Understanding Gold Karats

Gold rings
Gold is available in different karats.

Understanding gold karats is important when buying jewelry. The karat of an item helps define its quality and value; therefore, knowing a little about how different golds are formed can give a useful insight when planning a jewelry purchase.

What Is a Gold Karat?

Most gold that is used for jewelry purposes is, in fact, a gold alloy. This means that pure gold is mixed with other metals such as copper, silver or palladium.

Pure gold is referred to as 24 karat (it is important to note that when buying jewelry from outside of the US or Canada this word is spelled carat), this means that it is 100 percent or 24 parts gold. The most common gold karats used in jewelry are:

  • 22 karat (22 parts gold, 2 parts other metal)
  • 18 karat (18 parts gold, 6 parts other metal)
  • 14 karat (14 parts gold, 10 parts other metal)
  • 10 karat (10 parts gold, 14 parts other metal)

There are many other karats and variations, with jewelers in different countries having their particular favorite gold karat to work with.

Why Mix Pure Gold With Other Metals?

There are two extremely important and practical reasons for mixing golds with other metals. These are:

Hardness

Pure gold is an extremely soft metal and will knock and scratch very easily. This makes it impractical for daily wear. By mixing the pure gold with a harder metal, the gold becomes much more hard wearing and suitable for rings and other jewelry items that are subject to the rigors of daily life.

Gold that has been mixed with other metals is also much less likely to wear down as quickly as pure gold. This makes it a much more practical choice for all types of jewelry.

Cost

By mixing pure gold with other, less costly metals the price of the raw materials comes down. This is reflected in the price of the finished item of jewelry. A 10 karat ring, for instance, should cost significantly less than the 18 karat version.

Identifying Karat

All items of jewelry should be stamped indicating what karat of gold has been used and the mark of the maker, both stamps must be clearly visible. This stamp will either indicate the karat by number, for example 14 karat or 14 k, by a three digit figure which represents the parts of gold per thousand or as a percentage. This might sound confusing, however as the table below shows the higher the figure the greater the proportion of gold included within the metal.

  • 22 karat (916) 91.6%
  • 20 karat (833) 83.3%
  • 18 karat (750) 75%
  • 14 karat (585) 58.5%
  • 10 karat (417) 41.7%
  • 9 karat (375) 37.5%

It is useful when buying jewelry to make a note of all three karat measurements as different jewelers will stamp their jewelry in different ways. This is particularly important when buying jewelry from abroad.

Karat and Color

The introduction of other metals into gold also introduces different colors to the standard yellow gold color. Typical colors of gold and the metals that create them are:

  • White Gold - Palladium, silver, nickel
  • Red Gold - Copper
  • Green Gold - Silver

The Choice of Karat

When buying jewelry, the choice of karat is a very personal thing. This will largely be dictated by budget, however there are also other considerations. Lower karat golds are definitely harder wearing. This means that they are an excellent choice for jewelry that will get a lot of wear and tear. Many artisan jewelers also work in lower karat gold, therefore sometimes more unusual jewelry designs can be more commonly found using these golds.

Other Important Information About Karat

It is the other metals contained in gold that can sometimes cause an irritation or leave a mark on skin. Some people find that they have an allergy to gold, although in reality they probably have an allergy to the metal that has been mixed with gold. Someone who has an allergy to low karat golds will probably find that this disappears with higher quality golds. Likewise, the light patina that is left on the skin when wearing low karat golds will also disappear when wearing higher quality golds.


Buying jewelry, although a pleasure, can sometimes be a daunting task. Hopefully this will have given you a further insight into the wonderful world of jewelry and give you some additional information to help you with your next purchase.

Understanding Gold Karats