Today I will cover the gold-colored metals, specifically karat gold, gold filled, and gold plated.
Karat gold is what most people would consider "real" or "solid" gold in the jewelry business. The term karat refers to the amount of gold that is actually present. Higher numbers mean, of course, higher gold content. Here is a chart that gives karat and how much pure gold is contained in the item.
24 karat is 100% pure gold. This would be found in bullion bars and coins, only rarely in jewelry. The higher the gold content, the softer the metal, so pure gold in jewelry would not be very durable.
18 karat is 75% gold and 25% other metals. This is usually the highest gold content found in jewelry.
14 karat is 58.5% gold and 41.5% other metals, also used in jewelry.
10 karat is 41.7% gold and 58.3% other metals, and is usually the lowest karat used in jewelry.
A piece of jewelry made with karat gold will be stamped with the gold amount, usually as 18k, 14k, and 10k.
Of course, karat gold jewelry is usually expensive and has become more so over the past couple of years.
A less expensive form of gold is often used by jewelers, and by us handmade jewelry makers, to help keep the cost of jewelry down to an affordable price range, yet still be durable. That form is called gold filled.
Gold filled components must contain gold that is at least 1/20 the weight of the component. The gold is mechanically heated and bonded to base metal such as brass and is much more durable and long-lasting than gold plated. Like karat gold, gold filled metal will not tarnish. The life span of a jewelry piece made with gold filled metal can be anywhere from 5 to 30 years, depending on how long and how often it is worn and the care given to it. I personally have several pieces of jewelry, including a charm bracelet, made with gold filled metal that are over 40 years old and still as beautiful as the day I received them.
Another economical replacement for karat gold is vermeil (pronounced "vermay"). which is formed by taking sterling silver and coating it with gold that is at least 10 karat and 2.5 microns thick.
Vermeil is very useful for persons with metal allergies, since its base is sterling silver and does not contain nickel, brass, copper, or other metals which commonly cause allergic reactions.
Finally, most costume and/or everyday jewelry items contain gold plated metal. Gold plated means that a microscopic film of gold is adhered to base metal, usually using an electroplating, or dipping, method. Gold plated metal will eventually chip and wear off, and purchasers should be aware that the metal in their jewelry pieces will not last forever.
Cleaning gold jewelry is best accomplished by washing or rinsing your pieces in warm, sudsy water and drying with a soft, lint-free cloth. Karat gold, gold filled, and vermeil will not tarnish, so dipping in a commercial jewelry cleaner is not needed. With plated metal you need to take care not to expose your jewelry to chemicals, bumps, and scratches, as this will cause the plating to wear off more quickly. Just use the sudsy water and soft cloth method to clean your gold plated pieces.
Regardless of what kind of metal is used in your jewelry, the care that you give your pieces will extend their lifetime. Exposure to chemicals, including chlorine in swimming pools, should be avoided, and wearing jewelry while performing manual labor or exercising is not a good idea. So take care of your jewelry, no matter how expensive it is, and it will give you many years of wearing enjoyment.