What do people mean when they talk about karats?

So what does it mean when shops and jewellers talk about 10 karat gold? Or 21 karat gold? Why is 21 karat gold more expensive than 10 karat gold?
Let’s take a look!

Karat is essentially a unit used to represent the purity of gold. 24 karat is the highest purity, which means that your piece is 100% pure gold. 1 karat is basically 1/24th of the whole. So, if you have a 10 karat piece, that means only 10/24 karats is pure gold, which is about 42% pure gold. The reason why 21 karat jewellery is more expensive than something like 10 or 14 karat jewellery is because the 21 karat jewellery has a higher amount of gold than 10 or 14 karats.

So what is the rest of the piece made up of, since only 42% is pure gold in a 10 karat piece?
So let’s get into the nitty-gritty. Most jewellery doesn’t come in 24 karat gold because it’s too soft, and can bend and scratch easily. That’s why, the practice of gold craftsmen is mixing other metals with the gold, such as bronze, copper, and brass… usually metals that are similar in colour, to make the overall piece hard and more durable so it won't scratch or bend easily.

Okay, so what’s the difference between a 10 karat piece and something like a 21 karat piece?
Well, let’s think about it. A 10 karat piece is only 42% pure gold, and a 21 karat piece is 86% pure gold. Fair enough… but what does this difference mean then? In general, a lower grade karat signifies a piece that is more durable and sturdy, but is more likely to tarnish. A higher grade karat signifies a piece that is less durable and sturdy, but is less likely to tarnish.

So which one makes more sense? A piece with a lower grade karat or higher?
Good question. It really depends on your lifestyle, what type of jewellery it is, and how often you wear your jewellery and your level of care with them. Usually for rings, bangles, or bracelets, you would want a lower grade karat just because they are subject to more scratching and pressure since they are worn on and around the hands. If you’re looking for something to wear every other day, like a nice ring for instance, a slightly lower grade would be the better option. However, you should keep in mind that the lower the karats, the more maintenance your jewellery will require as it may tarnish quicker than you would think. A higher grade karat is considered 21k and above, and it’s something that you can wear frequently without having to worry about tarnishing.

So why don’t I just get a 24 karat piece and wear it everyday?
Because it is not practical at all. And if you notice, it is very hard to find a shop or jeweller that sells 100% pure, 24 karat jewellery. Why you may ask? Because pure gold is very soft and bends and scratches easily. Can you imagine wearing jewellery that high in karat on a hot day, and coming back home only to notice that it is deformed, scratched up, and bent due to the heat and some pressure? Of course, that’s the worst-case scenario… but you get the idea.

Fair enough, but what’s the idea behind this whole tarnishing thing?
Basically, when gold craftsmen are putting a piece together, they mix in different metals with the gold to add a certain degree of durability to it, that way it resists scratching and pressure. The downside of that is that the other metals that are added in, although durable, are usually not very stable elements. So what does this mean? That means they are more likely to react to environmental factors such as weather conditions, moisture, hand lotions and creams, perfumes, food, and cleaning materials to name a few. For some people, even their skin composition causes an issue. When these metals react with such factors, they tend to oxidize and start to show signs of discolouration, and often leave smudges on the skin after a period of wearing them.

Things as simple as washing your hands with soap and water will cause tarnishing and wither away at your jewellery.

What are some signs that my jewellery is starting to tarnish?
The most common signs are discolouration, and fading away of the tone of gold. Think of it as when you find an old penny... how would it look? Probably not shiny anymore, and for some reason green-ish in colour. Another sign is some smudging that you may come across on your wrist for example, after a long day wearing one of your bangles.

Okay I get it now. In your opinion then, where is the sweet spot? How much karats?
In our opinion, the ideal fit is between 18 – 21 karats of gold. If your budget does not permit, you can still get a worthy piece, but try not to go lower than 18 karats, or you will get tired of the tarnishing that keeps coming no matter how much you try to maintain your jewellery. At the same time, you should try not going higher than 21 karats either because you won’t be able to enjoy your jewellery, you will be worried about scratching it and deforming it, and will probably store it for the majority of its lifetime.
Shop for fine 18 karat and 21 karat jewellery here!
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