Most jewelry comes in two distinct forms – solid (as an alloy for softer metals) or plated. Picking between these is an important decision, so let’s take a look at the differences and what they mean to you.
Solid Jewelry 101
Solid jewelry includes pieces made of a single metal. Now, that doesn’t mean every piece has to be the same metal. It’s quite common to see different metals used in different parts – for example, a soft gold ring may have a sturdy titanium setting for its gem.
Solid pieces are considered more ‘genuine’ than plated pieces because they are what they appear to be.
Solid jewelry is made and sold for a variety of reasons, including:
Solid gold jewelry (and jewelry made from other precious metals) is valuable. This matters on the business end (because companies like selling expensive goods), but it also matters for customers who want to buy something expensive. This could be because they just want to buy something valuable for someone they care about, but it might also be because they’d rather not be “caught” wearing “fake” accessories.
A less common reason is buying solid jewelry as an investment. Unlike gold bullion, which is usually sold in fairly set amounts, jewelry often includes a little gold and a gem that can affect its value. By carefully selecting the right gem, it’s possible to safeguard the value of the item. For example, even if the price of gold drops out, chances are a diamond will remain valuable.
This is the same idea as diversifying an investment portfolio – by spreading the risk across different areas, it’s more likely that you’ll be safe even if one or two areas experience a sharp downturn.
Gold isn’t strong – that’s why most jewelry with gold turns it into an alloy. However, naturally strong materials like titanium, cobalt, and tungsten make for damage-resistant jewelry that can be worn even in rough situations (like rock climbing) without fear.
In these cases, plating them with something else doesn’t make sense – any other material is likely to be more vulnerable to damage, and that’s exactly what you’re trying to avoid.
That said, there is such a thing as jewelry being too strong. If medical personnel need to cut off your ring (because you were in an accident and mangled your finger, say), a ring that’s too strong may force them to amputate and maybe reattach the finger instead. This isn’t a common problem, but it does happen, so it’s worth keeping in mind when you decide on a piece of jewelry to buy.
Some people have an allergic reaction to metals like nickel. Other metals – like copper – are known to discolor the skin if worn for too long. Solid jewelry ensures that there’s no ‘core’ of metal you might accidentally rub down to, making it distinctly safer for anyone who reacts to metal.
Plated Jewelry 101
Precious metal plating is performed by covering the exterior of one piece of metal with a thin layer of something else. This isn’t as simple as ‘dipping’ one metal into another, though – here’s what happens during gold plating (the most common process).
Step 1: Cleaning
At this stage, the base of the piece is carefully cleaned to remove dirt, oil, and anything else that could interfere with the plating process. It’s fairly common to use sonic baths and polish the base piece.
The initial cleaning is followed by a second, deeper cleaning process. This is especially important for complex, intricate pieces that have many places for dirt to hide.
After the cleaning process, the piece is carefully rinsed to ensure no cleaning agents remain.
Step 2: Strike
Some pieces require a strike layer – a thin piece of metal, usually nickel – between the base metal and the plated metal. This is because gold does not attach equally well to all other metals. Nickel works well for most combinations, so it’s used as something that bonds well to both sides.
In some cases, a strike layer is a shield against the base metal. Copper, for example, is known to move past the gold layer and tarnish jewelry if it doesn’t have something in the way.
Step 3: Base Coats
Many plated pieces consist of multiple layers. Aside from bringing costs down, this helps improve the durability of the final piece. For example, repeated layers of gold and nickel can add value without making the piece too soft to wear.
Step 4: Final Coat
When it’s time for the last coat, the piece is submerged in a plating solution. An electrical charge is applied, and the negatively-charged metal attracts the positively-charged gold inside the solution. Instead of simply pouring gold over the base piece, this process creates atomic bonds and drastically improves the final result.
The thickness of the final layer varies based on how long it’s submerged.
Step 5: Cleaning And Polishing
Once the piece is done, it’s time to another round of rinsing and drying. A final check is performed at this stage to catch any problems – if some places didn’t get plated properly, it might need to be submerged again.
Why People Buy Plated Jewelry
There are several common reasons why people buy plated jewelry instead of solid pieces.
Plated pieces are almost always more affordable than a solid piece of the exterior metal. Note that this isn’t the same as being “low” cost, per se – a gold-plated piece of silver is still fairly valuable, and priced accordingly.
That said, plating makes it easy to get the appearance of rich jewelry at a fraction of the price. If you care more your appearance than how you achieve it, plated pieces are a great way to go.
We mentioned this above, but appearance plays a big part in the selection of plated pieces. It’s not just appearing to have gold when you really don’t, either. Some people like to have an antiquated/old appearance for their jewelry, and this is much easier to do with plating.
Similarly, plating may be done to create particularly ornate or complicated pieces. Some metals (i.e., gold) are difficult to work into complex shapes, so making the base with a harder metal and plating the gold on top allows for designs that would otherwise be impossible.
Gold is the most common choice for plating, but silver plated jewelry is also available in most areas.
Many plated surfaces are stronger than their base material. For example, Argentium sterling silver is more resistant to tarnishing than most other forms of sterling silver, so it can provide a better exterior appearance.
Longevity-focused pieces are interesting in that they can be more expensive than most plated pieces. When value and appearance are the goals, a thin, near-indistinguishable layer of a tougher material (like lower-karat gold) may be plated on top of a valuable base metal (high-karat gold).
This is worth looking into if you plan to wear a piece of jewelry on a constant basis. A protective outer layer can be applied to any piece of jewelry, but it’s especially common on wedding rings that people don’t plan to take off.
Popular Base Metals
The following are some of the most common base metals used in plated jewelry.
- Brass: This is an ally of copper and zinc (usually in a 70/30 ratio), offering a warm yellow color at an extremely low price. Brass surfaces tend to be imperfect and change as they age.
- Copper: Copper is a soft red metal. While it’s good for wire wrapping, its tendency to discolor skin and its low durability means it’s rarely used on the outside of jewelry.
- Nickel Silver: Nickel silver doesn’t have any actual silver in it. Instead, it’s an alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc that has a similar appearance. Thanks to its solid blend of appearance, cost, and durability, nickel silver is sometimes used on the outside of pieces.
- Niobium: Niobium is a relatively uncommon hypoallergenic metal. The human body just doesn’t react to it, making it a safe choice for people with metal allergies.
- Pewter: Pewter is a soft alloy created by mixing tin with antimony and copper. This is an affordable metal, but it isn’t particularly attractive, so pewter almost always has a surface plating over it.
- Steel: Many different forms of steel (iron-based alloys) are used for jewelry, from popular options like stainless steel to rarer choices like cold-rolled or surgical stainless. Note that stainless steel usually contains nickel, making it bad for people with allergies.
- Titanium: Titanium is a strong, corrosion-resistant metal. Essentially, it’s an improved version of Niobium, with many of the same properties as its lesser cousin.
Which One Should I Get?
When deciding between solid or plated, consider the factors of each piece and the metals used. If you’re looking to invest your money in something that will keep its value, solid jewelry with gemstones is the best way to go. On the other hand, if your focus is more on the appearance than the cost, plated jewelry is a better choice.
Both types can be strong – however, solid pieces are more resistant to external damage when made of a suitable material, and that’s an important thing to keep in mind if your lifestyle exposes your jewelry to damage.
Many of the terms used in buying and selling jewelry have specific legal definitions. You should review the FTC’s page on the subject before deciding on what to buy.