When you think about gold jewelry, you probably picture yellow gold. Yellow gold is the most popular shade, symbolizing status or wealth throughout history.
But is yellow gold actual gold? Yes, "yellow gold" usually refers to pure gold. However, yellow gold comes in various all9ys, jewelry techniques, and purity levels.
We'll be breaking those down today as we go over what yellow gold means in jewelry along with the various types of yellow gold, the metal's value, and factors to consider before buying yellow gold jewelry.
Yellow gold can refer to pure, 100 percent gold or a yellow gold alloy. A gold alloy contains gold and additional metals. Most gold jewelry is created with alloys.
The additional metals in yellow gold alloys can be silver, copper, zinc, nickel, or a combination of these.
The proportions of pure gold to additional metals change based on the type of gold.
The main categories for gold jewelry are the shade of gold, the technique, and the gold's purity. A single piece of gold jewelry can check a box in each of these categories; for example, a ring may be gold-plated with 18K rose gold.
But let's go over each category so you have a better perspective on the gold jewelry options.
Pictured above: Rose gold chain with imitation pearls
As you know, pure gold is yellow, and yellow gold may also be an alloy of pure gold with other metals. But gold jewelry can come in other shades when you add specific metals to the yellow gold.
These other gold shades are:
Black Gold: Yellow gold mixed with cobalt, rhodium, ruthenium, or a combination of these; Can also be created with black rhodium plating or laser treatments
Green Gold: Yellow gold mixed with pure silver and sometimes additional metals like zinc or nickel
Purple Gold: Yellow gold mixed with aluminum; Also called "amethyst gold" or "violet gold"
Blue Gold: Yellow gold mixed with indium or gallium
Gray Gold: Yellow gold mixed with palladium or a combination of silver, manganese, and copper; May occur naturally from high iron content in unrefined gold
In jewelry, you'll mostly see yellow gold, rose gold, and white gold.
Pictured above: Gold-filled necklace
Jewelry that's gold through and through is called "solid" gold jewelry. But solid gold is expensive, so there are more affordable alternatives.
Common alternative techniques for making gold jewelry are listed below from most to least valuable (after solid gold, the most valuable type):
Gold-Filled: Solid sheet of gold attached to a base metal (often jeweler's brass) via heat and pressure; The gold layer must be 5 percent of the total weight, often indicated with a "1/20" hallmark stamp
Gold-Plated: Layer of gold adhered to any base metal via electroplating and gold layer must be 0.5 microns thick; Often indicated with "GP" or "GE" stamp; Pieces with gold layers under 0.5 microns are "flash-plated" and less valuable
Like the thickness requirements mentioned above, some techniques also require that the gold layer be a minimum purity, or "karatage." For instance, the gold layer in gold vermeil must be at least 10 karats (10K).
But what are karats?
Pictured above: 18K gold jewelry with "750" purity hallmark
Because pure, 100 percent gold is too soft for jewelry use, gold jewelry is almost never pure. The purest option is 24 karat (24K) gold jewelry, which is 99.9 percent pure. One "karat" represents one "part" pure gold out of 24, as a ratio.
For instance, 18K gold is 75 percent pure gold (since 18 is 75 percent of 24) and 25 percent additional metals. The additional metals mixed in (and their ratios) can change the gold shade, so 18K rose gold can be a 75 percent pure gold and 25 percent copper. 18K rose gold looks closer to yellow gold, while 10K rose gold (which has more copper) looks more reddish.
Here's a reference list of common gold karatages and their corresponding percentages:
24K --- 99.9% pure
18K --- 75% pure
14K --- 58.5% pure
12K --- 50% pure
10K --- 41.7% pure
It's possible to have in-between karatages like 22K or 16K gold. You can calculate the percentage of these by dividing the karats by 24 --- for 22K gold jewelry, 22 divided by 24 is 0.916, or 92.6 percent pure.
The karatage of yellow gold can even affect its precise shade.
Pictured above: 9K gold ring with aquamarine, diamond, and sapphire gemstones
Did you think there was just one type of yellow gold? Think again! Just like the color yellow, yellow gold comes in different shades.
Pure gold is actually a saturated, almost orange-yellow or reddish-yellow color. But as you know, yellow gold can be an alloy, so the types and proportions of additional metals alter the gold's appearance.
Remember how we mentioned that white gold is often rhodium-plated? That's because unplated white gold, which often incorporated lighter-colored metals like palladium or silver, actually looks somewhat champagne colored with a slight yellow undertone.
Similarly, lower karatage yellow gold can be paler. 10K yellow gold is a less saturated yellow leaning toward tan, while 18K yellow gold has more saturated yellow shade leaning toward orange.
Overall, higher amounts of pure gold (higher karatage) in the alloy will mean a more saturated hue closer to the color of pure gold.
You might wonder: which type of gold is best? Ultimately, it's a matter of preference, and each shade has pros and cons to consider.
