Your Guide to Gold Vermeil: How to Make the Most of Your Jewels
Of all the elements, gold has always been most the coveted. Gold represents power and prestige and is the standard against which wealth is often measured. Men have fought wars, set out to explore the world and even left their homes and families behind in the search for this elusive metal.
Gold vermeil (pronounced vur-may) is a form of premium gold plating. It is fashionable in jewelry making and is a cost-effective way of obtaining the look of gold without the expense of purchasing solid gold.
The history of gold-plating
The concept of gold plating is not new. The rarity and expense of solid-gold objects has historically made the idea of depositing a thin layer of gold over another metal to create the appearance of gold an attractive option.
Also, gold is one of the softer metals, so adding a harder base metal underneath serves a practical purpose by improving the durability of gold items. Gilding, and then the technique of electroplating, was developed to meet these needs.
The technique of fire-gilding using mercury amalgam has been known since the first century A.D. and was mentioned in the works of Pliny the Elder. The mercury fumes made it a highly dangerous process, which consistently led to the insanity and death of the gilder after only three or four applications. Nevertheless, gilded items were highly prized throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance periods.
The modern history of gold plating started in 1800 with Alessandro Volta's research into electro-chemical batteries. In 1805, the Italian chemist and university professor Luigi Brugnatelli then adapted Volta's ideas to create a new technique for water gilding. He connected a wire between a Voltaic pile and a metal object submerged in a solution of gold chloride. As the current flowed, the gold attached to the metal object creating a smooth, shiny coating.
However, Napoleon disapproved of the idea of the lower classes having access to gold-plated items, so he blocked Brugnatelli from publishing his findings through the French Academy of Sciences.
It wasn't until superior electroplating processes using cyanide baths were independently developed in the 1840s in Great Britain by the Elkington brothers that gold- and silver-plating techniques really started to take off. Electroplated decorative items quickly became a staple of fashionable drawing rooms across Europe and the United States, while electroplated domes started to appear on churches in Russia. Electroplating started to be applied to jewelry from around 1857.
An introduction to gold vermeil
Although gold vermeil is a form of gold plating, it is superior to most forms of gold plating by its base composition and the thickness of the plating. While gold plating can be applied to any base metal, if an item is described as gold vermeil, it means that the underlying metal is sterling silver. The thickness of the plating also sets gold vermeil apart from other gold plating as, to qualify as gold vermeil, the plating must be at least 2.5 microns thick (0.0025 millimeters).
The quality of the gold used is also important. Gold is measured in karats, and the gold must be at least 10 karats to be described as gold vermeil in the USA. In practice, most high-quality gold vermeil is 14, 18 or 24 karats.
In addition to its use in jewelry, gold vermeil is occasionally used for premium cutlery, tableware and luxury decorative items for the home. The White House has a large vermeil collection, which is housed in its own dedicated room. The gold coating over sterling silver gives gold vermeil a distinctive bright yellow tone.
How gold vermeil jewelry is made
Gold vermeil jewelry is first fashioned from silver. The item is then immersed in an electrolyte solution that contains particles of dissolved gold. A current is passed through the solution, and the gold particles adhere to the silver jewelry item.
How gold vermeil compares to other forms of gold plating
Jewelry, which is described as gold-plated, may initially look very similar to gold vermeil but is usually significantly inferior in quality. The base metal used for gold-plated jewelry is often brass or steel, both of which may expose the wearer to base metal allergies. The items are often dipped only briefly and have only a thin layer of plating which can then wear off very quickly, particularly on high-wear items, such as rings.
You may also come across jewelry which is described as gold-filled. The base metal used for gold-filled jewelry is often brass or copper, which has been mechanically bonded to sheets of 10 karat gold. The gold makes up at least 5 percent of the weight of the finished item. As the process for creating gold-filled jewelry uses sheets of gold, only certain types and shapes of an item can be produced.
Gold-filled jewelry is at least as durable as gold vermeil and may even be slightly more long-lasting. Expert opinions differ as to whether gold-filled or gold vermeil jewelry is the better choice.
Buying tips for gold vermeil jewelry
Traditionally, the finest gold vermeil jewelry is imported from Italy, where the secrets of the creation of beautiful gold vermeil are passed down through families of jewelry artisans. Italy imposes strict quality control standards on its production of gold vermeil to protect its reputation as a high-quality jewelry exporter, so if you choose genuine Italian-made gold vermeil, you can be confident in the quality of the items you are buying.
If you're relatively new to buying gold vermeil, your best option is to ensure you buy from a reputable supplier, so that you can be sure you are getting genuine gold vermeil and not a cheap substitute.
However, if you are offered gold vermeil from a supplier you are unsure about, the key check you can make on gold vermeil is a stamp that denotes the standard silver purity value. This will tell you the core metal is silver. If you see .925, it means the core metal is a 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent of a different metal, usually copper, which is added to improve the hardness of the metal; .925 is considered an ideal silver purity level for jewelry purposes.
