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What Is The Difference Between Costume Jewelry & Fine Jewelry?

Will your jewelry last you a lifetime or just for the season? Online you can find millions of jewelry items to buy-which can become confusing. Why is one necklace $10 and another is $1000? Why shouldn't I just buy the cheapest one or the one made by some designer touting herself as an expert?

These are the questions that women all over are asking now that they are shopping online for their jewelry. As a woman that has been a jeweler for over 30 years and a gemologist for 26 years, I thought that I should try to explain the differences.

Costume Jewelry

Gold plated - Lowest price jewelry is always made from a base metal or brass and then the manufacturer usually puts one or two coats of plating over it. The flash of the plating actually has very little gold in it.  How long it lasts is usually dependent on how many microns thick the plating is and whether the metal plated likes to adhere to that type of metal. Many people refer to this as gold jewelry but beware as it is not solid and usually just takes a few dollars to make. Most of your costume jewelry (not precious metals) is made of this gold plated material. This product is only good for a short time.  When the plating wears off, you just have to toss it as there is no way to bring it back to the original condition as it was when you bought it. There is a ton of gold-plated jewelry made in China and India and imported into the USA as "designer jewelry".  Typically, if a designer makes purses or other fashion items and then has jewelry, the jewelry they sell will be made with gold plate and faux stones.

A step up from this is gold- filled jewelry and is typically stamped "1/20th 12kt gold-filled. Very few jewelry manufacturers work in gold-filled. The advantage to gold-filled over plated is that it will last much longer and it is much stronger.

Vermeil is when someone puts a gold plate over sterling silver.  While beautiful, it is not the same as buying 14 karat gold but it does last much longer than the gold-plated base metal that I described.

Many people use the term "gold jewelry" loosely.  They are referring to the color of the metal and not that it is actually real gold-10 karat,14 karat,18 karat is real gold. Beware of this and it will save you some money and heartache.

Also, be careful of the difference between costume and custom. "Costume" is "pretend jewelry" in that it is pretending to be a precious metal  and "custom" is often used when custom making a fine jewelry piece out of precious metals.

Fine Gold Jewelry

Pure gold is 24 karat or .9999 pure gold.  This is what your daily gold market refers to. They announce how much it cost for one ounce of 24 karat gold each week day.  The cost of one ounce of gold on today's date, November 14th is $1889. To explain what 14 karat gold, etc. means, it takes a little mathematical equation.

10 karat is 10 parts gold and 14 parts alloy.  The formula is 10 divided by 24=.4166 or 41.66% pure gold.

14 karat is 14 parts gold and 10 parts alloy.  The formula is 14 divided by 24=.585 or 58.5% pure gold.

18 karat is 18 parts gold and 6 parts alloy.  The formula is 18 divided by 24=.75 or 75% pure gold.

Real gold jewelry items are usually stamped on the metal the gold content:

10k, 14k, 18k or .416, .585, .750.  If you see any of these stampings, you probably have real solid gold.  In the United States, if something is considered real gold it has to be at least 10 karats.

Great Britain has 8k gold as its minimum and some other countries only allow 18k gold as their minimum so different countries have different laws on the stamping and marking of their quality of gold.

Most items that are stamped do have that content of gold but just like any trade, there are cheaters or people misrepresenting something.  I have seen things that test to be 10k and stamped as 14k.  I have seen gold plated rings from Mexico and other countries that are stamped 14k and are actually sterling with a gold plating over it that is pretty good fakes. Always beware of someone asking for money but willing to give you their gold ring.  Believe me, the gold ring is a fake! This is a pretty popular "con" and I have had customers tell me that it happened to them in the airport or outside of a restaurant.

Platinum Fine Jewelry

Platinum is a separate precious metal all to its own.  With a much higher melting temperature than gold it is extremely hard to work with. A jeweler also has to have extra equipment and tools to work on platinum. Platinum is typical stamped 950 or 900 which represents the percent of pure platinum in the item.  So it is either 95% pure platinum or 90% pure platinum.  I have also seen cases where the platinum is a lower percent but I would not recommend buying these pieces.

Sterling Silver-Precious Metal

Sterling silver is also a precious metal. A common question is "what is the difference in sterling silver and silver".  If someone calls something silver, it is probably silver plated and not worth much at all.  If it is sterling silver, this is 92.5 pure silver so sterling silver is a precious metal that can be cast and formed just like gold and platinum.  It is beautiful when it is polished but the down side is that it is 40 times softer than 14k gold and it tarnishes.  The best thing about sterling is that it is only $25 an ounce (75 times less expensive than gold)!

Many people think that when their sterling silver jewelry tarnishes that you have to go buy more of it.  This could be further from the truth.  Any precious metal, including sterling, can always be polished back to it's original luster. You just have to have the proper equipment to do so.  I would recommend getting your sterling professionally polished every year.

This information should give you some new knowledge of the different types of metal in costume jewelry and fine precious jewelry. I love real precious metals for all my jewelry and if you are a jewelry lover, you will eventually too!


In trying to simplify things, I put gemstones in 3 categories:

  1. Genuine and Natural-these are the precious gemstones that mother nature made.  As gemologists, we study the 90 most valuable gemstones. This includes diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, topaz, tanzanite, quartz, etc. They are usually set in precious metal jewelry.
  2. Synthetic-these are the gemstones that have the same chemical composition as a natural diamond but made by man. Examples of these are synthetic corundum and diamond. These gemstones are made to trick you so they also are put in precious metals but sometimes 18k HGE which stands for 18k High Gold Electroplate.
  3. Faux-these are stones that are made of plastic, glass, or other materials to imitate genuine. Examples are rhinestones and colored glass.  These are usually set in gold-plated or sterling silver.

Hopefully, this article has educated you on what to look for when you are buying any kind of jewelry.




Thank you, this article was very helpful. I did have a question about a ring that was passed down to me from my grandmother who may have gotten it from her grandmother. The ring is gold with 10k stamped on it, but it is set with a large rectangular reddish-orange stone that looks and feels like plastic or a very cheap glass perhaps. I have been wondering why anyone would bother with a real gold setting for such an obviously faux stone?

Shelia Thomas

Thank you so much for the article, as it clears up several questions I have had regarding jewelry being sold online, for which I am usually skeptical of anyway. Again, thanks.

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