Gold & Silver Jewelry

Gold and silver jewelry have a vocabulary all their own. Some terms, like “solid gold” or “gold-plated,” might not mean what you think. Understanding the terms used to describe gold and silvery jewelry can help you avoid paying too much.

Gold Jewelry


When you buy gold jewelry, look for the karat quality mark. The karat mark should tell you how much pure gold is in the piece.

Pure gold – 24 karat (24K) gold – is soft, so it’s often mixed with other metals to increase its hardness and durability. The total of pure gold and other metal adds up to 24, so:

  • 18K gold is 18 parts gold mixed throughout with 6 parts other metal
  • 14K gold is 14 parts gold mixed throughout with 10 parts other metal

Near the karat quality mark, you should see the name or the U.S. registered trademark of the company that will stand behind the mark. The trademark may be in the form of a name, a symbol, or initials. If you’re considering a piece of gold jewelry but don’t see a trademark along with the karat mark, don’t buy it.

Solid Gold

“Solid gold” refers to any gold item where the inside of the item is not hollow. The karat mark still will denote the proportion of gold to other metal.

Gold Plated

Jewelry can be plated with gold by mechanical plating, electroplating, and other processes. Eventually, gold plating wears away. How soon depends on how often the item is worn and how thick the plating is.

  • ”Gold filled,” “gold overlay,” and “rolled gold plate (RGP)” describe jewelry that has a layer of at least 10 karat gold mechanically applied to a base metal. These items should be marked with the term or abbreviation and the karat quality of the gold used (for example, 14K gold overlay or 12K RGP).
  • If the layer of gold is less than 1/20 of the weight of the metal in the entire item, any marking should state the fraction of karat gold (for example, 1/40 14K gold overlay).
  • “Gold electroplate” describes jewelry that has a layer (at least .175 microns) of at least 10 karat gold applied on a base metal by an electrolytic process.

Vermeil, a special type of gold plated product, consists of a base of sterling silver that is coated or plated with gold.

Gold Flashed or Gold Washed

The terms “gold flashed” and “gold washed” describe products that have an extremely thin electroplating of gold (less than .175 microns). This will wear away faster than gold plate, gold filled, or gold electroplate.

Silver and Pewter Jewelry

The words ”silver” and ”sterling silver” describe a product that contains 92.5% pure silver. Silver products sometimes may be marked 925, which means that 925 parts per thousand are pure silver.

Some jewelry described as ”silver plate” has a layer of silver applied to a base metal.

”Coin silver” is used for compounds that contain 90% pure silver.

According to the law, quality-marked silver also must bear the name or a U.S. registered trademark of the company or person that will stand behind the mark.


Items must contain at least 90% tin to be described and marked as pewter.

This article is part of a series: Buying Jewelry
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