Gold is a chemical element that, aside from its extraordinary luster, has amazing physical characteristics that make it extremely well suited for use in jewelry making. One ounce (28 grams) of gold can be hammered into 187 square feet of extremely thin sheets called gold leaf. Gold does not tarnish or corrode and it can be re-melted and used again to create new designs.
Because 100% pure gold is too soft for prolonged handling, it is mixed with other metals to give it the durability necessary for jewelry. Most gold used in jewelry is alloyed with silver, copper and small amounts of zinc to produce various shades of yellow gold, or with nickel, copper and zinc to produce white gold. The color of these gold alloys goes from yellow to white as the proportion of nickel increases. Alloying gold with copper creates what is known as pink or rose gold. Alloys with platinum or palladium are also used in jewelry. Since nickel is the most popular alloy used in white gold, it is important to note that some people may be allergic to nickel. If that is the case, 18-Karat gold with a higher percentage of pure gold or platinum settings may be viable alternatives.
The gold content of a piece of jewelry is measured in Karats, which can range from 1 to 24. For example, 14 Karat (14K) gold is 14 parts of gold to 10 parts other metals. The higher the Karat, the greater the gold content. This term should not be confused with “carat”, which measures of the weight of diamonds.
History of Gold
The history of gold goes back at least 6,000 years, with references to it in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. In ancient times, gold was thought to have healing properties when worn or even ingested.
From the time of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World in 1492 to 1600, more than 8,000,000 ounces of gold, or 35 percent of the world’s production came from South America. The New World’s mines–particularly those in Colombia–continued into the 17th and 18th centuries to account for 61 and 80 percent, respectively, of world production. In the 18th century, 48,000,000 ounces were mined.
Russia became the world’s leading producer of gold in 1823, and for 14 years it contributed the bulk of the world’s supply. From 1850 to 1875, more gold was produced in the world than in all the years since 1492, primarily because of discoveries in California and Australia. A significant increase in gold production stemmed from discoveries in Alaska, the Yukon Territory and South Africa. Gold production continued to rise throughout the 20th century, partly because of the improvement in recovery methods and partly because of the continual growth and expansion of South Africa’s gold-mining operations.
In the late 20th century, South Africa, Russia, the United States and Australia accounted for two-thirds of the gold produced annually throughout the world. South Africa alone produces about one-third of the world’s gold.
Gold pricing is based on a number of factors, including karat amount (called karatage), gram weight, design and craftsmanship. The karatage and gram weight designate how much gold is in a piece, but are not the sole determining price factors. The craftsmanship and level of detail in a piece are also taken into account.
The most critical thing to look for in buying gold jewelry (aside from the style you like!) is the purity of the gold. The higher the gold content, the more valuable it is. The amount of gold in a piece is represented in the karat mark, usually inscribed on the back of the piece (e.g. 24K, 18K, 14K, etc.). The European system uses numbers representing a fraction of 1000, so “750” would be 75% gold, or the equivalent of 18 Karat. In addition to the karat mark, every piece of gold jewelry should be stamped with a hallmark or trademark of its manufacturer and sometimes its country of origin. In the United States, 14-karat gold, or 583 parts pure gold, is the most common degree of fineness and pieces are marked 14K. Nothing less than 10K can legally be marked or sold as gold jewelry in the U.S.