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Types of gold

When buying gold or gold jewellery, the different types of gold can be confusing. People often ask: which type of gold is best?

The truth is that gold is gold; a precious metal that is highly sought after. It is also very soft and malleable, which makes pure gold unsuitable for most practical applications. Therefore, for everyday uses, gold is usually alloyed with other metals in order to harden it.

A necklace using three different types of gold.

A gold necklace showing an attractive combination of different alloys of gold.

So, although there is technically no such thing as differing types of gold, what people are really referring to are gold alloys, and there are a huge number of gold alloys. When buying gold jewellery in particular, it will almost certainly be a gold alloy. The type of metal in the alloy and mix proportions are important for functional, aesthetic, and cost reasons.

Generally, the only major use of pure 100% gold is for investment bullion in the form of gold bars and gold coins.

Different types of gold

The various types of gold are categorised by colour, and carat/fineness. The colour of gold denotes the type of metal used in the alloy. The carat or fineness describes the amount of gold used in relation to other metals.

Aside from its dazzling beauty, gold is a noble metal. This means it is highly resistant to corrosion or tarnishing. The greater the proportion of other metals in a gold alloy the stronger it becomes, but at the same time the less resistant to corrosion or tarnishing it becomes.

Gold and copper alloys create rose gold, pink gold, and red gold. These are more liable to tarnish than nickel or palladium alloys, which are used to create white gold.

Carat and fineness

Carat or fineness defines the proportion of gold to other metals in an alloy. Carat measures the gold proportion in parts of twenty-four, meaning 24 carat is pure gold and the highest that can be produced. 8 carat, which is used in some parts of Europe but not the UK, means just a third of the item is made from gold.

Chart showing some of the commonly used ratios in gold alloys. .

Fineness measures the proportion in thousandth parts, also known as a millesimal system. 999.9 fineness then is the purest gold, being 99.99% pure. 333 fineness would be equal to 8 carat, or 33.3% pure.

Colours of gold
The type of metal used in a gold alloy leads to variations in its colour. The colour also becomes stronger with greater proportions of other metals.

Pyramid of gold alloy colours. .

The platinum group of white metals, and copper are the commonly chosen metals used to alloy gold. White metals, such as silver, platinum and palladium, lead to whiter alloys. Copper gives a red tint.

Less commonly used metals for alloys are zinc, iron, aluminium, and cadmium. Zinc and nickel both also give a white tint, iron gives a blue tint, aluminium a purple tint, and cadmium a green tint.

Table listing the common types of gold, their purity and their colours.

Gold coating
Some gold items may not be solid gold, or even a solid gold alloy, but another material covered in gold. This is not necessarily done to mislead, as it is a practical method for achieving a gold finish at a reasonable price.

There are many methods for coating items in gold. Wood for example can be gilded, which gives a gold appearance for a fraction of the price. Another harder wearing method is gold plating, which applies a thicker coating.

Which type of gold is the most expensive?
Generally, the higher the proportion of gold, the greater the cost. Alloys made with other precious metals – such as gold and platinum or palladium – are more expensive than those with base metals such as copper or iron.

Many items classed as white gold are actually rhodium-plated gold. It is impossible to achieve a bright white by simply alloying gold with silver, platinum or palladium. These alloys always have a slight yellow tint from the gold. So, although the base metal may be a white gold alloy, rhodium-plating is often used to give the desired finish.

Unlike other coatings, rhodium-plated white gold is not a cost-saving process. Rhodium is more costly than even pure gold; this makes rhodium-plated white gold a costly, premium product.

How many types of gold are there?

Despite the fact that there is only really one type of gold, the number of alloys is technically limitless. There are however three broad gold colour categories; yellow gold, white gold and rose gold. You can see these distinctions in the colour triangle diagram higher up this page.

Manufacturers and craftsmen will use any alloy to achieve the right appearance and functionality within the budgets available.

Which type of gold is best?

The best type of gold is determined entirely by what it is used for, and in the case of jewellery, personal preference on durability and appearance. 9 or 10-carat rose gold is hard wearing, reasonably priced, and currently very fashionable. An 18-carat white gold alloy, of platinum or palladium, is a popular choice for high-end products.

For bullion dealers and investors however, 24-carat pure gold is the most common, with 22-carat also occasionally used in certain coins such as the Krugerrand and the Sovereign.