Help! I’m so confused when it comes to shopping for jewelry. I just don’t know what all those terms mean!
Have no fear- Super Jeweler is here! Alright, not really, but I’m a metalsmith-jeweler and I can help explain all the little symbols and arcane terminology you might find when looking for jewelry. I’ve answered all of the common questions I have heard below, but if you have any other questions, I will be happy to answer them! Just leave a comment at the end of the article!
What is Silver?
Silver is an elemental precious metal that is found all over the world. It is prized for it’s beauty, luster, and value. It has been used as currency, and manipulated into status symbols, jewelry, armor adornments, and household objects for centuries. In modern times, silver is the most affordable of the precious metals, and is widely available in the jewelry industry.
I see lots of different people calling their jewelry silver- but they have all kinds of different prices! Why is that?
There are many different kinds of applications of silver and alloys that you might find being turned into jewelry. The most common types are: Silver Tone, Silver Plate, Sterling Silver, Fine Silver, Argentium Silver, and Palladium Silver.
Silver Tone is by far the cheapest because it contains no actual silver. That’s right. It’s just tin or some other nondescript base metal that looks like silver. No precious metals are involved whatsoever, and this material is generally only found in cheap imported jewelry, or sometimes on beaded art work. The artist will always know what they’re using, so if in doubt, make sure you ask!
Silver plate, or SP, is the next cheapest, but this time the inexpensive base metal is thinly plated, or coated with real silver. This type of jewelry is also extremely common, but unfortunately is also prone to being misrepresented as sterling silver. Silver plate will flake, chip and is likely to discolor you over time, but it is a popular and economical alternative to solid precious metals.
Fine silver is as close as we can come to 100% pure silver. There are always trace amounts of something mixed in, no matter how hard we try to keep them out, so technically, it is 99.9% silver, but for practical purposes, it is called pure silver. You will find fine silver jewelry is very “soft” compared to other types of jewelry, and is whiter than any alloyed jewelry you might come across.
Speaking of alloys, or mixes of metals, we come now to Sterling Silver. In the USA, this metal alloy is legally required to have 925 parts per 1000 of pure silver, with the remaining balance of metal generally comprised of copper. The addition of copper makes it more stronger and more durable than fine, or pure silver. It is highly common in the jewelry industry, and is much admired for it’s strength and beauty, however, it is extremely prone to tarnishing.
In the last several years, new alloys have been brought to the metals market. The most popular of the new alloys is called Argentium Silver. It is available in two different alloy ratios, 970 parts silver per thousand, and 925 parts silver per thousand, with the balance of the metals being comprised of germanium. You will note that the ratios of silver is actually higher than sterling, and so this alloy also costs more than sterling. However, it enjoys some of the same structural strengths that traditional sterling has, as well as a greatly increased tarnish resistance. There is still a bit of debate on how to mark Argentium Silver, but the inventors of the alloy have chosen a Flying Unicorn as their symbol.
Another alloy that has been introduced is Palladium Silver. This alloy is actually 925 parts silver, 30 parts Palladium, and a secret balance of metals. Palladium is a member of the Platinum family, durable, strong, and does not tarnish. It is highly expensive in comparison to Argentium and Sterling Silver, but has the added allure of being an affordable platinum family alloy, as well as featuring the gorgeous pure white that is so desirable in platinum.
The last silver that you may come across in art jewelry is reticulating silver. This particular material is designed to take advantage of a certain form of metal manipulation that requires the material to have more copper than traditional sterling silver. So this material is also known as 80/20 silver, and has approximately 80% silver, and 20% copper. It is possible to accomplish this process with traditional sterling silver, so you may also find reticulated silver labeled “sterling”, but you are more likely to find it labeled 80/20. If you have questions about reticulated silver, you can find more in my articlehere.
What about Sterling Silver Plate?
If you find jewelry labeled sterling silver plate, it is legally invalid. A retailer may ONLY call something sterling if it is a solid ratio of 925 parts of silver per 1000. It does not count if the interior of the jewelry is base metal. It is still silver plate. Nothing more- and don’t let anyone try to sell you something different.
What about Rhodium Silver? Is that an alloy too?
Rhodium silver is actually Rhodium plated sterling silver. Rhodium is another precious metal, but unlike silver it doesn’t tarnish. It is has a wonderful shine and luster, and when plated over silver, continues to give that wonderful shine for a very very long time. It is, you will note, still plated. However, this is a much thicker layer than silver plate, which is designed to be a cheap alternative to a solid precious metal, and so the rhodium is more resistant to flaking and chipping. Please note that Rhodium is more expensive than silver, and adding this plating will actually increase the cost of the sterling silver as well as increasing it’s tarnish resistance.
Alright, So how on earth can I tell the difference between all this stuff?
