Many of us, at one point or another, will shop for gold in the jewelry department of a department store or in a jewelry store.
If you've ever gone shopping for jewelry, you are probably familiar with the word “karat” as applied to gold. The higher the karat, the more expensive it will be. But have you ever wondered why? The short answer is that higher karats mean more gold, but there’s more to it than that.
What does it all mean? And what is all of that fine print stamped into your piece of gold? What are karats really? How do you know how pure that gold really is? This article will answer these questions and more.
What Are Karats?
Karats, spelled "carats" outside of North America, are the little numbers stamped on a piece of gold in the format of "xxK" or "xxKT". The numbers refer to the type of gold and to the actual gold content in the particular piece of jewelry.
Here’s more information on karats:
- Karat is a measurement of the ratio of gold to other metals or alloys.
- Karats are measured on a scale from 0 to 24.
- The higher the karat number, the more gold there is and the less other metal content.
- Other metals and alloys could include copper, nickel (not common anymore), silver, or palladium.
With this in mind, 24-karat gold is the purest gold you can buy.
Why Are Other Metals Added to Pure Gold?
Gold is malleable in its pure state. Other metals are added to strengthen it and in some cases to enhance color. An example is "rose gold" comprises gold and copper.
How to Use Karats to Measure Gold Purity
Knowing the number of karats is key to calculating the gold content on your own. Here is how to use the number of karats to figure out how pure your piece of gold is.
Say you purchase a ring that is 14K gold. Since the number amount of karats you can have is 24K, divide the 14 Karats by the 24. You will get .583. This means that the gold is 58.3% pure.
Gold Purity Conversion Chart
|Number of Karats||Parts of Gold||% of Gold Purity||Millesimal Fineness|
As you can see in the above chart, "millesimal fineness" refers to the percent of gold, while karats refer to the ratio of gold to other metals in the piece. Converting between the two is rather easy when you convert the percent to fraction form, or vice versa.
Gold Purity Terminology: What Is Gold "Fineness"?
The measure of gold purity, or fineness, refers to the gold-to-metal additive ratio. Let’s look at a few terms that you may come across when studying about or shopping for gold:
- Assay: A test that determines metal content and quality
- Bullion: Precious metals in a bulk, uncoined form such as gold bars, considered in mass rather than value
- Carat: Not to be confused with Karat in North America, a Carat is a unit of weight used for precious stones. One carat is equal to 200 milligrams. Outside of North America, Carat is used in the same context as Karat.
- Ductile/Ductility: How capable a metal is of being deformed using tensile force (e.g., Ductile materials can be stretched into thin wires without fracture)
- Hallmark: A symbol or mark stamped on a piece of precious metal that certifies its standard of purity
- Karat: Unit of measurement for the fineness of gold, with the higher numbers containing more gold and 24K being the finest
- Malleability: How capable a metal is of being deformed using compressive force. (e.g., More malleable metals can be hammered or rolled into thin sheets)
- Millesimal Fineness: A system used to show the purity of precious metals by parts per thousand rather than karats
- Troy Ounce: 31.1034768 grams, or approximately 1.09714 standard “avoirdupois” ounces
- Troy Weight: A system of measurement used for gemstones and precious metals, where a full Troy pound consists of 12 “troy” ounces rather than the 16 “avoirdupois“ ounces in a standard pound
What Do the Stamps on Gold Mean?
Here’s a list of stamps you might find on a piece of gold and what they mean.
- EPNS If someone is trying to sell you a piece of “gold” marked “EPNS,” run away. It stands for “Electroplated Nickel Silver” which is silverplate. This means the piece is not gold, and it’s worthless.
- EPBM Again, if someone is trying to sell you “gold” marked “EPBM,” go elsewhere. This stands for “Electroplated Britannia Metal” which is not gold at all. It is a silver/tin alloy consisting of copper, lead, or zinc.
- GE: Gold Electroplate This is a piece consisting of a base metal, often brass, with a certain thickness of gold electrolytically deposited onto the base. The minimum standards require to be considered GE is 7 millionths of an inch and at least 10K gold as the plating.
