Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Precious Metals and their definitions

The very quality that may irritate some people who know me is the quality that gives me an ongoing investment and interest in life itself.

It is no secret that I always have had an intense fascination with precious metals, gemstones, minerals and anything that can be made into jewelry or an exquisite objet de virtu.

In case there are others who may share this interest, I am going to post some definitions:

Carat or Karat Gold:

Whether listed as 24 Karat Gold, 24K, 24Ct or 24Kt, this is PURE gold. What it signifies is that out of 24 parts, all 24 are gold, 100% pure in other words. .999 fine gold is infinitisimally less pure as 999 parts out of 1000 parts are pure gold.

Seldom is any jewelry or other luxury item made from pure gold. The closest is 22ct. or 22kt. The reason for this is the softness of pure gold. Without a little alloy, it will break far too easily. 22ct or 22kt gold is 22 parts pure gold and only 2 parts alloy. This intensely beautiful, high quality gold is what is used in India, the Arab Nation and indeed can be found throughout Asia. Where gold continues to be part of the traditional 'dowry' or 'bride price', you will find 22kt/22ct. gold.

The problem with high-quality gold like this is that it tends to be reused frequently, thus resulting in the loss of incredible art pieces. As fashions change, the gold will be melted down and redesigned for its owner. This is a very common practice in the Eastern world. Other considerations apart from the actual value of the gold itself is 'luck'. Wearing a piece of jewelry with any history attached to it might be considered 'unlucky', where a new piece made from the same gold would have achieved purification by fire.

In the West, on the other hand, sentimental considerations as well as an interest in art forms and fashions from the past have preserved antique jewelry more than in other parts of the world. The fact that lower concentrations of gold reduce the intrinsic value of the metal may play a part in the longevity of any item of jewelry as well. Costs of labour is another consideration. Where labour is cheap, one may not think twice about refashioning metals into new pieces. In the West, where labour is very costly, one would be more inclined to keep an old piece of jewelry, both from appreciation of its value as an art object and because the price of custom jewelry would be too high to make it worth the effort.

It therefore is more likely that 22ct/22kt. jewelry would be used in the creation of new pieces than gold with lower concentrations of the pure metal.

Less pure but stronger than 22ct/22kt gold is 18 karat or 18Kt gold. This signifies that 18 out of 24 parts are pure gold. The remaining parts consist of an alloy or various alloys. 18 karat gold is more common in Europe than in the States.

14 karat or 14Kt gold would be 14 parts pure gold mixed with 10 parts alloy. It can be marked as .585 which would represent percentages instead.

Formerly, 13.5 karat was considered acceptable marked as .565, but sold as well as 14karat gold. This is no longer the case. 14kt must be the equivalent of .585 gold and is known as 'plumb' gold. It can be marked as 14KP or 14 karat plumb. Do not mistake the 'P' here for 'plated' as it does not signify that at all!

10 karat or 10Kt gold is a very popular mix, as it is less expensive than 14kt. but nonetheless is considered to be 'solid' gold. It is very strong, representing only 10 parts of pure gold and 14 parts of alloy or alloys. In percentage terms, it is marked as .417.

'Low' karat gold common more in the U.K. than in the States is 9 karat or 9ct. This is the lowest quality of 'solid' gold commonly used in jewelry.

The colour of gold of any 'karat' is determined not by the concentration of pure gold necessarily but by the alloy or alloys used.

'Rose gold' or 'red gold' for example is the result of copper being added to the mix.

In basic percentage terms:

24k. gold = 100% gold
18k. gold = 75% gold
14k. gold = 58.3% gold
10k. gold = 41% gold

Of the popular tints of gold, the most common contain the following alloys:

Yellow gold: 50% silver/50% copper alloys
White Gold: Nickel, silver, copper and manganese
Pink/Rose Gold: 90% copper/10% silver
Green Gold: High silver or cadmium content
Blue Gold: contains Iron
Grey Gold: 15% to 20% Iron

Electrum is an ancient metal created by mixing silver and gold to achieve an amber colour. In medieval times, it came to represent an entirely different metal that contained neither gold nor silver but which was 50% copper, 30% nickel and 20% zinc.

Fool's Gold or Pyrite contains no gold whatsoever. It is a form of iron. Marcasite stones are made with pyrite.

There is a wide range of jewelry made from base metals or from other metals with a covering of gold to give the appearance of 'solid' gold.

'Gold-filled' signifies a layer of karat gold bonded to the outside of a 'base metal'. In any markings, the gold content will be indicated by a fraction. For example, 1/20th 12Kt. G.F. signifies that 1/20th of the total weight of the item is 12kt. gold. In fact, in order to obtain the classification of 'gold-filled', at least 1/20th of the total weight must be 12kt. gold.

Rolled gold plate is a form of gold filling used frequently in the manufacture of antique and vintage watches. The cases would be marked to indicate the content of gold in the outer layer. For example: 10K R.G.P. or 14K R.G.P. would signify that the outer layer would be 10K and 14K respectively.

Rolled gold is considered to be superior to gold plating as it wears very well over time. The amount of actual gold used in the process tends to be greater than that used in gold-plating.

