What is solid gold?
Solid gold is a term used for various designations of karat gold. The purest form of gold is 24 karat, meaning 24 out of 24 parts, or 99.999%, is gold.
All other karats of gold are technically gold alloys, meaning it's a mixture of gold and other metals. For example, 14k gold is 14 parts pure (99.999%) gold and 10 parts other metals, like silver, copper, nickel, etc.
24k is very expensive and very soft, so other metals are added to make the gold more affordable and durable. 14k and 18k are most commonly used in jewelry production for those reasons.
The exact formulation varies depending on the desired karat and color (yellow, rose, white).
What is gold vermeil?
Gold vermeil, pronounced ver-may, refers to sterling silver (92.5%) or fine silver (99.9%) electroplated with karat gold.
The U.S. industry guidelines require that (1) the base metal is silver, (2) at least 10k gold is used for plating, and (3) the plating thickness be at least 2.5 microns.
Some gold vermeil jewelry has a "STER", ".925" or ".999" mark to denote the base metal is silver.
What is gold filled?
Gold filled is created by mechanically bonding karat gold and a base metal.
The name can be confusing. Is something being filled with gold? See the cross-section to your left. Karat gold is the exterior and it's filled with another metal, typically brass.
To qualify as gold filled, at least 5% gold by weight must be present. Gold filled metals are often stamped with a "1/20 14k" mark indicating that 5 percent is 14k gold.
Is solid gold, gold vermeil or gold filled better?
The answer to this is personal and financial preference. Nothing is inherently wrong with any of the options. Just like anything, there are pros and cons.
From a price perspective:
Solid gold is the most expensive, followed by gold vermeil and then gold filled.
Technically gold filled jewelry has a thicker layer of gold on the outside than gold vermeil, but gold vermeil is made with silver at its core, whereas gold filled has brass. Silver is considered more valuable than brass.
From a durability perspective:
Solid gold is the most durable, followed by gold filled and then gold vermeil.
While all three will endure scratches from normal wear and tear, solid gold can be polished over and over again to look like new. Gold filled can also tolerate polishing, but not indefinitely because you'll eventually polish away the gold layer and expose brass. Gold vermeil has the thinnest layer of gold, so you must be extra careful when polishing.
From a reusability perspective:
Solid gold is the only one that has a lifetime value.
There's a reason why "cash for gold" is a thing. Gold can be recycled by melting jewelry, extracting, and refining the pure (99.999%) gold. Pure gold can be reused to make new karat gold.
Because solid gold is valuable and durable, it's typically passed down as an heirloom. A lot of my customers reach out to redesign inherited gold jewelry. I refine the gold for credit towards their custom project and reuse diamonds or gemstones that were previously set in a piece. Sometimes they already own a pendant but would like a new chain or vice versa; they have a chain and would like to add a pendant.
Would you put the same level of time and effort into reusing gold vermeil or gold filled jewelry? Likely not because demi-fine jewelry doesn't carry the same inherent value.
The best thing you can do is care for the jewelry you already own, no matter the quality. Carefully clean it with dish soap and warm water every 3-4 months. You can use this method to remove tarnish from sterling silver.
Proper storage also goes a long way! Jewelry that's rattling around in a box can become tangled and unnecessarily scratched.
If you're looking for a new addition to your collection, consider what you like to wear every day. Build a small core collection of solid gold jewelry over time-- you won't regret it.