All That Glitters: A Guide to Yellow Gold

Last updated May 20, 2024

Since the dawn of human history, gold has been a symbol of wealth, power, and longevity. From Ancient Egypt to Imperial China, ancient peoples knew a good thing when they saw it – and in the modern world, gold has lost none of its allure.

Yellow gold is the original and natural type of gold. Other gold colors, such as white gold and rose gold, are created by mixing pure gold with other metals to change its appearance.

In this guide, we’ll explore the fascinating history of yellow gold, look into its composition and properties, and investigate how it compares to other precious metals.

The Ancient Origins and Symbolism of Gold

An Egyptian gold death mask.
Egyptian gold funerary mask

Stellar Beginnings

Gold is a naturally occurring element found in the Earth’s crust. The shiny yellow metal was likely first discovered by ancient humans in riverbeds, where it was deposited by erosion from the surrounding rocks.

But gold’s true origins go far further back in time. All the gold in the universe exists as a result of massive stars exploding or colliding, events which generated the cataclysmic amounts of energy and heat needed for gold atoms to form.

Scientists believe that some of this cosmic gold became part of the Earth itself when the planet was formed some 4.5 billion years ago, and the rest arrived later through meteor impacts.

A Symbol of Gods and Kings

Ancient humans, of course, didn’t know about gold’s extraterrestrial origins. What they did know was that gold was rare, beautiful, and universally valued. It was also, unlike most other metals, remarkably resistant to corrosion.

Being impervious to the ravages of time, gold made a handy political metaphor for the supposed enduring authority of royal dynasties, which often claimed descent from gods. And thanks to its gleaming yellow color, it was only natural to associate gold with the divine Sun, an archetypal deity worshiped across various cultures as a bringer of life and upholder of justice.

With such potent symbolism, it’s no wonder that kings and emperors were gold’s most devoted fans. Egyptian pharaohs, considered living gods by their subjects, piled their tombs with gold regalia – most famously their stunning solid gold funerary masks. Mesoamerican emperors regarded gold as sacred, the Ming Dynasty rulers of China reserved the color yellow/gold exclusively for imperial use, and French kings used golden fleurs-de-lis in heraldry as symbols of their God-given right to rule.

An Expression of Love

Gold wasn’t just for the elites, though. The metal’s “forever-lasting” symbolism was just as aptly applied to romantic love and fidelity as it was to sanctified royal bloodlines.

Presenting a gold gift to a lover was customary for Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Gold jewelry features prominently in traditional Chinese and Indian wedding ceremonies, continuations of cultural and religious practices that go back centuries.

The ritual of a groom gifting a gold engagement ring to his betrothed can be traced back to Ancient Rome. Brides gifting rings to grooms became popular around the mid-20th century, when jewelry industry advertising campaigns led to the rise of ring exchanges, or “double ring” weddings.

Yellow Gold Composition and Purity

A diamond and yellow gold engagement ring.
Yellow gold diamond engagement ring

How is Yellow Gold Made?

As pure gold is very soft metal that dents and scratches easily, pure gold jewelry is unsuitable for everyday wear. If you own any gold jewelry, it’s most likely made from a gold alloy.

Yellow gold alloys are created by mixing pure gold with metals like silver, copper, and zinc. The addition of other metals results in the gold increasing in hardness and durability, while maintaining its signature yellow color.

To get white gold, higher amounts of white metal(s) are the used in the alloy, which “bleach” the bright yellow of pure gold to a yellowish-to-grayish white. Similarly, rose gold is an alloy of pure gold mixed with copper and silver, which creates its distinctive pink hue.

How Pure is Yellow Gold?

The purity of yellow gold is measured under the karat gold system, with 24 karat gold being the purest form available. Most commonly, yellow gold comes in 14 karat (58.3% gold) and 18 karat (75% gold) varieties.

The chart below shows some standard composition options for yellow gold alloys.

