higher percentage of gold per piece than the other options. By law, gold fill is required to be at least 5% gold by weight, hence the layer of gold is much thicker than in a gold plated or gold vermeil piece, sometimes as much as 100% thicker! So you are getting a better quality product for your money.
At the outset it is difficult to impossible to tell the difference between a gold fill piece and a 14k piece. In fact, when I am building inventory for a show I need to be very careful not to mix up the 14k pieces with the gold fill pieces, otherwise I won’t know which is which, and how to price them correctly.
Two of those rings are 14k and silver, and one is gold fill and silver. Can you tell which is which? No, right? Now scroll over the photo to find out. . .
The bottom two are 14k, and the top one is gold fill
Better durability and longer lifespan:
This thicker layer of gold, combined with the superior way it is fused to the brass underneath, yields a durability and lifespan of 10-30 years of daily wear. Rings tend to get the most wear and tear, because of all we do with our hands every day, pushing them closer to the 10 year side of that scale, whereas earrings get almost none, pushing them more towards the 30 year end of the scale. The thicker layer of gold also protects the wearer from eventual skin irritation when the base metal on a gold plate piece is inevitably exposed due to wear and tear.
This image shows the gold ﬁll Ovum Ring that is maybe the ﬁrst of that design that I even made, and has had regular to constant wear for nearly 15 years. You can see that the gold is starting to look a little scratched up if you look closely, but it still looks pretty good, and deﬁnitely doesn’t turn my ﬁnger green or anything.
Better artisanal workability:
Because of the way gold ﬁll is made, it allows me to work with it in the same way I do sterling silver and solid 14k. With gold ﬁll, the heavy layer of gold is melted onto the brass by a mechanical process that creates a better bond between the gold and the brass underneath. And this is done at the beginning, when the wire and other jewelry making materials are originally fabricated.
This allows me to be able to cut various thicknesses of gold fill wire into segments, apply heat to solder the ends together with gold solder to create links and shapes, hammer it, then give it a gentle polish to create a high shine without wearing off the layer of gold in the process. I like being able to make everything here myself, without depending on the unhealthy and sometimes unethical practice of plating, which is almost always contracted out off-site.
I mean, if we could all afford solid 14 gold whenever we wanted a new piece of jewelry, I would always use that. And for something that a customer wants to keep forever, like a wedding ring, or something to possibly pass down to future generations, I do recommend going with solid 14k.
But here in the real world, sometimes you just want something new to wear, that is of good quality, won’t turn your skin green, but also won’t break the bank. And I think in those situations, gold fill is perfect.