Plating is a manufacturing process in which a thin layer of metal is applied to a substrate. The coating can be deposited by a mechanical, electrical, or chemical process and the results have many benefits for jewelry and for non-jewelry metal uses. In our industry, plating is sometimes misunderstood or viewed with suspicion by consumers, so it falls upon us to explain the advantages, and in some cases necessity, of plating.
- Gold Filled (GF) refers to a relatively thick coating mechanically applied and fused by heat and pressure. The layer must be at least 10k and 5% of the total weight of the item. Gold Overlay and Rolled Gold Plate are essentially the same things except only 2.5% of the item’s weight must be gold. GF is a good choice for earring findings as a hypoallergenic alternative to karat gold.
- Gold Plated (GP) or Gold Electroplated (GEP): A layer of gold at least 7mils (7/1,000,000 of an inch) thick is electrically deposited onto the base metal by immersion in a liquid containing chemically bound gold molecules. Gold Flashed or Gold Washed is the same as GEP, except the gold is less than 7mils thick. GP is less durable than GF but may be used for gold highlights on two-tone items and on pieces that get less friction such as brooches.
- Vermeil, pronounced ‘ver-may’, is sterling silver heavily plated with gold. The gold layer must be at least 2.5 microns thick and at least 10k but is frequently 14, 18 or even 22k. The silver and gold content make this option the most expensive plating choice, but the distinctive, rich appearance is worth it. Yellow colored items stamped .925 are usually vermeil and are a popular choice for exotic designs.
- Rhodium Plating is used to improve the appearance and durability of white gold items, which can look a little grey or dull on their own. It has a bright white luster and is more resistant to scratches. Over silver it can prevent or delay tarnish. Occasionally, people have yellow gold items rhodium plated to change their appearance, rather than have a replica built in a white metal. Rhodium plating wears off over time, especially on rings. Re-plating will not harm the item or the diamonds in it, and as it’s a fairly inexpensive process—can be done as frequently as needed.
- Ion Plating (IP): Ion Plating is a sophisticated method of applying vaporized metallic elements to stainless steel or other alternative metals. The thin coating produces an exceptionally durable, hard, and bright surface that can take on a matte or high-polished finish. Manipulating the elements can produce a range of intense, appealing colors.
- Fine Silver Plated and Sterling Silver Filled are options whose popularity tends to fluctuate with metal prices. Fine SP is an electrically deposited layer of 99.9% silver over base metal, and SSF is a thicker layer of sterling silver mechanically fused to a base metal. Both will tarnish over time but should be cleaned as gently as possible to avoid removing the plating. Fine and sterling silver plating is fairly common for silver tableware items (such as cutlery, candlesticks, and goblets), but it’s gaining popularity with jewelry designers too—especially for large, contemporary styles.
- Gilding is not plating per se but rather the process of rubbing 24k gold leaf over an item. Some antique or estate pieces may have been decorated this way and should be treated with extra care to avoid flaking or peeling. Lacquer may be the best way to preserve these items.
- Electroforming is sometimes misperceived to be plating, but it is actually the opposite of it. Electroformed pieces have metal deposited over a base mold, which the metal does not stick or bond to. The base is subsequently removed leaving a hollow, metal piece. This process is an ideal method for producing large yet lightweight, easy-to-wear items. Electroforming is not suitable for rings or bracelets that may be subject to rougher wear.
Plating is high-tech, creative, and practical. In a world where many of us are mixing fashion items from high-end boutiques with department store discount finds and inherited treasures with craft fair creations, there is certainly space to be filled with well designed, precision made, stylish, and reasonably priced jewelry.