When buying yellow gold jewelry, it's important to know the advantages and disadvantages first.
First, the pros of yellow gold jewelry are:
Timeless: Certain shades are periodically trendy, but yellow gold never goes out of style.
Universal: Many jewelers say yellow gold looks good on any skin tone.
Practical: Yellow gold jewelry is easier and often more affordable than other shades (and other metals) to resize, repair, and maintain.
Easy to Find: Other shades' popularity affects their availability, but yellow gold is always available from any jeweler.
Now onto the drawbacks.
Some of the downsides of yellow gold are:
Price: Yellow gold tends to be pricier than other shades, though karatage also affects price.
Durability: Purer gold is more prone to scratches.
Difficult to Match: The variations in yellow gold and yellow gold alloys make it harder to find exact matches when pairing yellow gold jewelry.
Allergies in Alloys: Yellow gold alloys that contain nickel will not be hypoallergenic.
Additionally, another drawback of yellow gold has to do with gemstone jewelry. White diamonds pair well with a yellow gold ring, but yellow gold’s warmth may clash against cooler-toned stones like blue sapphires.
Some people like that sharp combination, but others prefer a more subtle gold to let the gem take center stage. That may be why white gold (not yellow gold) was the most popular engagement ring metal in 2021, according to The Knot 2021 Jewelry & Engagement Study.
We mentioned the price of yellow gold, but let’s dive deeper.
First, is yellow gold expensive? It depends on the purity. Pure, solid yellow gold jewelry is expensive, but 10K options are more affordable. Higher karatage equals higher value.
The “melt price” of pure yellow gold (which removes costs of labor, retail hikes, and additional metals) fluctuates. As of January 2023, pure gold’s melt price is around $59 per gram.
Remember: the price per gram above will be lower than the price per gram of yellow gold jewelry, as jewelry prices factor in other costs like labor and retail markups.
Comparing yellow gold and silver, gold is generally higher quality but more expensive. However, pure gold doesn’t oxidize or tarnish, while silver jewelry does. That also means pure yellow gold can hold its value for much longer if you want to resell it down the road.
That said, the technique of gold application affects its value and durability. A thin yellow gold plating will wear off more quickly than the gold layer on gold-filled or gold vermeil jewelry.
Speaking of durability…
Like value, the longevity of yellow gold jewelry depends on the karatage and technique used.
Does yellow gold tarnish? Pure, solid gold will never tarnish, fade, or corrode. But since yellow gold jewelry is always somewhat impure, you can expect it to start tarnishing or fading eventually.
Lower karatage yellow gold (like 10K) will tarnish more quickly than higher karatages (like 18K). But lower karatage yellow gold is also more scratch-resistant. That’s why many people opt for 14K gold jewelry as a happy medium.
In terms of the jewelry techniques outside of solid gold, some last longer than others. They all eventually tarnish or wear off because the base metal molecules seep into the gold layer, breaking it down.
With proper maintenance, the lifespan of each type of yellow gold jewelry (if they’re good-quality) is generally:
Gold-Filled: 15 to 30 years
Gold Vermeil: 5 to 10 years
Gold-Plated: 6 months to 2 years
On that note, what does “proper maintenance” mean for yellow gold jewelry?
Ensuring your yellow gold jewelry stays shining and unharmed means knowing how to maintain it — meaning knowing when to remove your jewelry, how to clean it, and how to store it.
Can yellow gold get wet? Solid yellow gold can get wet, but this can reduce its luster. Plus, showering with gold-plated or gold vermeil jewelry can wear down the plating.
It’s best to remove yellow gold jewelry before:
Washing your hands
Putting on cosmetics (e.g. makeup, perfume, lotion)
Any activity that could scratch the gold layer, that involves harsh chemicals, or that involves high heat
After you take your jewelry off, wipe it down with a clean, microfiber cloth (like a lens cloth) to remove any oils or moisture.
To clean yellow gold jewelry at home, here’s the safest method:
In a plastic bowl, mix distilled or bottled water with mild soap (like dish soap).
Let your yellow gold jewelry soak in the mixture for around 10 minutes, no more than 15 minutes.
Use your fingers to gently wipe any dirt or debris from the jewelry.
Rinse the jewelry with distilled or bottled water to remove soap residue.
Dry the jewelry with a soft, microfiber cloth.
The distilled or bottled water recommendation is more important for people with hard tap water, which contains minerals that can harm the jewelry.
For storage, keep each yellow gold jewelry piece in its own resealable plastic bag (like a Ziploc bag) with as much air taken out as possible, then place that inside a jewelry box or fabric pouch. The place you store it should have a stable temperature and low to no humidity.
Like pearls or a little black dress, yellow gold is a timeless classic that never goes out of style. Yellow gold jewelry evokes refinement, and the many options available mean you can look like a million bucks without breaking the bank.
Ready to shop? Browse our collection of gold jewelry!
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