gold-filled or gold-plated

There’s nothing like the allure of real gold. Kingdoms have been toppled for it, and the lifetime commitment of marriage is symbolized by a ring of gold. But how can you know if that bauble you’re holding is solid gold, or just gold-plated? The world is full of fakes these days, and it’s hard to tell what’s what—especially if you bought your jewelry online.

Our Expert

For guidance, I spoke with Jack Sarkissian, owner of Jack’s Jewelers in Santa Monica, California. Jack began making jewelry as a teenager, learning in his father’s shop. He apprenticed in Paris, worked as a jeweler in Africa, and then moved to Los Angeles in 1980, where he designed jewelry for private customers and high-end jewelry stores. He opened his own jewelry studio and retail boutique in 1982. His fine workmanship and integrity have earned him a long list of loyal clients (including me, since 1991).


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Bring It In

When asked how people can most reliably determine whether their jewelry is solid gold or gold-plated, Jack advises, “Bring it in to a certified jeweler. Experience is where it makes a difference. By feeling it, holding it, and by the weight of the metal, I can tell if it is real. We recognize manufacturer’s stamps. Throughout the years, I’ve seen enough to be able to tell if it is plated.”

Look at the Stamps

Jack continues: “If you don’t have a jeweler available, look at the piece to see if it has any stamps. You may need a magnifying glass, as stamps can be small, irregular, or partly worn off on older jewelry.” Nearly all gold used in jewelry is alloyed with other metals to increase strength and durability. Generally speaking, real gold should be at least 10-karat, or 41.7% gold. Solid gold should be marked either as 10KT, 14KT, 18KT, or 22KT, depending on purity. 22-karat gold is more yellow-looking than 14-karat—it’s nearer to being pure gold.

As an alternative to karats, gold can also be rated for purity by a system which employs a range from 1 to 999 (999 is pure, 24-karat gold, and this is often how gold is rated and sold in China). In this rating system, 375 equals 9-karat gold, 585 is 14-karat gold, 750 is equivalent to 18-karat gold, and 916 promises 22-karat gold. Often, the jeweler’s initials or a manufacturer’s mark will be stamped elsewhere on the piece.

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Gold-Filled vs. Gold-Plated

Sometimes you’ll encounter a stamp that says 14KT GF, which means 14-karat gold-filled. Gold-filled jewelry is the term used when a layer of gold was mechanically bonded onto a base metal. Gold plating, however, is a very thin film of pure gold electroplated onto a base metal. Generally, this gold finish doesn’t last; it will chip, fade, or tarnish. By contrast, the gold layer in gold-filled jewelry is five to 25 times thicker than electroplated gold, and it can last for many years before eventually wearing away.

Allergic Reactions

Knowing what your jewelry is made of can sometimes even be a health issue, particularly with respect to earrings. Some people are sensitive to certain metals and can develop inflammation from earrings or even rings. Jack notes, “With earrings, the post or wire is the concern. It may be made of different metal than the actual earring. Surgical steel or gold rarely cause a reaction, but silver sometimes does because it’s alloyed with nickel, and that’s the metal some people react to. I examine an earring post by looking, touching, and bending to see how hard it is. If it’s gold-plated over a base metal, or surgical steel, it generally doesn’t bend. Silver and gold bend easily.”

Testing at Home

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Jack has a machine at his store for testing jewelry. But if you’re not sure about your pieces, he says that for under $20, you can purchase a kit to acid-test your jewelry. Jack explains, “You scratch the metal on a special black marble stone from the kit and then you pour a little acid on the bit of metal on the stone. The acid heats the metal on the marble and if it’s not gold, it will disappear—dissolved by the acid. You can also test what karat your gold is, because the kit comes with an array of acids. So, for lower grade gold, 10- or 14-karat for example, the 18-karat acid will make it disappear. Still, if possible, the best way to know what you’ve got is to take your items to a certified jeweler.”

Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.


Crista Worthy writes about aviation, travel, wildlife, and more from her home in Idaho.

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