As a jewelry artist, I use a variety of silver and gold metals in my designs. While I try to offer a good range of prices for my jewelry, I also don’t want to sacrifice quality for price. Most of my necklaces have the option of choosing between sterling silver and silver plated (along with gold filled and gold plated). So, I definitely get my share of questions asking me what is the difference?
Here is a break-down of the different metals I work with and their main differences.
Sterling silver is 92.5 percent (925 parts) pure silver and 7.5 percent (75 parts) alloy metal, usually copper.
Because pure silver is soft like lead, it is not normally suitable for pendants and chains because it bends, breaks and stretches too much. To make it stronger, sterling silver is created by mixing pure silver with copper to give it more strength. One of the side effects of this is the tarnishing that goes with the inclusion of copper. Depending on your style, this can be a good thing or bad thing.
Sterling Silver Filled
Sterling silver filled wire consists of a layer of durable sterling silver bonded to a copper-alloy or brass-alloy center. It is hundreds of times thicker and more durable than silver plated. The quality is dependent on the thickness of this layer. I only use 1/10 high quality silver filled. This is the highest level available.
Silver filled is definitely not the same thing as silver-plated, which is a very thin layer of silver laid on top of a base metal core.
Silver plated items are made from a very thin coating of pure silver over other metals. When the coating of silver flakes or scrapes off, the base metal underneath is revealed. It is definitely the most economical of all the silver choices. It can also retain its brightness easier and doesn’t tarnish as quickly as sterling silver and sterling silver filled because it generally doesn’t contain the copper metal. Once again, there are trade-offs.
Gold-filled jewelry is a great, less expensive option to 14K gold jewelry. A thick layer of gold is bonded to a base metal (usually sterling silver). The entire outer layer of gold-filled jewelry can be 14K gold, so the appearance is the same as the more expensive option of solid gold.
The gold filled supplies I use are “14/20”. The first number is the karat purity of the gold used; the second number is the amount, by weight, of gold to the substrate material. “14/20” gold-filled material is made with 14-karat gold and the gold represents 1/20th (or 5%) of the total weight of the material. This is up to 100 times the amount of gold as in gold plated jewelry. Because the gold is bonded to the base metal, it will not peel off as gold plated jewelry may over time.
Because the outer layer is 14K gold, gold filled jewelry does not tarnish like gold plated and all silver jewelry can. It stays true to color and is one of the few metals that does not discolor over time.
Gold plated jewelry has a much smaller percentage of gold and goes through a different process than gold filled. To create gold plated jewelry or supplies, a base metal goes through a series of processes and is eventually dipped into a bath of electroplating solution which contains the gold.
The biggest benefit of gold-plated jewelry (besides the cost) is that it’s stronger than solid gold. Gold is a soft metal, and can easily be nicked or bent. Gold-plating can lend an attractive finish to a piece that must be sturdy and durable. The downside is that the gold finish on gold-plated items can begin to chip and wear away over time. Additionally, some items may be prone to tarnishing.
One thing to always remember with tarnishing – it is easily fixed by simply wiping the metal with a anti-tarnish polishing cloth. This will fix most tarnishing due to normal wear. However, tarnish can also occur due to other influences. To learn more about ways you may be accidentally contributing to speeding up the tarnishing process with your jewelry, see my post How Your Jewelry Can Discolor.