When shopping for accessories like a pair of gold hoops or a diamond tennis bracelet, it’s easy to get lost in the jewelry vernacular. You’ll come across product descriptions that read “14k yellow gold” or “gold plated,” but what does this actually mean? A reoccurring, and often confusing, term you may have noticed, too, is gold vermeil jewelry. Is it gold? What is vermeil? Before you fret over these questions, TZR asked several jewelry industry experts, who work directly with this material, for answers. They break down the composition of gold vermeil and offer tips and tricks to buying, and wearing, this type of jewelry.
According to Edge of Ember founder Lynette Ong, gold vermeil is defined as having a sterling silver base with a layer of gold applied onto it that is at least 2.5 microns (0.0025 mm) in thickness. The gold has to be at least 10k, or 41.7% pure gold, (the k stands for karat, a measure of the purity of gold). A higher karat means a higher percentage of gold, so a 24k gold piece of jewelry signifies 100% pure gold. However, this is very rarely used in jewelry manufacturing due to how soft this unadulterated precious material is. Most brands opt for 14k gold (58.3% pure gold) that gives the jewelry a soft, lustrous hue.
For jewelers, one of the pros of creating a gold vermeil piece rather than gold-plated jewelry, which typically has a 0.5 micron gold sheet layered over a base metal like brass, copper, or nickel, is its durability. “The porousness of brass makes it difficult to keep pristine in that way,” KHIRY founder Jameel Mohammed tells TZR. “Ultimately, all plated jewelry will fade over time. That's why I transitioned to silver [after experimenting with gold-plated brass samples]. It felt less prone to the kind of diffuse that can come with plated jewelry.”
Ong says you can expect to spend anywhere from $50 for a low-tier gold vermeil ring to $350 for a gold vermeil necklace while Mohammed adds pricing depends on how durable and unique you want your piece to be. “Long story short, there's not a single price. It's about where in the market that brand is aiming to be perceived,” Mohammed states. “If you are looking to support smaller businesses, you should think about the fact that their costs are probably higher for the same thing, relative to like larger companies that have greater economies of scale.” (For reference, KHIRY’s gold vermeil pieces range from $215 for a stacking ring to $675 for a medallion necklace.)
In addition to gold vermeil and gold-plated pieces, there’s also the term gold-filled. The difference between the latter and gold-plated jewelry boils down to technique. In gold-filled jewelry, a solid layer of gold is mechanically bonded to a base metal, typically brass. (A gold sheet or wire wraps around the core base metal while heat is used to fuse the gold layer and the underlying core together.) “Because it is produced in this bonded way, the gold cannot rub off, so it has the benefits of solid gold jewelry, but at a fraction of the cost,” Ong shares. “However, gold-filled jewelry has some limitations in the way it can be manufactured. It cannot be cast or poured into a mold as it’s only available in [gold] sheets or wire.” When comparing gold-filled jewelry to gold vermeil then, gold-filled pieces will likely be more durable than gold vermeil, due to manufacturing processes.
Finally, there is solid gold, which is always a top option, as it can be worn every day and is immune to discoloration or tarnishing. There is one catch: don’t confuse it with pure gold. Pure gold has to be 24k in weight while solid gold can be made up of the least pure, yet most durable, 10k kind. What the term solid gold signifies is that the piece contains no other metal to serve as the base for the jewelry piece.
Overall, gold vermeil wins for its durability and affordability. It’s important to treat this type of jewelry with care, too, like you would with luxe jewelry. As a general rule of thumb, avoid showering or exercising with gold vermeil jewelry. Store pieces individually and out of the sunlight. Beauty products, too, like hand sanitizer, perfumes, creams, and hairsprays can cause tarnish. (The sterling silver base in gold vermeil oxidizes when exposed to air, humidity, sweat, or chemicals, hence the discoloration seeping through over time.)
If the tarnishing has already happened though, there are ways to alleviate the damage. “Light tarnishing can be lifted by cleaning your jewelry with a soft polishing cloth,” Ong says. “And if dirt is beginning to build up on your pieces and you need something a little stronger, use a silver polish solution.” As a final solution, you can always replate your beloved gold vermeil piece (KHIRY offers this service in-house on an ad hoc basis.)
Now that you’re caught up on the ins and outs of gold vermeil jewelry, start adding some pieces into your own collection. You’ll find an assortment of everyday earrings, statement rings, and more ahead.
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