'Gold plated' signifies a total lack of actual gold content in the metal used to create the item in question. If preceded by a karat designation, however, it will indicate a very thin layer of actual gold applied to the base metal, measured in thousandths of an inch. In other words, '18Kt or 18K gold plated' or '18Kt. H.G.E.' would signify a very thin layer of actual 18Kt. gold over base metal. G.E.P. is another marking that signifies Gold Electroplate, or Electro-plaque d'or.

Electroplate is a process in which one metal is coated with another using electricity. Electrogilded coating is the thinnest, being less than .000007 inches thick. Gold-cased metals have a coating that is thicker than .000007 inches.

Gold-dipped is precisely what it would appear to be: jewelry that is made from any other metal, then dipped in gold.

Pinchbeck is not gold at all and in fact is known as 'false gold'. It is nothing more than an alloy that resembles gold. It is named for its inventor, Christopher Pinchbeck who lived in the 18th century and it consists of 83% copper and 17% zinc. Pinchbeck jewelry was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Hallmarks are official marks that either indicate the fineness of the metal or give the manufacturer's mark. Some hallmarks are more accurate and reliable than others. The U.K. has a very exacting standard in terms of hallmarking and therefore any British hallmark is considered to guarantee a superior quality of gold.

In terms of Silver, another precious metal, the closest to pure silver used to create any item would be .999 fine. .999 fine is considered pure silver, with 999 parts out of a thousand consisting of silver.

Sterling silver is NOT pure silver but is very close to being so. Sterling silver equals .925 fine, consisting of 92.5% silver and 7.5% alloy. Common markings for Sterling silver include 'Sterling', '.925' or 'S/S'.

'Nickel silver' is popular in Europe but it in fact contains absolutely no silver whatsoever. It is Nickel as its name would imply.

Mexican silver, known for the art created in Taxco is usually about 90% silver.

Vermeil is a combination of gold and silver, consisting ordinarily of Sterling Silver as the 'base metal' with a heavy plating of 14Kt. gold.

Platinum is another precious metal and is white, very hard and very dense. It usually is alloyed with Iridium and is 90% Platinum and 10% Iridium. Cobalt is an alloy that has been used in Platinum recently.

The Platinum group of precious metals includes Palladium, Iridium, Rhodium and Ruthenium.

Troy weight is a traditional measurement for precious metals. The Troy unit is the pennyweight. This is equivalent to 24 grains or 1.5552 grams. 1 Troy Ounce equals 20 pennyweight or 31.1035 grams. 1 Troy Pound equals 12 Troy ounces or 373.24grams.

If you are interested in fine jewelry or in antiques, you really need to be familiar with these definitions. An ounce of gold may not be worth an ounce of prevention but you ought to know what amount of gold actually is present to avoid being cheated.
On the other hand, in the area of 'vintage' or 'antique' dealing, much misrepresentation is no more than the result of the seller's ignorance. As with 'Jet', which so often is nothing more than glass, sellers tend to copy terms used by other dealers without knowing precisely what they mean.

There are contemporary jewelry merchants who advertise counterfeits blithely and proudly. There is one British firm that advertises 'Pinchbeck' items and describes Pinchbeck as 'an arcane metal invented in the early Eighteenth Century by the famous watchmaker Christopher Pinchbeck in his search for an alternative to gold. The formula, a closely guarded secret, includes zinc, copper, carbon and other 'unknown' elements. Pinchbeck is a beautiful and unique metal that is nickel safe and has the look and warmth of old gold and of course is more affordable.' The products are advertised as 'guaranteed for life and as 'good as gold'. For lovers of 'faux' items, they offer such pieces as 'Pinchbeck Victorian-style' items set with 'faux Jet stone' or 'faux Ceylon Sapphire'. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, if you have no particular interest in genuine gems but when one could obtain the 'genuine article' at almost the same price, one wonders how these merchants manage to be successful. Actually, one doesn't wonder at all. People often are too lazy to look for a genuine antique or prefer a new counterfeit piece to a genuine 'used' item. There are quite a few individuals who view vintage or antique items of any kind rather distastefully as nothing more than 'used' objects, never considering that the history attached to an item could be positive rather than negative.

A ring made from 'Black Hills Gold' is displayed above for the purpose of showing different colours of gold. 'Black Hills Gold' is produced by a contemporary manufacturer known precisely for combining gold of different colours. This particular piece has great symbolical significance as it depicts a grapevine heavy with grapes.

The other photograph I have included here is of an antique cameo of a Bacchante set in Pinchbeck metal. This actually shares the same significance as the gold band. It is a glorious cameo, even if the metal may not be as precious as solid gold and indeed is not gold at all. Here is a situation where one would have to weigh the quality of the carving against the quality of the setting... throw in the age of the piece and the fact that 'genuine' antique Pinchbeck has a value of its own to antique collectors. One then could scrutinise the actual cameo closely and see that it has a hole in it, a 'flea-bite' as it were. It is a good carving but it is not 'unique'. A serious collector with sufficient funds to purchase ANY item on the market might shun it entirely. Some one else might appreciate it and covet it at any price. It appeals to me personally but I can't afford the price. If I had the money, though, I would rather have a genuinely old cameo set in pinchbeck than a new resin cameo set in gold. In the best of all worlds, one would choose an antique shell cameo of high quality set in solid high-carat gold, but that is where fantasy is not able to circumvent reality.

In any event, value ultimately is nothing more than a matter of perception.

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