It is usually more difficult to judge the thickness of the gold covering by eye. However, if the item is advertised at 14 karats or more, it is more likely to be genuine gold vermeil, as cheaper gold-plated items are often covered in 10 karat gold.
The price of the item is also usually a good indication of quality. If the item is the same price as sterling silver items or items described simply as gold-plated, it is unlikely to be genuine gold vermeil. Gold vermeil is a premium product, and although it costs substantially less than solid gold, genuine gold vermeil will cost more than silver or cheap gold plating.
How to use gold vermeil in your jewelry making
Gold is expensive, and although gold vermeil is a more budget-friendly alternative, using gold vermeil just as an accent in your jewelry making is a good way to get started with this most coveted of metals without breaking the bank.
Adding small gold findings to your jewelry pieces, such as a gold vermeil bead, gold vermeil toggle, gold vermeil clasp or a gold vermeil drop is a relatively inexpensive addition that will add depth and variety to your design. This is a simple option if your main interest is in the overall creative impact you can achieve by assembling beautiful jewelry from pre-made components.
Another intriguing option is to experiment with gold fabrication metals, such as casings and bezel wire to create mixed metal jewelry pieces. This is an excellent option if you enjoy the process of making your jewelry pieces from scratch and want to introduce little touches of gold. The simplest way to start is to use a gold vermeil item as your focal point and select wires and casings in other metals to set off the beauty of the gold vermeil.
If you choose to use gold vermeil wires instead, it pays to be cautious when soldering, as this is likely to remove the gold plating. You're likely to need a pen-plating kit to touch up any soldered areas.
Creating jewelry using mixed gold techniques is a more advanced approach, but if you love the look of gold, this is a way to create one-of-a-kind pieces that showcase your mastery of different skills. Techniques to experiment with include applying gold leaf to organics, such as wood, fusing gold foil to other metals in the Korean Keum-boo technique, painting on liquid gold and pen plating. Incorporating some or all these techniques alongside gold vermeil will create intricate, layered pieces.
If you've already got your jewelry-making business off the ground, substituting vermeil for solid gold in your designs is a way to make them more affordable for your customers. The rocketing price of gold puts many solid-gold items out of reach for the average customer, and although they may love your designs, you'll never capture this market at the price point that solid gold demands. Offering your designs in gold vermeil means you can reduce the price to a tenth of the cost of solid gold and immediately start selling to a much wider market.
Using gold vermeil is also an affordable way to test out new designs without tying up a lot of capital in solid gold that may not sell or may only sell slowly. If you hit on a popular design that you've offered in gold vermeil on a test basis, you can then experiment with offering the same design in solid precious metals with more confidence that it will sell.
Looking after your gold vermeil jewelry
The moistness and acidity of your skin will eventually result in the gold plating or gold vermeil jewelry wearing off. Items such as rings, necklaces and bracelets which are in constant contact with the skin are more prone to wear than items such as earrings and brooches which rarely touch the skin.
As with any piece of jewelry, apply make-up and perfume before putting on your jewelry to protect the finish. Remove gold vermeil jewelry before doing dishes, cleaning, showering, swimming or entering a hot tub. Chlorine, especially at high temperatures, can permanently damage or discolor your gold vermeil jewelry.
Although the covering on gold vermeil is thicker than on cheaper plated jewelry, it will still wear off over time, and this process will be accelerated if you expose your jewelry to water, detergents, alcohol (in perfume) and other chemicals.
Over time, the silver underneath the plating may start to tarnish owing to a natural oxidation process. Once this process begins, you may notice that the color of the gold plating may start to darken. You can somewhat slow down this effect by keeping your jewelry in an airtight container and occasionally buffing it with a soft, clean cloth. Using chemical jewelry cleaners is not recommended for gold vermeil, as this may hasten the wear on the plating layer.
If you dislike the effect of the tarnishing, it is usually possible to re-plate the item to restore its finish. Although, any gems set into the item will first need to be removed before this process can take place.
Value of gold vermeil jewelry
Solid gold jewelry has an intrinsic monetary value over and above its aesthetic value. However, the value of any gold-plated item is mainly in its artistic and visual appeal. Gold vermeil has slightly more intrinsic value than other forms of gold-plated jewelry, as the silver base retains some modest value. However, overall, if a gold-plated item is no longer considered attractive, then it becomes largely worthless.
As fashions change, new gold vermeil items you purchase today are unlikely to have much residual value in the future. The only exception to this might be if you are fortunate enough to purchase an item that has, or gains, some cultural significance. A good example is an item created for a celebrity or a great example of the work of a major designer.
Gold vermeil is a fantastic alternative to solid gold for your jewelry. It doesn't have the same intrinsic value as gold, so it isn't an investment purchase, but as it can cost as little as a tenth as much as solid gold. So, if you're buying it simply to wear and enjoy or to make into jewelry for others, it’s an excellent choice which will give you, or your customers, years of pleasure.