Gold Karats

Gold purity is broken up into karats, or carats outside North America. Solid gold is 24 karats and is usually mixed with alloys (other metals) for varieties in color, strength and cost. For jewelry it's combined with silver and copper, nickel has mostly been phased out because of it's toxicity. One karat (often stamped "K" or "KT") stands for 1/24th gold, so one can figure out the percentage of gold in a piece by dividing the karat by 24.

Different manufacturers use slightly different alloy mixtures, leading to tiny variations in the colors of the final product. While the amount of gold in the mixture is strictly regulated and the colors (yellow, rose, green, white) are relatively standardized, one might find a 14k yellow gold ring looks more silver-toned than another. The only difference in quality between the two rings would be if one had a higher quality alloy mixed in, like platinum or palladium.

The percentage of gold in the various karats:

24 karat = 99.99% gold or Pure gold
22 karat = 91.7 % gold
18 karat = 75.0 % gold
14 karat = 58.3 % gold
12 karat = 50.0 % gold
10 karat = 41.7 % gold

24K:

Pure gold, solid gold, Au on the Periodic Table of Elements. Known to be 99.99% pure. Since it's such a soft (malleable) material it is only used in jewelry applications in electroplating onto other metals. Being a noble metal it is extremely non-reactive and therefore does not tarnish. The largest quantities of pure gold are in coins and bars but is also used in electronic and medical devices because of it's unparalleled thermal and electrical conductivity rate. Its softness makes it extremely ductile and able to be hammered so thin it's almost transparent.

Pure gold is always the same color as there are no alloys. There is only 24K yellow gold, no rose, white, etc. It's deep, vibrant yellow sheen lasts indefinitely because of it's reflectivity properties.

Gold is a rare mineral, hence it's high value. It estimated that the total amount ever mined is only 125,000 tons.

 

3 pieces of native, pure, gold. The top piece is from the Washington mining district, California, and the bottom two are from Victoria, Australia. The bottom 2 pieces illustrate octahedral formations. The photos were taken at the Natural History Museum in London.

3 pieces of native, pure, gold. The top piece is from the Washington mining district, California, and the bottom two are from Victoria, Australia. The bottom 2 pieces illustrate octahedral formations. The photos were taken at the Natural History Museum in London.

22K:

22 parts gold mixed with 2 parts of alloy metals. It is the highest karat used to make jewelry and therefore the most expensive. It maintains the color and anti-corrosion properties of pure gold. The 8.33 percent of alloy metals mixed into the gold adds durability, but is still quite soft and therefore not the best choice for using with diamonds or heavily studded jewelry. It has a long history in Asia and the Middle East where jewelry is also used as in investment. India in particular has a long history of intricate gold work in 22K.

    Source: The Met.   Date:1650–1700, North India.  Medium: Rock crystal, inlaid with gold wire, rubies, and emeralds, with gold collar, stopper, and foot.   

 

Source: The Met.

Date:1650–1700, North India.

Medium: Rock crystal, inlaid with gold wire, rubies, and emeralds, with gold collar, stopper, and foot.

 

18K:

18 parts gold mixed with 6 parts of alloy metals. The percentage of alloys in 18K make it strong enough to use with diamonds and studded jewelry. Although it is a duller yellow than 22 and 24K, it is still a very vibrant yellow, making it a great balance between strength, color and resistance to tarnish. Though the highest karat version of rose gold, also known as crown gold, is 22 karat,18 karat is generally the highest karat you see rose, white, and green golds since it has enough alloy metals to see the colors.

Used world wide, especially in Asia, it is a great choice for engagement and wedding bands as it has a high gold content combined with the strength of 25% alloy metals. This makes it physically harder for jewelers to work with than higher karats, but still ductile enough to manipulate.

Antique Cartier18K Yellow Gold Victorian Signet Ring.  Source.

Antique Cartier18K Yellow Gold Victorian Signet Ring. Source.

14K:

14 parts gold mixed with 10 parts of alloy metals. The increase in alloys makes it stronger than 18K, a lighter yellow, and a stronger rose, green and white color. 14K is where tarnishing starts to happen so pieces should be wrapped or in a air-tight bag when not in use. Popular in the UK and and the US and it is more affordable than 18K and higher.

Antique 14K yellow gold and enamel pocket watch.  Source.

Antique 14K yellow gold and enamel pocket watch. Source.

10K:

10 parts gold mixed with 14 parts of alloy metals. Since this karat is more alloy than gold it is extremely hard, and tarnishes the most (not including 9K). It is the minimum standard to be called gold in the US. This is a good option for those with industrious jobs working with their hands. Commonly used in the UK and the US. It's is more of a challenge for a jeweler to work with not only because of it's physical strength and increased tarnishing, but when heating the high amounts of alloy metals rise to the surface and change the color of the piece. Jewelers have to take this into consideration as lots of metalsmithing techniques involve heat.

Antique 10K gold cuff links.  Source.

Antique 10K gold cuff links. Source.

9K:

9 parts gold mixed with 15 parts of alloy metals. Countries outside the US will sometimes call this gold, but it is not commonly used. While uncommonly worked with today, it is popular in Ireland. It's pale yellow gives it a different look and is even stronger than 10K. It is used in the dental field.

