GOLD! We’ve all seen it, and whether matte or mirror polished, many of us have come to love its warm yellow hue. Today we’re becoming one with our inner geologist, and taking a closer look at where gold comes from, what makes it valuable, and things to consider when it comes to jewelry.
So what is gold anyway?
Gold is a chemical element (Au) with the atomic number 79, making it one of the higher atomic number elements that occur naturally. In a pure form, it is a bright, slightly orange yellow, heavy, and soft or easy to manipulate. It’s also one of the least reactive chemical elements, which’ll come into play later.
*Gold from a mine in Brazil
Where is it from?
Since the 1880s, South Africa has been the source of a large proportion of the world's gold supply, accounting for about 22% of the present supply, and 79% of the world supply in 1970. However, in 2007 China overtook South Africa as the world's largest gold producer, for the first time since 1905.
In 2017, China became the world's leading gold-mining country, followed in order by Australia, Russia, the United States, Canada, and Peru.
*The consumption of gold produced in the world is about 50% in jewelry, 40% in investments, and 10% in industry (think metal parts for tech and medical devices).
How do we get it?
Gold is mined using four different methods. Placer mining, hard rock mining, by-product mining and by processing gold ore. Placer mining is the technique of extracting gold accumulated in a placer deposit. Most extraction methods involve water or dredging. Think about people panning for gold during the California Gold Rush. Most of the world’s gold, however, is produced through Hard rock mining, which extracts gold in rock found in open-pit or underground mines. By-product mining is when gold is produced through mining, but isn’t the main product. For example, some sand and gravel pits may recover small amounts of gold. Finally, gold ore can also be processed by adding specific chemicals such as cyanide and mercury to finally ground rock. The gold is then extracted, formed into an ingot, or a block, and sent for processing.
*Though primarily a copper mine, The Grasberg mine located in Papua, Indonesia is the largest gold producing mine in the world.
Of all the elements available, why did we turn to gold for currency?
Take a look at a periodic table and you can quickly rule out most elements for use as physical currency. Gasses are colorless and difficult to contain, another chunk are toxic, a few are too rigid to mold and shape easily, and then you rule out a few more highly reactive elements that rust or erode when they come in contact with things like air and water. Finally, you want to make sure that whatever you’re using is relatively rare, otherwise you end up with some gigantic coins. What you’re left with are the 8 noble metals: platinum, palladium, rhodium, iridium, osmium and ruthenium, gold and silver.
When it comes to the noble metals most of them are a little too rare (think super tiny expensive coins that you’d lose all the time), difficult to extract, and hard to manipulate. That leaves silver and gold. Where silver tarnishes, gold does not. It’s a relatively inert element that remains stable over time making it the winner.
*The first known coins containing gold were struck in Lydia, Asia Minor, around 600 BC.
Ok Cool, but why do the prices keep going up?
Well, part of that is supply and demand. While the demand for gold has continued to rise, the production of gold has leveled off and currently remains about the same as it was in 2016. More demand + less supply = higher prices
In addition to that, the price of gold is inversely related to the price of the dollar. I didn’t take econ, but it boils down to gold prices being lower and controlled when the US dollar is strong, and higher during times of inflation (like present day) because more gold can be purchased when the dollar is weaker.
For example, today gold is valued at about $1,868 per ounce.
*All of this in combination with the weight, metal purity, or karat,, design, and craftsmanship in a piece determines the final prices of gold jewelry.
That’s fine and dandy, but I wanted to talk about jewelry!
OK, OK, I hear you! When evaluating gold for jewelry purposes there are a few things to consider. Remember how gold is one of the least reactive elements? This means that your jewelry won’t tarnish, and has the added benefit of being wearable for most people with particular metal allergies. Next you have to think about karat and color.
We’ll start with karat. Not to be confused with the carat weight of diamonds, karats measure the purity of gold. So the purer the gold the better right? Not so much. Remember, gold is soft and malleable, so jewelry isn’t typically made with 24 karat gold. You have to add other metals in for strength and create an alloy. In the US the alloys we’re probably most familiar with are 14K and 18K, but 22K is preferred in some East and South Asian countries. Things to think about: the higher the karat the warmer (or more yellow) the gold.
Next, you can manipulate the alloy even further to change the color of gold and produce things like rose or white gold.
White gold is made of a mixture of pure gold and white metals such as nickel, silver and zinc, usually with a rhodium coating. The other metals help to strengthen the gold and increase its durability, as well as give it it's white, lustrous color.
Rose gold is made of pure gold mixed with copper and silver alloys. The copper and silver helps to strengthen it and give it its rose color. The more copper used, the redder the gold appears.
But what is gold-filled, gold plated and gold vermeil?
Gold-filled jewelry is composed of multiple layers of solid gold (5% pure gold by weight) that is pressure bonded with extreme heat over a core of high quality jeweler’s brass or sterling silver resulting in a durable, quality real gold product. Most high quality gold-filled pieces have the same appearance as high carat gold, and gold-filled items, even with daily wear, can last 10 to 30 years though the layer of gold will eventually wear off exposing the metal underneath. The layer of gold on gold-filled pieces is 5-10 times thicker than gold plated pieces.
Gold plated jewelry consists of a thin layer of gold on the surface of another metal such as brass or silver. While the gold is real, because it is such a thin layer, it makes the piece much more inexpensive that gold-filled or solid gold pieces. With that being said, gold plating can begin to fade with regular wear, so here are a few of our suggestions to maintain your gold plated jewelry:
While the plating will still fade over time even following these maintenance tips, your piece can easily be re-plated!
Similar to gold plated jewelry, Gold vermeil jewelry consists of a layer of gold on the surface of another metal. However, it has much stricter regulations to be considered vermeil.
1. It must have a sterling silver base.
2.It has to be plated in at least 10k gold.
3.It must be plated at least 2.5 microns thick (regular gold plating is only 0.5 microns thick)
Put simply, gold vermeil pieces are made only with precious metals with heavy plating to ensure long-lasting wear. Many years longer than regular gold plating.
Now that we have all the basics, you can easily shop for gold jewelry and know exactly what you are buying! Have more questions about gold? Contact us here