What Does “Gold-Plated Jewelry” Mean?

Lester Fangonilo - December 25, 2021

There’s gold, gold vermeil, and there’s gold plated - but what exactly does that last one mean? Read on to learn more.

Gold plated jewelry offers a budget-friendly option to buying pure gold jewelry. It gives you the look and the style without the high price tag that comes with gold, and is ideal for jewelry you don’t plan to wear on a daily basis.

Whenever we talk about jewelry, the concept of gold plating often comes up. The term refers to a process wherein a thin sheet of gold (something utterly different from gold foil) is bonded onto a base metal. It's a process that has been around since the 19th century when Luigi Brugnatelli, an Italian chemist, developed the process by bonding a thin coating of gold onto a piece of silver.

Unless you know exactly what you're looking for, it is practically impossible to tell the difference between gold plated jewelry and pieces actually wrought with the real deal - at least on a visual level. That said, the process is commonly used in the production of costume jewelry or the creation of replicas of iconic pieces. It is particularly notable, though, that gold plated jewelry is substantially less expensive than any counterpart made with solid gold.


How is Gold Plating Done by Professional Jewelers?

Gold-plating jewelry is not a complicated process, but it does take a significant amount of time and several well-executed steps.

The jewelry a craftsman wants to plate needs to be cleaned thoroughly of any external pollutants. It's a process that needs to be done properly as even trace amounts of dirt, dust, or even oil left on the base metal may prevent the gold from bonding onto it. This may be done using steam or electrolysis, though some goldsmiths prefer to use ultrasonic cleaning equipment to do the job.

The cleaned jewelry then gets plated over with nickel to keep the base metal from leeching into the gold layer. Nickel is also used to prevent contamination when the pieces are dipped into molten gold.

Finally, individual pieces are dipped into molten gold and a positive electrical charge is pulsed through to enable the precious metal to cleave onto the base metal. Depending on how thick the craftsman wants the gold layer to be, this process may be repeated several times before the piece is allowed to dry.

Twist Earrings Made Using a Proprietary Gold Plating Technique

Can Any Metal be Used as the Base for Gold Plated Jewelry?

For the most part, a number of common metals can be used to fabricate base pieces for gold plated jewelry. Historically, the process has been used with nickel, brass, stainless steel, silver, and copper. These days, the roster of industrial metals that may be plated with gold has expanded to include tungsten and titanium. When it comes to jewelry, however, silver and copper remain the metals of choice for many jewelers.

That said, another point of consideration is how thick a layer of gold should be used to coat the base. The industry standard holds that proper gold plating should be between 0.17 and 2.5 microns - and the thickness is actually determined by the method used to plate the piece. Pieces with a thinner coating are usually referred to as gold electroplated, gold washed, or gold flashed. Note, however, that these may not be as durable as other pieces. 

Standard gold plating (0.5 to 1.0 microns) may not sound like a lot of gold, but it helps make the piece more durable. Plating that is thicker (1.5 to 2.5 microns) is referred to as heavy gold plated and is considered the most durable when it comes to gold plated jewelry.

What are the Drawbacks or Disadvantages of Gold Plated Jewelry?

Let's be blunt: gold plated jewelry is not as valuable as real gold jewelry given how there's actually very little in the way of gold used to coat these pieces. Indeed, gold plated jewelry has little to virtually no resale value at all and should not be considered an investment of any sort except, perhaps, for improving one's appearance.

On a structural level, gold plated jewelry also tends to tarnish over time, its luster and brightness fade after an extended period of wear and tear. In fact, while gold itself is actually an inert material, the base metal it covers may also corrode in the future, oxidizing and leaching into the thin layer of gold on top, thus affecting the appearance of a piece.

Technically, gold plating is supposed to be permanent, but the fact that the layer of gold used is so thin means that it won't last, particularly if it's constantly exposed to the elements or if the owner wears pieces a bit too frequently. Indeed, some jewelers say that the standard lifetime for gold plated jewelry - and mind, this is with proper care - may be as short as two years.


So, How Do I Maintain Gold Plated Jewelry?

It is imperative that gold plated jewelry should not be exposed to harmful chemicals, and this is a broad collection of items that includes ingredients commonly used in cosmetics. In which case, it's better to put any gold plated jewelry on after you've put on your makeup. Likewise, it is prudent to remove any gold plated jewelry if you're doing chores that involve the use of detergents, household chemicals like bleach, and even chlorinated tap water. 

Speaking of tap water, chlorine is also the reason why you need to remove any gold plated jewelry before swimming - and salt water also has a detrimental effect on it, so don't even think about wearing any pieces to the beach.

Since sweat also contains potentially corrosive minerals, jewelers recommend that gold plated jewelry be wiped down or cleaned before you put it back into your jewelry case. Cleaning made be done using a mild liquid soap (baby wash is actually a good thing to use) or ask your local jewelry store if they sell cleansers meant for use with gold plated jewelry.