Gold-colored Jewelry That Isn’t Really Gold

From Antique Pinchbeck to Vintage Plated Pieces

There are many different types of alloys and plating techniques that have been used through the centuries to simulate gold (and silver, too). In many instances this substitution was purely economic as less expensive materials were sought as alternatives for jewelry making. Other times these simulants served as more durable substances for everyday wear, or traveling jewelry for when security was an issue.

Learn more about several different types of antique, vintage, and modern jewelry that...MORE simulate the color of gold:

  • 01 of 03
    Enameled pinchbeck bracelet, Swiss, ca. 1830-40
    Enameled pinchbeck bracelet, Swiss, ca. 1830-40. Jane H. Clarke/Morning Glory Antiques & Jewelry (www.morninggloryjewelry.com)

    The term pinchbeck refers to an alloy of copper and zinc (in a ratio of about 83% to 17%) used to imitate gold, although it is much lighter in weight and eventually tarnishes. It is named for its inventor, English watchmaker Christopher Pinchbeck, who employed it first in the early 1700s in his business manufacturing watches and watch chains. The use of pinchbeck was then expanded into articles of jewelry, buckles, and various objets.

    While the original alloy quite convincingly copied the bright...MORE look of gold, Pinchbeck always distinguished pieces made of this substance from the real thing with a marking. However, less scrupulous rivals developed their own gold-colored alloys, which they often tried to pass off as the genuine thing. "Pinchbeck," unfortunately, began to acquire a secondary meaning as "cheap jewelry," or even "counterfeit" due to these shady dealings. It was also known simply as pinch, and sometimes as false gold.

    Still, it remained popular and was seen as one of the best materials for costume jewelry until the mid-19th century, when it began to be supplanted by rolled gold (see below) and 9K gold along with other gilding techniques or gold and metal alloys. Similor was a similar copper-zinc alloy developed in France slightly later in time.

    Although it was much cheaper than actual gold, pinchbeck jewelry often showed fine workmanship. Thusly, it was used as "traveling jewelry" by the well-to-do centuries ago.

  • 02 of 03
    RolledGoldSnake.jpg
    Rolled Gold Snake Bracelet by Andreas Daub, Germany. Photo courtesy of Jane H. Clarke/Morning Glory Antiques (www.morninggloryantiques.com)

    Rolled gold is a hybrid material made up of a thin layer of gold that's mechanically bonded or heat-fused to one or both sides of base metal (often brass or copper), then rolled out into sheets for use in jewelry manufacture. The thickness of the gold layer can vary, but is generally at least 5% of the total metal weight vs. gold plated (see below), which uses a thinner coating of gold.

    Patented in England in 1817, it became a prime source for semi-precious and better-quality costume jewelry...MORE in the Victorian era. Rolled gold saw renewed surge of popularity in 1920s and 1930s, especially in utilitarian objects such as watches and fountain pens where durability was important but the luster of genuine gold was desired.

    English and American 19th-century rolled gold articles might be stamped "Gilt." Marks such as “G.F.” "1/20 12K G.F." or "12 Kt. Gold Filled" indicate a later, 20th-century piece. These later designations indicate that the amount of gold was 1/20th of the total weight, as mandated by law. Rolled gold plate is a more generic term that can also apply to gold-plated materials containing less than 5% gold.

  • 03 of 03
    1940s Sterling Sultan Brooch with Gold Wash
    1940s Sterling Sultan Brooch with Gold Wash. Jay B. Siegel for ChicAntiques.com

    Gold Plated or 14K H.G.E. – Jewelry with an H.G.E. mark, with or without the karat weight of the gold present, signifies Heavy Gold Electroplate. This means that a layer of gold has been joined to base metal through the electroplating process and the gold content is very low. This type of material is often used in modern cubic zirconia rings, as an example. It can look very much like genuine gold.

    Gold Wash – Some items with gold coloring are actually marked sterling silver, and the gold is...MORE applied in a thin “wash.” This method of producing gold-colored jewelry was especially prevalent during the 1940s when metals were in short supply due to World War II. Other base metals were not available so sterling silver was used instead and the wash was applied to meet demand for gold-colored costume jewelry. Take care in polishing these pieces, as the gold coloring can unintentionally be removed fairly easily.