A k(c)arat by any other name: our guide to gold and gold plating

4 MIN READ | by Maja Bayyoud on Jun 27, 2020
4 MIN READ | by Maja Bayyoud on Jun 27, 2020

When it comes to jewellery shopping, all that glitters isn’t always gold. Buying gold and gold plated jewellery can be a mystifying process to the previously uninitiated. What’s the difference between carat and karat? Is 9 karat gold just as good as 18 karat gold, and are all plates created equal? We’re here to help debunk the myths, and give you an insider scoop on buying jewellery. 

What’s a karat?

Put simply, it’s a measure of gold purity. 24 karat gold is pure gold, whereas 12 karat gold is 12 parts gold and 12 parts other metals. When gold is used to make jewellery, it is typically mixed with other metals as it’s very soft and malleable in its purest form – that’s why 18 karat gold is more likely to mark than 9 karat gold. The purity of gold also impacts the colour. 24 karat gold is the goldest of all golds, with a deep yellow/orange hue. The less gold there is in your jewellery, the paler it  will be – see the below for reference. 

What’s a carat?

Glad you asked. A carat (or ct) is an internationally recognised unit of weight for diamonds and gemstones. 1 carat weighs 0.20 grams, and is unrelated to size (which is measured in millimetres). The price of your diamond or gemstone jewellery is likely to increase with each carat. It’s estimated that for every 250 tons of rock mining, 1 carat of diamond is produced. Which is a lot of rock for not a whole lot of diamond. 

Fun history fact: before 1907, there were at least 23 different standards for a carat. Then a (presumably beautifully bejewelled) group of experts gathered at a conference in Paris, to decide the standard that holds to this day. 

Why do people get them mixed up?

The internet and jewellery industry are rife with theories about where both originate from and why they get mixed up. Etymologically speaking, the origin could be  Arabic, Greek or Latin. Carob seeds, which apparently weigh 0.20 grams and were used as a unit of measurement in antiquity, are thought to have something to do with it. If there are any avid carat historians out there, please email us on care@motley-london.com with your best carat theory. 

What’s the deal with gold plating? 

Not all plates are created equal – flash plating, which is what you’re likely to find on fast fashion jewellery, is a thin layer of gold that will rub off (often even if you rub it with your fingers). Flash plating is 0.1 microns thick, so it’s essentially gilding. Often, a flash plate will be 24 karat gold – it’ll rub off just as fast even though it’s got more of a deep gold hue, but seems more luxe which is why fast fashion retailers use it.  

Vermeil, (which we use at Motley), is a thick layer of 2.5 microns of 18 karat gold plated  on sterling silver. Your vermeil jewellery can be worn for a long time and replated in perpetuity, with the right care. 

Ver-what? But why the fancy name? Why not just…. Plate?

Fair point, well made. The key thing with vermeil is the metal that the gold is plated on. Fast fashion jewellery bigs up the karats in a gold plate to make it all seem more luxe than it actually is. It also distracts from the fact that flash plating is mostly done on base metals. You know, the ones that have a funny smell and give you Shrek fingers. The gold has to be a certain thickness, and the base metal has to be silver. 

Ok, I think I’ve got it now. But silver?

Glad you asked. Have a read of our interview with Suzanne, who runs the show at our workshop in Thailand. There she talks to us about all things silver, Thai silversmithing and plenty more.