- HGE This also refers to Heavy Gold Electroplate, the same as GE above, but it can only make the "heavy" classification if the plating is at least 100 millionths of an inch.
- GF This means Gold Filled and is like gold plate but the gold is heat- and pressure-bonded to the base metal. It must have a minimum purity of 10K gold and the gold content must be at least 1/20th of the weight of the metal piece.
- 375 This means the gold is 37.5% pure, or 9K. In the US, the minimum standard for gold is 10K. Many other countries allow marketing this as gold and it’s been used in both jewelry and dental applications.
- 417 This means that the gold is 41.7% pure, or 10K. In the US, jewelers uses this purity because it is very strong. It is great for jewelry for those who work industrious jobs or who need something that will hold up.
- 585 This means that the gold is 58.5% pure, or 14K. Good, strong gold but with more gold than 10K.
- 750 This means that the gold is 75.0% pure, or 18K. Much more pure than 14K, still has good strength with a wonderful balance in purity.
- 916 This means that the gold is 91.6% pure, or 22K. This is probably the softest and most pure gold you would want to have for a piece of jewelry.
- 999 This means the gold is 99.9% pure, or 24K. This is the purest that you can buy, and although purity can be up to six nines fine, or 999.999, it’s highly rare to find it so pure. Such fineness in gold was last refined in the 1950s by The Perth Mint in Australia.
Does High Karat Mean Higher-Quality Gold?
Purer gold does not mean better, it means more pure, worth more money, and more expensive. With gold, the phrase “less is more” can certainly apply. As stated earlier, the less pure the gold is, the more alloy metals it contains. Gold that is blended with more alloys is stronger. This may be preferable especially for jewelry as 24K gold is very soft and not as durable. The lower the karats in a ring, the stronger it will be. Let’s compare lower and higher karats:
- The lower the karat, the stronger it will be, while higher karat gold will be softer.
- Lower karat gold is not tarnish-resistant. Higher karat gold is much more resistant to tarnishing.
- Lower karat gold is not worth as much monetarily. Higher karat gold is more valuable because it is purer.
- Higher karat gold will appear more yellow.
Choose the purity level that makes the most sense for what you intend to use it for, whether you will subject it to a lot of force, and your personal preferences.
Common Uses for Gold
Although over 75% of the gold used every year is made into jewelry, there are other uses. Gold is very flexible and is used in many industries for various purposes, depending on the purity. Many industries use gold for jewelry-making all the way to food applications.
- Coins/bullion: Currency is one of the greatest uses as gold will always hold value even if the dollar collapses. Take American Buffalo coins, for example; they are 24K gold, pure as pure can be!
- Computers/technology: Since gold is a terrific conductor of electricity, it is often found in computers and technology. You will even find small amounts in cell phones, about $.50 worth!
- Aerospace: Being such a great conductor, various circuit boards for spacecrafts use gold as a shield to keep the temperature of the spacecraft stable.
- Dental: We’ve all seen rappers with golden grills. Gold is not just for looks though! It’s highly useful in the mouth and can be found in fillings, crowns, bridges and other dental applications.
- Medical: Not only is gold used in medical appliances and instruments, but it is also literally used as a “drug” for medical purposes for various conditions, including radiation treatment for certain types of cancer!
As far as food goes, don’t go eating that engagement ring in a life or death situation! Some restaurants use gold as a decorative, but edible garnish for food since the food-grade gold is non-toxic. You may also be familiar with the liquor Goldschläger, which contains visible pieces of gold flakes. So forget the cake, you can have your gold and eat it too!
Purpose of Stamps or Hallmarks
While you may come across some pieces of gold that are not stamped with purity, most gold, especially jewelry, will come stamped with what's called a "hallmark" as a reference and even a selling point. Jewelry stores or big box stores in the U.S. stamp all gold with purity. While U.S. gold standards enforce the stamping of purity somewhere on the jewelry, you may still come across a piece of unmarked jewelry, such as antique or handmade pieces.