GoldSilverCopperZinc/Nickel
24K Yellow Gold100%0%0%0%
18K Yellow Gold75%12% to 15%10% to 12%0% to 2%
14K Yellow Gold58.3%30% to 33%10% to 13%0% to 3%
10K Yellow Gold41.7%50% to 53%5% to 8%0% to 4%

White gold and rose gold alloys are also graded under the karat system. However, it’s not possible to make 24k rose gold or white gold jewelry, as all 24k gold is by definition yellow in color.

See also: Karat Gold Compared: 9k, 10k, 12k, 14k, 18k, 22k, or 24k?

How to Identify Genuine Yellow Gold

A goldsmith stamping the inner band of a ring.
A stamp being applied to the inner band of a gold ring

Genuine gold jewelry often has a quality mark or karat stamp that indicates its gold purity, usually placed in an unobtrusive spot such as the inside of a ring band.

Some common karat stamps you might encounter:

  • 18 Karat, 18K or 750. Any of these marks on a piece state that the alloy contains at least 75% gold content.
  • 14 Karat, 14K, 583, or 585. The alloy contains at least 58.3% gold.
  • 10 Karat, 10K, or 417. The alloy contains at least 41.7% gold.
  • GF, GP or GEP. These marks are abbreviations for gold-filled, gold plated, and gold electroplated, respectively, and show that the piece is made from base metals and coated with a layer of gold. Typically found next to a karat number – for example, 14K GF.
  • Vermeil or 925. Indicates an item made from sterling silver electroplated with a thin layer of gold.

A professional jeweler can also test your jewelry to confirm its authenticity.

See also: The Top 15 Different Types of Gold

Characteristics of Yellow Gold

A woman wearing a matching yellow gold jewellery set in a muted colour tone.
Matching yellow gold necklace and bracelet

  • Tarnish Resistance. As noted earlier in this guide, pure gold is resistant to corrosion, meaning it won’t tarnish or discolor over time. Gold jewelry made from 14k or higher purity is also generally tarnish-resistant, but tarnishing is sometimes seen in lower karat ratings.
  • Damage Resistance. All fine jewelry will inevitably collect a few scratches and dings through normal wear and tear – especially rings, as they regularly get knocked about from your hand bumping into things. However, alloys of 18k and 14k yellow gold are both reasonably hard, durable, and able to stand up to the rigors of everyday life.
  • Versatility. Gold is the most malleable and ductile of all metals, which has made it a favorite of metalworkers since antiquity. Pure gold combines readily with other metals to produce yellow gold alloys of various hues and karatages, which can be shaped into intricate designs. Yellow gold also complements a variety of skin tones and precious stones.

Comparing Yellow Gold to White Gold and Rose Gold

A closeup of rose gold vs. white gold wedding rings.
Rose and white gold wedding rings

Popularity

Trends come and go, but yellow gold will always be instantly recognizable as gold, with all the connotations of luxury and prestige that come with it. According to the World Gold Council, yellow gold is globally the most popular color of gold.

White gold is a far more recent arrival on the fine jewelry scene, but has become a modern classic in its own right. The alloy had its big market breakthrough in the 1940s as a substitute for platinum, since platinum had been restricted for use in WWII military machinery. Even after platinum was no longer needed for the war effort, white gold came out on top in the platinum vs. white gold popularity contest.

For engagement rings, white gold is currently the most popular choice. In a 2021 survey of more than 5,000 newly-engaged US participants, 45% had a white gold engagement ring. Yellow gold engagement rings placed second, with 20% of respondents having one.

Rose gold engagement rings came fourth at 11% of respondents (after platinum engagement rings at 14%). Since its introduction to the jewelry scene in the late 19th century, rose gold has historically been more likely to fluctuate in popularity than white gold and yellow gold.

Saying that, rose gold has been in style since 2012, and as yet shows no signs of falling out. Its unique pinkish-gold color offers a romantic and contemporary look that’s favored by many, particularly among younger generations.