Well, first you can ask the artist. They will always know. If the artist isn’t around, or you’re looking at jewelry online, the piece should be clearly labeled. If it isn’t clearly labeled, you can look on the piece itself, either with pictures or in person. Silver tone will not be marked, unless it is with the country they were massed produced in, such as China or Taiwan. Silver plate is generally marked, SP or not at all. Sterling silver will be labeled 925, ST, or sterling. Fine silver will be labeled PURE, FINE, or 999. Argentium silver is very new on the market, and the method of marking hasn’t quite consolidated yet, so you may see 970, 925, a small flying unicorn, or no markings at all. To my knowledge, there currently are no markings for Palladium silver.
Wait a minute- you just said that silver tone, silver plate and argentium silver may not be marked! So what am I supposed to do???
If you’re having doubts about the piece, look very closely at it. Silver plate will show up in the corners and crevices of the piece. If a piece looks like it has wrinkles in the corners, it’s generally plated. Silver tone will look like it’s painted in places. It won’t be quite as shiny, but is most often a matte finish. Argentium Silver will also be heavier than the base metals in a plated or silver tone piece of jewelry. If you still have doubts- I recommend skipping the piece and purchasing something from an artist that has a more clearly labeled selection of artwork.
What is gold?
Gold is one of the most valuable precious elemental metals on our planet. It has been used for centuries as currency, status symbols, and the basis of national economies. Naturally tarnish proof in it’s pure state, gold has several methods of being measured and quantified in jewelry.
I have this bracelet marked 14K- is it solid gold?
It is a solid gold alloy. Gold is incredibly expensive, and many generations of metalsmiths have found ways to incorporate less expensive metals into gold to help reduce costs. They call this “karating”, which is why we say something is 14 karat gold. 14 Karat is actually 583 parts per thousand gold, and due to being nearly 50% other metals, lacks the brilliant golden color that pure gold and higher alloys have. Please note- 14K is not considered legally gold in some countries, such as India.
What’s this little mark that says GP?
GP is the marking for Gold plate. Commercially available gold plate jewelry has a microscopic film of gold over base metal, and has marked tendency to wear away very quickly, or to chip and flake at the drop of a hat. It is possible to have high quality gold plate piece of jewelry, but that type of jewelry will generally be heavily gold plated.
So how much gold do I actually have in my karat jewelry?
In the USA, the lowest karat allowed to still be marked as gold is 10K. It contains approximately 416 parts per thousand gold. You will note this is less than 50% gold, and even though legally permissable, some artists will refuse to mark this alloy as gold. 14K contains 583 parts per thousand. 18K contains 750 parts per thousand, 22K contains 916 parts per thousand, while 24K contains virtually 100 parts per thousand.
Um, no….. not really. That designation is given to a material called Gold Filled, or GF. This means that the item has an interior base metal that has been permanently bonded at a molecular level with 14 K gold in a quantity that comprises 20% of the item’s over all weight. This is not the same as Gold plate, even though it is similar to that plating process. First, the layer deposited is much thicker than gold plate, and has been atomically bonded along it’s seam with the base metal until it actually forms a mixed alloy. This material does not chip or flake in any way, but may wear through if worn for many many years. Gold filled is also available in 12k over a base metal, and is marked 12K/20, or 12/20. Other designation marks include GF, 14/20, and filled.
What is Vermeil? It looks just like gold to me…
Vermeil- pronounced ver-MAY, is 14k, 18k, 22k, or 24k gold thickly plated over sterling silver. It is actually quite durable considering the fact that it’s plated. For comparison’s sake, if gold plate is a 1, vermeil is a 30. Because gold is a nice soft metal, the gold layer on vermeil is most likely to dent instead of flake. A viable alternative to solid gold jewelry, it must legally be gold over 925 silver, and will be marked “vermeil”.
I just saw something that said it was Gold Bond – is that the same as Gold Filled?
No, actually, Gold Bond is a very new gold product that is a blend of Vermeil and Gold filled. The layer of 22 k gold in a gold bond material is very very thick, and is nearly 1/4 the total weight of the item. Similarly, the base material is anti-tarnish Argentium Silver, so that all materials in the piece are precious metals. This material is extremely new, and isn’t very wide spread yet, but it is likely to be quite a nice fully precious alternative to gold filled products.
Are there any other gold alloys I should know about?
Yes! In these times of economic difficulties, many artists are starting to turn to alloys containing gold, but that don’t meet the minimum karating requirements of 10K or 14K. The advantages are clear- all the beautiful colors and value of gold, but without the exorbitant costs. There are any number of alloys from different metal refineries, including Karatium, which can contain anywhere from 2.5% to 20% gold depending upon color, and AlluraGold, which is 5%-19% gold depending on the color. As these materials are only available to the professional jeweler, you will find them clearly marked.
I’m still overwhelmed! How do I choose what kind of jewelry to buy?
That’s the easy one. Think about what it means to you to wear jewelry. If you want to wear jewelry that will last a lifetime, buy sterling silver or better. If you want to just wear something inexpensive, and don’t really care if it’ll last the year, buy the other stuff. If you still can’t decide- buy what you like, and don’t worry about the numbers. The purpose of jewelry is to make the wearer happy after all- so if you like it, wear it!