Let's Talk About Gold!

Let's Talk About Gold!

Who doesn’t love the luster and shine, the smooth creamy feel, of gold? Yellow or white, gold has captured our imaginations, adorned our bodies, highlighted our art, and given luster to objects of worship since human pre-history. But how can we tell whether it is “pure”?

  Well to answer that we must first start with the limitations we face when creating with gold. Gold is an extremely malleable metal. Picture a piece of gold roughly the size of a grain of rice. When beaten this rice sized nugget can be thinned out until it covers an area just over 10ft squared. This characteristic softness makes gold both perfect, and terrible, for use in jewelry. While it is easy to manipulate, truly pure gold is far too soft to wear without being alloyed. To alloy is to mix metals together creating a more usable material. In the case of gold, we must mix at least two parts of another metal, frequently copper or silver, in order to create wearable items. In short, the lovely gold jewels we wear are never “pure” gold. All will however be a percentage of pure gold, the amount of which is referred to as its caratage, fineness, or standard. 

    Now to understand Caratage. 

  The “Troy” ounce has been used as a measurement of weight for precious metals since at least the Middle Ages, though possibly much longer. We can, and sometimes do, break this down into grams for a more modern context. But the exact number in grams is a bit unwieldy, and likely unnecessary, for this post. A Troy ounce was thought of in 24 parts per whole, the parts being called “carats”. Giving us carat weight. Hence pure gold is a full 24 carats (ct), or 24 parts of a whole. If you like to bake, or just love fractions, you can think of this as 241. But pure gold (24ct) is really too soft to use for jewelry. Generally speaking, the highest caratage you will find is 22ct(k).

    Fineness and caratage is at heart the same information. Just from slightly different perspectives. Caratage tells us the exact parts of pure gold to alloy material. Fineness gives us the percentage of gold used in parts per thousand. This is called the Millesimal system. Essentially both are giving us the percentage of gold to other metal used in an item. Caratage is simply giving us these percentages as a fraction, while fineness translates percentages into whole numbers. Think of it this way, a foot is the same length whether we write it as 12” or 1ft. Both descriptors are simply a way of telling us how much is pure gold and how much is alloy material.

    Gold works have been closely overseen for centuries creating a vast history of many and varied hallmarks. Written records for Gold Purity Standards date back to the Middle Ages. Exact dates of decreed legal standards vary by country and era, changing many times over the centuries. But the idea is always to identify and represent an expected standard amount of pure gold to alloy used in order to protect consumers. Standards vary greatly by country. Not simply the amount and markings, but whether they are compulsory or optional. These variations may seem innocuous but have a big effect on the import of gold goods from one country to another. In order to facilitate greater market access in 1972 several European nations agreed upon a Common Control Mark (CCM). The CCM is now in use in 21 contracting states. This mark is pretty easy to identify. It utilizes the Millesimal system. Setting the numbers between a set of scales, all held inside two overlapping circles.

This table will hopefully help you visualize the amounts of gold used.

Karatage/Caratage

System

Millesimal

System

Percentage of Gold

Country of Use

Dates Introduced

24k

999

99.9%

23k/ct

960

95.83%

22k/ct

916

91.6%

England

1575

21

875

87.5%

20 

840

84%

19.5ct

812.5

81.25%

England, 

1300-1477

19.2k

800

80%

Portugal 

18k/ct

750

75%

France, England, 

1477

1798

15ct

625

62.5%

England, 

1854-1933

14k

585/583

58.5%/58.3%

United States, Britain

late 1800's

1930's

12ct

500

50%

England, 

1854-1933

10k

417

41.7%

United States, 

1906

9k/ct

375

37.5%

England, 

1854-present

8k

333

33.3%

Denmark, Greece, Russia

    It would be so delightfully easy if all gold standards were marked in their numbered parts. But it is just not that simple. Gold may be marked by a wide variety of numbers, animals, and shapes. While this may make understanding them more difficult, it also makes the exploration of gold that much more fascinating! It also means that each marking gives us a wealth of information. For instance, 15ct, 12ct, and 9ct gold were only produced in England beginning in 1854. The use of 15ct and 12ct for English gold wares ended in 1933. As soon as we see the crown and 15 mark we know exactly where, and just about when, that piece was created! 

    Unless you’ve been studying all things gold for decades identification can be a heady subject. But we want you to be as knowledgeable as possible as you curate your own collection.  For now, we will stick with identifying gold quality marks. But don’t forget to check back in as we explore makers (artists) marks, marks of origin, and any other gold info we can supply to guide you on your quest in choosing quality adornments.

https://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/science/chemistry/properties-gold

https://www.gold.org/about-gold/about-gold-jewellery/gold-hallmarks

Jackson’s Silver and Gold Marks of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Sir Charles Jackson

    Third edition, edited by Ian Pickford, Antique Collectors Club



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