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Precious Metals in Jewelry Making Part 1: Gold and Karats

When most people think of precious metal jewelry, they imagine a simple piece of metal reshaped into a jewelry design. As Manhattan’s premier precious metals refinery, we can tell you that it’s nowhere near that simplistic. As any professional jeweler can attest, there are many intricacies in the form of alloys, plating, and preparations that define the craft of precious metal jewelry making. In the next few blog posts, we’ll explore the many different ways precious metals change to accommodate jewelry designs.

Gold in particular is a very versatile metal in the world of jewelry making; it’s used in nearly every type of jewelry, including rings, necklaces, earrings, and pendants. When changing gold’s composition to accommodate jewelry design, most considerations lean toward color and durability.

Pure gold is extremely malleable, meaning that it takes little force to change its shape. While this makes gold really easy to craft, it makes it unsuitable for most types of jewelry – especially pieces meant for everyday wear. Before long, the jewelry would be covered in scratches and dents. But, if gold is combined with other metals, the resulting alloy is more wear-resistant. The ratio of gold to other metals in jewelry is measured in karats from 10-24 like this:

24 Karat: 99.9% pure gold
22 Karat: 91.7% pure gold
18 Karat: 75% pure gold
14 Karat: 58.3% pure gold
12 Karat: 50% pure gold
10 Karat: 41.7% pure gold
<10 Karat: In the U.S., any jewelry less than 10 karats cannot legally be called “gold.”

It varies depending on the customer and type of jewelry, but the goal when selecting a karat level is to strike a medium between luster, durability, and price. A higher karat level makes the piece softer, but it also gives it more of gold’s yellow color and brilliant luster. Lower karat levels may be sturdier, but the luster and color can be noticeably different. It can also make the piece take on more characteristics of the other metals in the alloy. For example, a 10kt gold and copper pendant is much more likely to develop a patina over time. A higher karat level also translates into a higher price because of gold’s inherent value. For these reasons, 14kt and 18kt are the most popular karat levels in jewelry making.

In our next blog post, we’ll look at other metals that gold is commonly alloyed with in jewelry making and the different effects they create.

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