When you buy a piece of vintage gold jewelry, you might see some markings, for example, on the inside of a gold wedding ring.
These numbers and letters are kind of confusing if you've never looked at them before. So in this guide, we'll teach you how to read gold identification marks on jewelry so you can quickly identify the karat quality of each piece and maybe even the marker it came from.
What are Gold Identification Marks?
Gold identification marks, or hallmarks, are basically a way to show the purity of gold in a piece of jewelry, as well as the goldsmith that made it.
The roots of this practice go way back, even as early as the 1200s (we have evidence of this happening in France and England back then). This makes the job of historians and archeologists slightly easier.
It also means that you can, with a bit of know-how from the experts, know a little more about both the karat and the origin of your gold jewelry. You just have to learn how to crack the code.
US Gold Identification Standards
In the US, the karat of a piece can be identified by paperwork or even verbally; there's no pre-requisite to have a stamp in the first place. And, if there is a stamp, it must have a trademark stamp to show where it's from.
So, how do you 'read' this code?
Because there is no official system for hallmarking gold items in the US, the codes can vary. There are FTC (Federal Trade Commission) guidelines, however, and they suggest including a number to show what percentage of gold is in a piece.
Gold is mixed with other metals to make it more durable - the higher the gold content, the more valuable the item is, but the harder it is to care for.
So, for example, if it says 370 inside a gold signet ring, that means it's 37.5% gold.
But how do you translate that into karats? You can use this guide:
- 24 Karats - 100% gold
- 22 Karats - 91.6% gold
- 18 Karats - 75% gold
- 14 Karats - 50% gold
- 9 Karats - 37.5% gold
So, if your ring says 370, that translates to 37.5% gold; this translates to 9 karats. Phew.
The FTC also suggests that jewelers include the name or US-registered trademark near the karat quality mark so you can trace the origins of the piece back to the original jeweler. So you may see initials, which can help you to find the maker if you want to.
What Do GE, GF, and HGE Mean?
You may also see GE, GF, or HGE etched onto your jewelry.
This means that the piece is not solid gold. The code works out like this:
- GE - Gold Electroplated (or plated gold)
- GF - Gold Filled
- HGE - Heavy Gold Electroplated
This means that your piece will be worth less because it's not solid gold, so it's a good idea to keep this in mind if you're considering whether to invest in a piece or not.
What Does AU Mean?
AU is the periodic table's symbol for gold; you sometimes see this marked alongside the karat quality and the marker's mark. So, for example, if you're buying an engagement ring and you see AU 750, it means it's 18k gold.
Global Gold Identification Standard
Globally, the rules vary. For example, in the UK, all gold products must be hallmarked at one of four specific offices, as they have some of the strictest gold identification legislation in the world, which does make it easier to identify real gold pieces.
For example, if you buy a gold bracelet from the UK, you might find a distinctive mark; this is probably signaling which office it came from.
If you do plan to buy from the UK, here's a quick guide on those symbols:
- Anchor - Birmingham
- Castle - Edinburgh
- Leopard - London
- Tudor Rose - Sheffield
The UK uses an alphabet system to date gold items; a jeweler should be able to identify these, as this can be a bit tricky to do at home.
In other countries, like Italy, China, and India, hallmarking isn't compulsory, so if you're buying a vintage ring from one of these countries, you may not find any marks at all.
The fun thing about buying vintage jewelry online is that you can get pieces from across the globe, but it's really important to buy from a seller you trust.
What If My Gold Jewelry Doesn't Have Identification Marks?
That doesn't necessarily mean your gold ring is fake; it just might mean the maker has decided to give written or verbal confirmation of the karat quality instead.
Of course, when you're dealing with vintage gold, this makes it a little difficult to trace it. At AnothersLegacy, we have the technology to help identify the karat of each piece, but finding out the karat quality of your existing gold jewelry may be tricky to do at home with no marks.
You can take it to a jeweler to be evaluated. They should be able to tell you the karat of a piece and whether it is solid gold rather than gold-filled or plated gold. They may also be able to tell you where it originally came from.
If you are shopping for vintage items, it's better to either buy from a retailer that has the capability to test each piece for the karat quality or go for a piece with markings, as this is the easiest way to tell if the piece is 'real' gold (and therefore, worth the price you're paying for it).
Can Gold Identification Marks Be Faked?
Unfortunately, yes. You can buy karat stamps on the internet, which makes it tricky to rely on the karat stamp alone.
What is much harder to fake is a creator's stamp; these leave an impression on the metal and are harder to pass off as the real deal. For example, Tiffany & Co. pieces always have their distinctive logo on the piece, and it's pretty easy to spot fakes if you look at photos of real pieces.
How Can I Tell If My Piece Is Real Gold?
If your piece isn't stamped and you're trying to tell whether it's solid gold or not, there are a few things you can do:
- Take it to a jeweler. This is an obvious answer, but sometimes it's the only way: it can be really tough to tell, and it may be better just to call on an expert for help.
- Do the float test. This involves dropping an item into a glass of water. If it sinks, it's more likely to have a high gold content, thanks to the density. It's not 100% accurate, however.
- Wear the piece. Fake gold is likely to leave a greenish mark on your skin, whereas real gold will not.
- Do a magnet test. Use a strong magnet and see how the ring reacts; gold isn't magnetic, so it won't stick to the magnet.
There are other DIY methods, too, but we'd recommend going easy with these. You don't want to damage your jewelry, especially if it means something to you personally.
It's better to take it to a jeweler if a piece has a lot of sentimental value to you rather than risk damaging it and not being able to wear it again.
Hopefully, this has taught you how to read gold identification marks on jewelry; with a little time and practice, you should be able to gain the skills you need to enjoy shopping for vintage gold items.
Not all solid gold items have hallmarks, and it can be tricky to identify real gold without them, but many jewelers choose to use identification marks as it is considered best practice.