The stamps and any laws behind stamping jewelry will vary by country, and if you come across an unstamped piece of gold that is marketed as of a certain purity, it’s best to proceed with caution and test the gold using a gold testing kit.
Sometimes, jewelry that is stamped as being a certain purity can be fake or misrepresented. This is more common when ordering online from a foreign country. Usually in cases like these, the price is a good indicator of faux metals. The adage “you get what you pay for” holds true, especially when dealing with precious metals. Should you find yourself in the receiving end of such a situation, it’s a good idea to file a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
What Is a Hallmark?
If you’ve shopped for jewelry in Europe, or even imported pieces over in the U.S., chances are you've come across a few strange images on the jewelry which may or may not be accompanied with an actual purity number stamp. These are called hallmarks and do not need tobe accompanied by a specific purity stamp. If you know the hallmark, you will know just which purity is being guaranteed.
The symbols you will come across will vary by country and time period. Not only are hallmarks great for identifying the gold or precious metal used in the piece, they also help date the jewelry.
Here are clues to look for:
- An octagon shape in the hallmark shows gold.
- If the hallmark includes a three-digit number, this is most likely the purity of gold. For example, if the number “585” is stamped inside the octagon, this shows that you have a piece of gold that is 14K, or .585 in purity.
- Other symbols stamped into the gold show which company submitted the piece for hallmarking, and which assay office tested and stamped the hallmark of approval. Hallmarks give you peace of mind that the gold you bought is genuine and has been tested and certified.
How to Test Gold Purity
Questions & Answers
Question: I have a gold band that belonged to my great-grandmother, and I think she was married around 1905. It says "solid gold f.s.j.co" on the inside. I wear it every day and have had it for 20+ years, and it was worn before that by my mom and my great grandma. It hasn't aged at all. How would I know karats it is?
Answer: A jeweler would be able to tell you. They have gold testing kits where they rub a slight amount of the material off onto an abrasive stone, then test it with different acids. Once it dissolves, they can tell what karat it was. I believe there are more expensive ways of testing the material using water displacement or electrical currents, but I don't know much about those methods.
Question: I have Bohemian garnet jewelry from Europe that is stamped 826 and 925. What does it mean if it’s pink?
Answer: My guess is that it is probably plated silver, or perhaps tarnished. 826 and 925 refer to the purity of the silver. 82.6% and 92.5% silver purity, respectively.
Question: How much does one milliliter of 14k gold weigh?
Answer: The difficulty with this question is that liters and milliliters are measures of volume, and gold is measured by mass. According to the Physics Factbook, one cubic centimeter, which is equal to 1 millimeter, of gold at 20 degrees Celsius would weigh 19.32 grams. This would be equal to 11.27 grams of pure gold in 1 milliliter of 14K gold.
Question: I own a necklace that is stamped with the number 4762. Does that mean it's real gold, or is it just junk?
Answer: I can't say that I've heard of or seen that kind of stamp personally, but I would encourage you to bring it into a jeweler to have it tested.
© 2015 Dennis Ebris
Karlene barracks on July 26, 2020:
A have a rig with 14 k laj is it real gold
Euphemia Marshall on April 15, 2020:
Hello ! I’m trying to buy a simple gold chain that I can wear everyday, at the beach, and at the pool. Should I buy a 9k or a higher carat chain ? Thanks for the great article !
Debbie Marucci on April 09, 2020:
I have a gold pocket watch chain from 1902-ish. It came with my great grandmothers 1902 Waltham pocket watch, the watch case is 14K gold. The chain is marked RF Simmons & Co on the inside of the swivel clasp, my research found the company made quality gold filled chains. However, on the outside of the clasp is the mark 418. I could swear there is a very faint K mark after the number. Could it be related to the 416/417 Millesimal Fineness? I have a couple hours into this search... nothing, none, nada info. Thanks for any help you can give me.
Subramanian.R on February 23, 2020:
Sarah on February 23, 2020:
Your page has been most helpful. Thank you
carmella on January 02, 2020:
have you ever seen a bathtub faucet made of 73% gold?
