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Even though we see gold every day, itÕs actually a relatively rare mineral. Pure gold is present in the earthÕs crust in the amount of only about 4 parts per billion. Surprisingly, itÕs rarer than platinum at 45 parts per billion (but platinum is much more expensive to mine). A substantial amount of earth has to be mined and processed, so much that a yield of one ounce from five tons of ore is considered a rich find. Some mines run over 7000 feet deep, and the recovery cost can be very high.

Gold is the most malleable precious metal. One ounce of pure gold can be rolled into a 100 square foot sheet just five millionths of an inch thick! That same ounce can be drawn into a wire thread over 50 miles long.

Aside from pure gold (24 karat), all gold jewelry is an alloy (pure gold mixed with other metals). If itÕs 75% pure gold and 25% other metals, itÕs 18K (marked 750 in Europe). Something stamped 14K has to be exactly 58.5% pure gold (585 in Europe), and 10K is 41.6% pure gold (the lowest legal karatage in the US). As you know, gold comes in different colors, which is where those Òother metalsÓ come in. To create gold for jewelry where you donÕt want 24K (which is usually too soft), copper and silver are used. When the percentage of copper relative to silver is increased, it becomes pink (or rose) gold. But the more copper, the more brittle it will be. Using more silver and less copper results in green gold (which looks more like a greenish tinted yellow than a true green). When white gold is desired, the normal combination is nickel and copper added to the pure yellow gold. Nickel causes allergic reactions in some people and is banned in Europe as an alloy. There, silver and palladium (an expensive member of the platinum family) are used. Some newer colors are peach gold, brown, blue, and even purple gold (which is made with aluminum!).

White gold is a relatively new precious metal. By 1900, platinumÕs popularity increased enough to make it more expensive than gold for the first time, so the search was on for an alloy of gold that would give it a white color. The search was heightened during WWI when restrictions were placed on the use of platinum where it was used for explosives. In 1915 a US patent was granted for a formula for white gold. None too soon: WWII brought about a complete restriction on platinum for jewelry, and by the warÕs end, white gold had taken over platinumÕs role for some time to come. It would take over 30 years before platinum would make a comeback. (See the platinum section for more on this.)

Look for the karat marking, next to the hallmark (itÕs illegal to stamp the karatage without the makerÕs mark to back it up). 14K and 18K are best for most jewelry (24K is soft and can dent and deform more easily; 10K is less than half gold and doesnÕt have the same look).

Does it have some heft, or does it feel lightweight due to hollow areas or places that are very thin?

Look at the craftsmanship. Is it well made? Do chain and pin catches work properly; are earring posts and nuts strong; is the soldering invisibleÉ?

In addition to craftsmanship, design is a very important consideration. The karat stamp and the weight will tell you only how much gold is in the piece. It doesnÕt reflect the uniqueness or beauty of the design (or how well it was made). For fine jewelry that you want to last and enjoy wearing, these last two factors are the most important.