When shopping for precious jewelry, gemstones tend to take the spotlight, but they aren’t the only attribute that affects the overall worth of your beloved pieces. Most settings and embellishments are made up of gold, silver, and other precious metals, but, like gemstones, these metals come with their own set of grades.
The Basics of Precious Metal Gradings
Since the various grades of precious metals will have a direct impact on the quality and value of any jewelry piece you purchase containing it, it’s important to know how to read these gradings. Understanding what the gradings represent will help you to make the most educated decision about your jewelry investments.
Understanding the Gold Grading System
Each type of metal (gold, silver, platinum, etc.) comes with its own grading system that is stamped on the piece to label its final grade. The most commonly used precious metal, gold, utilizes a karat system (not to be confused with the carats used to measure the weight of a diamond) to measure its overall worth.
Unlike diamond grades, gold grading is not done to measure weight. Instead, gold grading systems are used to measure the amount of pure gold that is present in each piece. Essentially, the ratings tell retailers and consumers how “pure” the gold is in jewelry items.
You’ve likely noticed various embossed codes on your jewelry pieces. If you’ve seen your rings or gold jewelry clasps stamped with something like “10K” or “24K,” then you’ve seen the grading system for gold. But what does it mean?
Since gold is such a soft metal, it is often mixed with other elements to strengthen it and allow for more durable usage in jewelry. Common mixtures include nickel, palladium, copper (common in rose gold), and silver. While this works to strengthen the end result, it lowers the percentage of pure gold within a specific piece, therefore changing its grading.
Similar to gold, silver jewelry is also commonly blended with other elements. Again, just like gold, this process will change the overall grade of the finished product. So how do you understand these various grades and know you’re getting the best piece for your budget?
Understanding the Ratings
Though different numbering systems, precious metal ratings are similar at their core: they measure the overall purity of the metal. The most commonly used and understood system is the gold grading system.
With gold gradings, a karat is used to determine the make-up of each piece. With a scale of 0 to 24, gold is rated using a ratio of gold to other metals present. The purest gold will have zero metal additives, giving it a 24-karat rating. By extension, 14-karat gold is approximately 58% pure gold (14 karats divided by 24 total possible karats), and 10-karat gold is approximately 42% pure gold.
Silver ratings utilize the same basic principle of grading but uses different number systems. Pure silver has a rating of 999 (or 99.9% pure silver). Another common grade, 925 (or 92.5% pure silver) is what is referred to as sterling silver by retailers.
In general, the higher the number, the purer the precious metal, even if the rating system is different. By extension, the higher the number, the higher the price tag that usually follows with it. This doesn’t necessarily equate to higher quality, as blending metals can build a much more durable piece of jewelry. It all boils down to what your needs (and your budget) require.