Premlatha on December 19, 2019:
I found a ring marking on it S925....is this valueable....can i sold it.....
Bruce on November 20, 2019:
If "pure" gold is 24 carats surely anything less than 12 carats (i.e. 50%) is not gold at all. It's an allow with some gold in it ?
Zainab on November 13, 2019:
What is 80 gold
I bought 24kt gold rings they are stamped 995 on each ring is that real on October 16, 2019:
Did i get fip off plz help if can pul they are stainless steel rings and the gold rings cover the face of the ring the band is stanless steel or silver with 24 kt face
Su on September 16, 2019:
Hi,i wanna ask if the gold is 950. Does it also means 24 K? Or lower than that?
lightoftheworld1932 from Victorville, CA on September 02, 2019:
Here's a theo/philosophical take on the value of gold:
If a person or people say to you that you have a 'heart of gold', one may nonetheless still inquire further regarding exactly how pure your heart (of gold) is. The less pure your heart - though you have a heart of gold - the harder a heart you will have.
*But a heart of gold is purest when it is softest.*
So should it be valued, and this is the case with gold: less pure gold is for more common purposes, because it is harder - and yet, is *less* valuable. More pure or pure gold is for more limited/special purposes, because it is softer - and yet, is the *most* valuable.
Aim for the gold, my friends. But if you do, aim to be like the most valuable gold. Only remember that the softest of heart is the most valuable heart, because it is the purest heart.
Dennis Ebris (author) from Florida on May 21, 2019:
10K gold is solid in the sense that it isn't plated; the gold is distributed throughout. It isn't "solid gold" in the sense that it's pure gold. 10K gold is 41.6% gold.
While having "10K" stamped in is an OK indicator that it's authentic, it isn't foolproof. Plenty of fakes have been found with hallmarks.
That happens with anything of value. If you want to confirm the true authenticity, the only way it to test it or have it tested.
You can use a cheap acid solution test, like these which are the standard way of testing and most accurate (the drawback is you have to scrape the metal slightly):
Or there are electronic testers, but they are expensive and still not perfect at detecting things:
Michael on May 18, 2019:
Is 10k gold solid gold and does 10k stamped on a gold chain identify it's authenticity?
Ken ruscoe on April 08, 2019:
Is 777 stamped on gold chain proper gold ??
Chanlinda Thorn on March 27, 2019:
Is Au990 gold also called 24k?
Ed on January 28, 2019:
Are 22-24 karat gold nuggets in ounce worth more than a premade piece?
Izaak on August 29, 2018:
Very useful article. Congrats.
But Ct y K are used worldwide as the U.S has also adopted it. It is an ancient convention based on...seeds.
Carob seeds. They noticed that they use to be very similar and weight the same.
Any serious dealer will know it(and I am from Brasil, our clients came from all over Europe, and carat(weight) abbreviated ct of a gem, except perls, that have another way to determine the quality and Karat (K) is for the amount of gold in the alloy. Everywhere.(Not sure about the UK.)
Aries Pi on July 20, 2018:
Hello I found a ring with marking
I google it says 357 is gold
How about f2702? What that stands for?
Is the ring a saw can be pawnable?
Dennis Ebris (author) from Florida on April 17, 2018:
It's actually just some acid solutions. You can get them on Amazon or from most jewelry supply catalogs.
Theresa Dye on February 18, 2018:
My grandmother was born in 1872 and married in 1890. I inherited her gold wedding band. It is 1/4 inch wide and stamped inside "SOLID GOLD" inside a stamped rectangle. It is very soft. I don't know if she got it when she got married in 1890 or at a later time. Do know she had it all my lifetime (82 yrs.) and when my mother was living (born 1901) she said she thought she had always had it. I'm just curious about the approximate age and the "Solid Gold" marking. Anything you can tell me would be great.
craig on December 07, 2017:
There was no mention of Vermeil in your definition.
Najbu on August 20, 2017:
Simply defined, very informatic
Dana Ratliff on January 06, 2017:
Have a 1910 European ring with an owl stamped in it, appears to be 18kt gold?