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What are Gold Karats?

Natural, raw gold is melted and refined before becoming a piece of jewelry.
Pair of gold rings.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 March 2014
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Gold karats are units of measurement for assessing amount of gold versus amount of other metals in an object. Sometimes people spell this as carat, but that spelling is usually reserved for measuring precious and semi-precious stones instead. The term karat should also not be confused with the symbol ^, which is spelled caret.

When people purchase jewelry made with gold they may see it marked as 14K, 18K, 10K or sometimes 24K. The K relates to the karat or gold amount in the jewelry. Generally, it can be said that the higher numbers mean there is a higher amount of gold in the object. So 24 gold karats has a higher percentage of gold than does 18 karats and is almost pure gold, though it can contain trace amounts of other metals.

One Karat means that the object is 1/24 gold or is roughly 4% gold, though it’s hard to find one karat gold jewelry. 10-karat jewelry, which is very common among less expensive pieces is about 42% gold. 14K and 18K pieces are about 58% and 75% gold respectively. 24 karat gold is approximately 99% or higher in gold content.

The measurements for gold karats get more complicated if an item is gold-plated or gold filled. This means only the areas of the piece where gold is actually used will have the percentage of gold indicated by gold karats. Overall percentage of a gold-plated or gold-filled piece will be much lower than the karat number shown.

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One thing many people new to buying gold may wonder is why people wouldn’t naturally always buy pieces with the highest level of gold karats. There is actually a good explanation for this, which has to do with the nature of gold as a metal. Gold can be called a soft metal, which when not mixed with other metals, can bend very easily. Even a 14K or 18K piece of gold, especially a thin piece, may be bent by hand in some cases.

Though gold karats that are higher represent greater purity, they don’t necessarily mean that a gold piece will be durable. If someone is buying a piece of jewelry like a gold wedding band, they obviously don’t want it to bend out of shape from normal wear. This is why people would choose lower gold karats such as a 14K ring, instead of opting for a 24K ring, which probably would not hold up well over time.

There are some countries that do prefer to sell products in gold that are almost completely pure, and are either 22 or 24 karats. This is common in certain Southeast Asian countries and in central Asia. Such countries might view 14K gold, a common purity level used in the US, as greatly inferior.

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