Maintenance

Any minor wear and tear your yellow gold jewelry collects can be polished out with the occasional professional service. In between services, you can keep your gold looking shiny and bright with at-home cleaning: soak your piece in a solution of warm water and dish soap, then scrub it with a soft-bristled toothbrush to remove any dirt build-up.

An important difference between white gold and yellow and rose gold is that many white gold pieces are rhodium-plated, which makes them more costly to maintain over time. Rhodium is a white precious metal that resembles platinum, and is often used to plate white gold in order to make it whiter and brighter. Platinum and white gold rings with rhodium plating are nearly visually indistinguishable.

Unplated white gold and yellow gold are equally easy to maintain. But because rhodium plating wears off over time, rhodium-plated white gold rings typically need replating after every 1-2 years of regular wear to keep their white outer finish looking bright and even. The cost is around $60 to $120 per treatment.

Rose gold is also fairly low maintenance. However, it’s more likely than other gold colors to become discolored as it has higher copper content. Copper can chemically react with oxygen and sulfer gases in the air to form a darkish-red surface patina on rose gold. This discoloration can be professionally removed, or left as is if you prefer its vintage aesthetic.

See also: What is White Gold? The Only Guide You Need and The Ultimate Guide to Rose Gold

Comparing Yellow Gold to Platinum

A platinum diamond engagement ring, bracelet, and pendant set.
Platinum diamond engagement ring, bracelet, and pendant

Popularity

Compared to the near universal appeal of yellow gold, platinum has more of a niche market status. It can probably never have the mass market penetration of yellow gold, simply because there’s far less of it available. Platinum is about 30 times more rare than gold, as well as being more difficult and costly to mine. Platinum jewelry is also more expensive than gold jewelry.

Maintenance

Platinum jewelry alloys are higher maintenance than gold ones. They’re more susceptible to getting scratched, which over time causes a dull matte finish called platinum patina to develop. Platinum rings are particularly vulnerable to patina, as they are subjected to higher wear and tear than other types of jewelry. To stay bright and shiny, a platinum ring needs to be polished regularly.

See also: Platinum Jewelry 101: What to Know Before You Buy

Other FAQs About Yellow Gold

A pair of yellow gold pearl earrings.
Yellow gold pearl earrings

Is yellow gold actual gold?

Yellow gold is indeed actual gold, but it’s typically alloyed with other metals to create a more practical material for jewelry design. Pure gold is unsuitable for everyday wear as it can easily scratch, dent, or bend out of shape. Yellow gold alloys, which are stronger and more durable, are created by mixing pure gold with other metals such as pure silver, copper, and zinc.

Is yellow gold more expensive than white gold and rose gold?

The price of gold jewelry depends largely on its karat value and weight, not its color. A 14k rose gold, white gold, and yellow gold engagement ring should cost about the same, provided the weights, designs, and stones of the rings are also the same. Pieces with rhodium plating can be slightly more expensive.

Can yellow gold rings be resized?

Yes, most yellow gold rings can be resized by a professional jeweler. However, the process may be more complex for rings with intricate designs or multiple gemstones.

How can I prevent damage to my yellow gold?

Proper storage of your yellow gold pieces is essential to prevent scratches and damage. Store your pieces separately in a soft-lined jewelry box or pouch to minimize contact with other items. It’s also a good idea to remove your gold pieces when engaging in activities that could expose it to chemicals, abrasives, or hard or sharp objects.

Can I shower wearing yellow gold?

You can, with some caveats. While tap water can’t damage gold alloys, soap and shampoo residues can eventually build up on your yellow gold jewelry and cause it to appear duller. If it’s too much trouble to keep removing and replacing your favorite gold pieces for every shower, you can clean them once they start to lose their shine.


Thanks for reading! To learn about other popular gold colors used in jewelry, head on over to our guides to white gold and rose gold.