What Kind of Gold Do You Really Have? Understanding the Differences Between Gold Items

It’s malleable but strong, aesthetically inspiring, and never tarnishes. Since prehistoric times, people have used gold to fashion a variety of objects. But it’s also rare and expensive, and so different items are made of differing amounts of gold and other metals.

“Solid Gold” Is Not Pure Gold

Pure Gold

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When an item is made from “solid gold,” this means the item consists of one piece of gold or gold alloy. It is not layered or plated on top of anything else. A pure gold item will be marked 24 karat (24K).

Gold is often alloyed with other metals including copper, silver, palladium, or others, partly to create a harder metal that won’t wear as easily and partly to lower cost. Twenty-four karat gold, which is nearly 100 percent pure, is 24 parts of gold per 24 parts of metal. The karat number divided by 24 equals the percentage of gold in the alloy. For example: 18K = 18/24 = 79.2% gold. A refinery can melt down the alloy and separate the gold from the other metals.

Gold bars are 24K. Bullion-grade gold coins are between 22K and 24K. Jewelry is made of many different alloys, and the color of gold in jewelry depends on the percentages of the other metals used. The law requires jewelry manufacturers to mark the karat weight on their pieces, but sometimes marks are counterfeited. Dental scrap in the form of gold teeth, fillings, bridges, etc. may contain between 60 percent and 100 percent gold, determined through chemical testing.

Gold Filled Items May Be Valuable

Gold Filled

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Some items consist of a layer of gold or gold alloy that has been fused to a core of base metal. The law states that these items must be labeled as gold filled. The ratio of gold alloy to base metal by weight ranges from 1/5 to 1/40. If an item is marked as “1/10 GF 14K,” this means that one-tenth of the weight of the object is 14K gold, and the other nine-tenths is base metal.

Corporate jewelry, including award pins for employees’ years of service from the 20th century, is sometimes made of 1/5 filled gold. Wire-framed eyeglasses often contain 1/10 filled gold. Refineries can reclaim a meaningful amount of gold from these items.

The terms “gold filled” and “rolled gold” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same thing. If an item is marked “RGP” (rolled gold plate) or “HRG” (heavy rolled gold), the gold layer is thinner than it is on filled gold pieces. Refineries may refuse to process such items.

Gold Plate Contains Little Gold

Gold Plated

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Some items are mostly base metal, but have a thin layer of gold or gold alloy applied to them by an electrical process. Items will be marked as “GP” or “EP.” If the layer of gold is somewhat thicker, it is known as “heavy gold electroplating” and marked as “HGP” or “HGE.” In either case, any process to recover the gold from these items will not be cost effective, so a refinery won’t accept them.

Apart from jewelry, dinnerware and silverware are sometimes gold plated. Some collectible “gold” coins are also made this way. Cellphones and other electronics contain some parts that are gold plated to guard against corrosion.

Jewelry is sometimes made by electroplating gold over sterling silver, and this is called “vermeil.” Refineries can reclaim the silver, but not the gold, from vermeil jewelry.

All gold objects are not the same, so watch out for clues to the differences.

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