 

Antique Victorian 9k gold engraved tapestry pattern cigar band.  Source.

Antique Victorian 9k gold engraved tapestry pattern cigar band. Source.

Mixing Metals:

  Ryuhei Sako Mokume-gane tea caddies.  http://www.sakoryuhei.com/    Mokume-gane  is a japanese technique using a variety of metals to create what is called a wood-grain effect.

  Ryuhei Sako Mokume-gane tea caddies. http://www.sakoryuhei.com/

Mokume-gane is a japanese technique using a variety of metals to create what is called a wood-grain effect.

Hallmarks:

Usually just the mark of fineness of precious metals. Most countries require that the type of metal of a piece be stamped with it's corresponding symbol that varies from country to country. A handful of countries require the hallmark to included the maker's mark of the company where the piece was made in addition to the stamp denoting the type of metal. Also, some countries will have their own stamp to be used with the maker's mark and quality stamps.

Not only do hallmarks vary from country to country, but from the time of purchase, a helpful clue when trying to identify the date of an antique piece of jewelry.

While there are regulations in most countries about hallmarking jewelry, some antique and handmade pieces are occasionally without. While one should always be cautious when buying jewelry, this does not necessarily mean that a piece is not what it is being sold as, just that you should inquire about the specifics and possibly do an assay. Additionally, small jewelry is often unable to be stamped. A piece needs a solid area of 1.25mm by 2.25mm or more to fit just the metal fineness stamp, so a delicate ring or earring stud just can't fit it, unfortunately.

Basic modern markings for gold karats. Lots of countries have symbols instead of numbers to stamp the gold quality.

Basic modern markings for gold karats. Lots of countries have symbols instead of numbers to stamp the gold quality.

 Maker's mark and gold quality stamps on a hairpin.  Source.

 Maker's mark and gold quality stamps on a hairpin. Source.

Precious Metals

An assortment of precious metals.

An assortment of precious metals.

A precious metal is a rare, naturally occurring metal of a higher economic value than industrial metals. They also have properties that make them very useful in jewelry-making: they are not as reactive which makes them resistant to the elements durable, they are malleable - making it easier to form into any shape without getting brittle, and have a high luster - which equals beautiful reflections of light (SHINY!). Here’s a selection of various precious metals in their raw state:

Gold:

A rare mix of Gold, Sylvanite and Quartz from the famous Gold Hill District in Colorado.

A rare mix of Gold, Sylvanite and Quartz from the famous Gold Hill District in Colorado.

Gold from the Yuba River Placers area, Nevada County, California. Since it was unlikely to have been formed as a cast over another octahedral mineral, this specimen is believed to represent a rare phase and form in gold: octahedral hopper crystal growth.

Gold from the Yuba River Placers area, Nevada County, California. Since it was unlikely to have been formed as a cast over another octahedral mineral, this specimen is believed to represent a rare phase and form in gold: octahedral hopper crystal growth.

Copper:

Interconnected copper crystals from Bisbee, Warren District, Mule Mts, Cochise County, Arizona, USA

Interconnected copper crystals from Bisbee, Warren District, Mule Mts, Cochise County, Arizona, USA

Copper and Silver from the Adventure mine, Greenland, Ontonagon County, Michigan, USA. This specimen is not called a "half-breed" because the copper and silver are not densely intermixed, but intergrown. Beautiful contrast of the iridescent copper and shiny silver which has formed crude crystals instead of the usual "lump" upon copper most half-breeds come as.

Copper and Silver from the Adventure mine, Greenland, Ontonagon County, Michigan, USA. This specimen is not called a "half-breed" because the copper and silver are not densely intermixed, but intergrown. Beautiful contrast of the iridescent copper and shiny silver which has formed crude crystals instead of the usual "lump" upon copper most half-breeds come as.

SILVER:

A rarely seen combination of native silver with  dioptase  (a copper cyclosilicate mineral) from Mindouli, Mindouli District, Pool Department, Republic of Congo (Brazzaville)

A rarely seen combination of native silver with dioptase (a copper cyclosilicate mineral) from Mindouli, Mindouli District, Pool Department, Republic of Congo (Brazzaville)

photo © by Heinrich Pniok  (www.pse-mendelejew.de)     license: CC-BY-NC-ND   A pure (>99.95%), Silver Crystal.

photo © by Heinrich Pniok (www.pse-mendelejew.de)

license: CC-BY-NC-ND

A pure (>99.95%), Silver Crystal.

The demand for precious metals is driven not just from being great to work with, but also by it's role as investments and a store of value. Gold and silver in particular are seen as hedges against inflation and economic downturn.

A metal gets the "precious" title if it is rare - discoveries of new ore sources or improvements in mining or refining processes may cause the value of a precious metal to diminish. For example, aluminum was very expensive to mine at first and only small quantities were available, making it more valuable than gold. The dawn of accessible electricity in 1882 and the invention of the Hall–Héroult process in 1886 caused the price of aluminum to drop significantly over a short period of time.

While precious metals make for great jewelry-making, using alternative materials can be quite interesting as well. Which leads to thoughts on what makes a piece of jewelry "precious"? Is it the cost of the chosen materials to make, the execution of the artists vision, or both, that makes a piece worthy to pass on as an investment to future generations?