Gold Vermeil vs Gold Plated Jewelry: Everything You Need to Know
Lester Fangonilo - December 25, 2021
Looking for a striking piece of bling that won’t cost you an arm and a leg? While costume jewelry seems the obvious answer (and, of late, there have been a number of stunning gold pieces that will give you a fabulous look for less), many people are now considering the concept of quality over quantity and are looking for a little something extra but still at a reasonable price.
In which case, there are two specific options that may appeal to budget-conscious fashion lovers: gold plated jewelry and gold vermeil. What makes one different from the other? Read on and we’ll show you.
First: Let’s Talk About the History
Both gold vermeil and gold plated jewelry are crafted based on the same principle: a base metal is gilded over with a thin layer of pure gold.
However, there are actually several factors that set these two items apart: namely, the thickness of the layer of gold used to cover the base and the composition of the base metal itself.
Gold plating is a relatively simple concept to consider. The term refers to a process wherein a thin sheet of gold is chemically bonded onto a base metal, coating it all over. The process began in Italy back in 1805 when the chemist Luigi Brugnatelli hit upon the notion of bonding a thin coating of gold onto a piece of silver using electrolysis - hence the term electroplating.
While Brugnatelli developed the process as a way of creating stronger industrial alloys, goldsmiths in his hometown of Pavia saw it as a way of making more affordable - yet still aesthetically pleasing - jewelry.
Gold vermeil, on the other hand, has been around for centuries. Also referred to as silver gilt, gold vermeil was used by many ancient civilizations as both an accessory for personal adornment, a way of embellishing vessels used for religious rites and rituals, as well as a decorative accent for public structures and the homes of the ruling class.
The earliest known mention of the material is actually from Homer’s Oddyssey Book VI where a process of folding over or hammering gold foil or gold leaf onto a wrought silver item was mentioned. Indeed, artifacts made with precious metals fire-gilded with mercury have been made since the 4th century BCE in the Mediterranean. Gold vermeil making was also being done in the Far East where depletion gilding (keum-boo in Korean; ojime in Japanese) was the process of choice.
A Difference in Thickness and Technique
The process for making gold plated items is a fairly simple one. Once a piece has been wrought out of a base metal, it is dipped in gold, then subjected to an electrical charge which enables the precious metal to bond to the base. The process is repeated until the desired thickness is achieved. In the case of gold plated jewelry, the layer of gold is only around 0.17 to 2.5 microns thick.
Also, there is a reason why the price of gold plated jewelry is significantly lower than that of either solid gold or gold vermeil pieces. The base metals used for the production of such jewelry range from silver and copper to nickel and palladium, all of which are relatively inexpensive.
Gold vermeil, on the other hand, only uses solid sterling (925) silver as its base metal. In fact, jewelers who specialize in the making of vermeil insist on using only 925 sterling or 999 pure silver as their base. As both gold and silver are inert metals, the resulting alloy is hypoallergenic. Any jewelry made with it can safely be worn even by those who have sensitive skin and allergies to metals like copper and nickel.
Even the thickness of the gold used for plating silver in the vermeil process is strictly regulated. Indeed, the North American standard for gold vermeil states that the alloy’s external gilding should be at least 2.5 microns thick. Also, it is mandatory that the minimum gold content of the gilding material should be 10k and some jewelry specialists and designers actually go to the extent of plating the silver with 24k gold in the most opulent pieces.
So, rule of thumb: if the plating on your brooch, necklace, pendant, or ring is less than 2.5 microns thick and has less than 10k of pure gold, then you own a gold-plated piece of jewelry as opposed to something made with gold vermeil.
Does That Mean Gold Plated Jewelry is of an Inferior Quality?
The short and blunt answer is yes. Because gold plated jewelry is made with such a thin veneer of gold on its surface, it’s value is minimal and its resale value practically nil.
Likewise, tarnishing and corrosion are among the reasons why gold plated jewelry should never be considered an investment. At best, its luster and brightness fade after an extended period of wear and tear. At its worst, the base metal underneath may also corrode in the future, oxidizing and leaching into the thin layer of gold on top, thus affecting the appearance of a piece.
The latter may also pose a health hazard to those who have metal allergies and leave an unsightly and burning rash on the skin if worn for too long.
A Few Practical Tips Regarding Gold Vermeil
The price of gold vermeil pieces falls in the middle ground between solid gold and gold plated jewelry - meaning it should neither be too pricey nor too cheap. If a jeweler or a store offers you gold vermeil jewelry at a shockingly low price, you would do well to avoid it and, while you’re there, demand to see proof of the piece’s provenance; better safe than sorry.
That said, never hesitate to ask about the pieces you're thinking of buying, particularly from reputable jewelers, goldsmiths, and dealers. Also, make it a point to use your own senses to make a decision, factoring in the color, weight, thickness, and purity of both the gold and silver used in the piece.
You should also be aware that gold vermeil is a regulated material, and this means only properly certified specialists and boutiques may work with and sell items made with the alloy. In which case, it pays to check a shop’s credentials well beforehand.