Jewelry today comes in an astonishing amount of different materials, and if you’re collecting, one way to narrow that collection down is to focus on pieces made from a particular metal or stone, etc. And even if you’re not a collector, it’s good to know what to look for when you’re out shopping. If you’re shopping for vintage gold charms at a flea market, auction, estate sale or antique show, you’ll be more likely to go home with a real find if you know the telltale signs of a true gem.
Today, we’ll delve deeper into the world of gold. It is the oldest precious metal we know of, and was probably the first metal humans ever used. Experts say that it was discovered thousands of years ago, and it is even mentioned in the Bible. Why would a pre-historic men and women pay any attention to gold in the first place? Well, it glitters and catches your attention, and people were as drawn to “pretty things” back then as we are now. It is also a very malleable metal, so even without today’s sophisticated tools, people were able to form it into ornaments and other shapes.
Gold jewelry is certainly nothing new either: at the Varna Necropolis in Bulgaria, excavators found over 3,000 pieces, dating from 4600 – 4200 BC. And in Peru, a gold necklace estimated to be almost 4,000 years old was discovered at a burial site close to Lake Titicaca.
But, as Shakespeare said, all that glitters (glisters) is not gold. At least not pure gold. The only pure gold is 24 karat, and it’s an orangey yellow. Anything below 24, and in any other color, is a mix of gold and other metals. The color of the final product depends on what other metal(s) it is mixed with – if you add copper, you get red or rose gold, and if you add silver, zinc, or other white metals, you get a paler gold.
For example, a 22 karat piece has 91.6% gold and 8.4% other metals. 18 karat contains 75% gold and 25% other metals, and so forth. But this “dilution” of pure gold is not all bad – when you add another metal to gold (“alloying”), it helps make the piece stronger and harder. 24k gold is much softer than 18k.
Pure gold is 24 karats, and have a bright orange-yellow color which can be polished to a mirror-like shine. Highly valued all over the world and used as a trading commodity, it is so soft and pliable that it is usually not used for jewelry in its pure form (you can find 24k pieces, just know that because of their softness, they’re more likely to get damaged). Most often, the gold is mixed with another metal (copper and/or silver), creating 22, 18, 14, 10 etc. karats. The jewelry will still be yellow, and sturdier.
White gold can be any karat (not 24, but 21, 18, 14, 9, etc.) and is a blend of gold and other white metals, like silver, nickel or palladium. It became popular in the 1920s as a more affordable alternative to platinum, which was very fashionable at the time.
In the US, nickel is the most common white gold alloy, but for those who suffer from nickel allergies (dermatitis is a common reaction) it is good to know that it is no longer allowed in jewelry in the EU, where the more expensive palladium is used instead. You can find white gold without nickel in the US as well, you just have to know to ask for it. Remember though, that if you buy vintage white gold pieces, they will most likely contain nickel, regardless of origin.
Most white gold today is coated with rhodium, a member of the platinum family, which makes the gold look even whiter and gives it a mirror-like shine. It also provides a bit of protection from any eventual nickel, but does tend to wear off after a few years.
Rose, Red and Pink Gold
Rose gold was “invented” in England the 1500s and used for coins, but the first “famous” pink gold jewelry piece was Cartier’s Trinity ring, which was introduced in the 1920s. Reddish shades of gold are created by mixing pure gold with copper (which is red) and silver. 22k rose gold usually consists of 91.6% gold and 8.4% copper. A 14k red gold piece has 58.5% gold, 32.5% copper and 9.0% silver.
Green gold, which is really more of a yellow gold with a green tint to it, is created by mixing pure gold and silver (18k green gold contains 75% gold and 25% silver). There is actually a naturally occurring silver/gold alloy called Electrum, which was used for coins and jewelry as far back as the Bronze Age, but it is not used for jewelry today.
Purple & Blue Gold
Purple gold (a.k.a. amethyst or violet gold) is an intermetallic compound of gold and aluminum. The blend creates 18k pieces in a nice purple color, but unfortunately it tends to be too brittle to use for jewelry and is more often used as an accent. There are other ways to create purple gold that is less fragile, but you lose some of the purple color in the process. Blue gold is also an intermetallic compound of gold and indium and shares many of the other characteristics of purple gold.
Black gold can be created several different ways, which produce final pieces that range in color from brown and grey to jet black.
Whew, that was a lot of information! So what should you look for when buying a gold charm? You want to find the stamp or marking, which tells you the quality of the gold. This will, by law, be on all gold jewelry sold in the US, regardless of color (remember, all colored gold contains a certain percentage of yellow gold).
In the US, you will most often find the karat (or carat) number, stamped as 14k (or ct), 18k, etc. 10k is the lowest karat allowed to be sold as gold in the US, but in other countries you can find 9k (minimum in the UK) and 8k (minimum in Germany). Note that older gold jewelry in the US can be 9k, but it won’t have a stamp.
In Europe, the stamp tells you the percentage of gold. .916 means 91.6% gold (i.e. 22k), .750 is 75% (i.e. 18k), .585 is 58.5% (14k), .417 is 41.7% (10k), .375 is 37.5% (9k) and .333 is 33.3% (8k).
In Portugal, the standard is 800 – 80% gold (19.2k), and in the Middle East, it’s 875 (87.5% gold, 21k).
Occasionally, you can find other numbers as well, such as 625, which is 62.5% gold (15k). This karat was discontinued around 1935, so if you see that, you’ll know it’s an older piece.
If you see any of the following abbreviations, the piece is not solid gold:
GF (gold filled), GP or RGP (gold plated), GEP (gold electroplated), HGE, EG, HG (heavy gold electroplated)
And if you see any of the following numbers: .800, .835, .900 or .925, you’re looking at a piece of silver (read more on that in my silver charm bracelet post)
I hope this information is helpful when you head out on your hunt for gold charms. Happy shopping!
All photos © Cattie Coyle Photography