The use of gold in jewelry in every era is so completely ubiquitous that it is easy to forget that gold itself is also subject to the ebb and flow of fashion. Each era, with it’s particular technical abilities, sensibilities and levels of wealth has a different relationship with gold in jewelry. Gold, the most malleable of all metals, can be utilized by the jeweler in a variety of ways: chasing, repoussé, filigree, cannetille, soldering, granulation, piercing and casting. Indeed, gold’s relative level of scarcity in any given era has been the driving force between many creative breakthroughs in jewelry design. Many of the aforementioned techniques are designed to increase the appearance of volume in gold and to maximize its impact.
There is really a great deal to say about gold so I would like to focus as much as possible on the basic and practical aspects of understanding and evaluating gold in an antique jewelry piece.
Understanding gold basics
Up until the mid 20th century, gold has always been measured in karats (also written kt or k). This is not to be confused with ‘carat’ which measures gem weight. However, in Britain and some other countries ‘karat’ is spelled ‘carat’ just like gem weight. (Confusing I know!)
The ‘fineness’ of gold refers to the amount of actual gold present.
One karat is 1/24 of the total purity of the gold.
24 k gold is 99.99% pure gold.
18 k gold is 75 % gold and 25 % another metal
14 k gold is 58.3% gold and the rest is another metal
10 k gold is 41. 7% gold and the rest is another metal
Another, possibly easier way, to say this would be to say:
24 k is 24 parts gold
18 k gold is 18 parts gold, 6 parts another metal
14k gold is 14 parts gold, 10 parts another metal
10 k gold is 10 parts gold, 14 parts another metal
In the USA the following applies: lower than 10 k gold is not allowed to be called ‘karat gold’
In the UK the following applies: lower than 9k is not allowed to be called ‘karat gold’
In Germany the following applies: lower than 8k gold is not allowed to be called ‘karat gold’
Below these amounts, gold is not considered to be karat gold and is normally referred to as ‘low-karat gold’ or ‘a gold alloy’ or ‘coin gold’.
There is only one color that actual 24k gold can be.
In order to make it all the different colors, gold is alloyed with different metals in different quantities to achieve the variety of results we are familiar with.
Normally, gold is referred to as being one of the following:
Yellow gold – this is when it is alloyed with gold, copper, silver and zinc
Rose gold – this is when it is alloyed with copper and silver, with proportionally more copper than silver.
White gold – this is when it is alloyed with nickel or palladium, copper and zinc
Green gold – this is when it is alloyed with gold, copper and silver, with proportionally more silver
Gold has been purity marked since the Middle Ages and this is a very useful way of understanding the karat of gold, as well as helping to give an indicator of age and origin. The purity mark is one of the very first things to look for when evaluating a piece of jewelry. A purity mark indicates the percentage of precious metal in the piece.
Generally, countries which have used non-metric systems such as the USA and Great Britain, will have a purity mark for gold written as follows:
24 k, 18 k, 14 k, 10 k, 9 k, 8 k (or in the case of the UK – 24 ct, 18 ct etc)
Countries which have traditionally used the metric systems, such as continental European countries, will have purity marks for gold written in the following way:
1000/1000 is pure gold and will be marked as ‘1000’, 750/1000 is 18k gold and will be marked as ‘750’, 583/1000 is 14 k gold and will be marked as ‘583’, 333/1000 is 8kt gold and will be marked as ‘333’
In addition, many countries use a pictorial mark to indicate purity so it is best to refer to a library (see resources at the bottom).
The ‘responsibility mark’ is also known as the ‘maker’s mark’ as well as the ‘manufacturer’s mark’. This doesn’t necessarily name the maker but rather who is responsible for the stated purity of the metal. In countries with a long tradition of mandatory maker’s marks, these marks were always unique to each maker. They usually had the initials of the maker with a pictorial image. Sometimes, the maker’s marks had to be a specific shape, for example the lozenge shape in France which became mandatory from 1797 onwards. In the USA these marks were made mandatory in 1961. On English, and later on USA, pieces you frequently see an ampersand (for example S&P). Maker’s marks were normally struck by the manufacturer and registered at the assay office.
In the UK, Dateletters have been used since 1478 and gold and silver had to be marked at the “hall’ (hence the word “hallmark). A new letter of the alphabet was used every 25 years (some letters were skipped). A different letter font and/or design of the letter border was used every cycle to differentiate. This gives jewelry historians an excellent way to find the age of a piece. Very delicate pieces, however, did not have dateletters as there was no room to put them
Specific towns took on their own marks. For example, a famous one is Birmingham’s anchor.
Sometimes found on UK and USA items.
Duty marks / Import and export marks
Indicated taxes paid or if exempt
Usually just large stores, ie Tiffany’s
Patent and inventory marks
Usually long numbers, useful in dating. Firms like Cartier use.
Used quite frequently from the Art Nouveau era onwards
Gold purity according to era and country
24 k gold is very soft and generally considered too easily damaged to create jewelry from. In past eras, the people who could afford gold did not do household chores so their jewelry didn’t need to be hard wearing. As gold came to be worn more and more by regular people, alloys were created for jewelry wear to give strength and durability. Generally speaking, gold from the Georgian era is much more likely to be higher karat than later eras. The Victorians began to cater to the tastes of people who weren’t royalty by creating more practical gold alloys.
As you can see below, gold purity marks can give us a lot of information regarding possible age of the jewelry and also country of origin.
UK and Ireland
Up to 1854, the legal standards for gold were 18ct and 22 ct. In 1854, 15ct, 12ct and 9 ct were introduced. In 1932, the 14ct mark was introduced, and the 12ct and 15 ct marks were eliminated.
Prior to the year 1906, most jewelry made in the USA was without any kind of mark. After this, gold purity marks can be identified as being American by the use of ‘k’ (as opposed to ‘ct’ from the UK).
Before 1884, German gold purity marks was expressed in “Löthig”. Pure gold was 16 löthig. So, for example, if you see a piece with ’13’ marked on it, it might well be expressing 13 löthig, which would indicate 812.5/1000.
From 1884 to the current day, German gold purity marks could be expressed in thousands (such as 585 for 14 karat gold) or expressed as a karat like the USA (for example 14k). They could also have both marks on one piece.
From1838 an eagle’s head has been used to indicate a gold purity of at least 18 karat.
In France, gold jewelry must have at least 18 karat unless it is for export. Items for export have pictorial marks representing 9 k or 14 k.
Weight of gold as a indication of value
The value of a piece of jewelry is not only indicated by the purity of the gold, but also by the weight of that gold. It is best to weigh jewelry with a specifically designed sensitive gram scale. In order to calculate the value of the gold itself, if you were simply to look at scrap value, there are various sites online where you can find out the daily price by putting in the weight and the karat of the gold.
Sometimes, it will be necessary to test a piece of jewelry for gold content. This can be because the hallmark was worn away, because there is no hallmark or because you don’t entirely trust the hallmark.
Gold is not magnetic, so a quick way to eliminate non-gold is to test with a magnet.
There are several different ways of testing gold and metals. One of these is the acid scratch test. I will write a separate post at a later date all about testing metals as there is quite a lot to it.
Gold substitutes and look a likes
These include, but are not limited to: pinchbeck, ‘tombak’, ‘schaumgold’, brass, bronze, copper alloy, gold fill, gold plate, painting gold etc etc (I will go into all of these in more detail in the future).
Sources / further reading (be sure to have a look at the sources in the drop down menu also):