How to Choose the Right Gold: 10k, 14k, 18k and 24k Compared

By Michael Fried

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Shopping for an engagement ring? There’s more to picking the perfect ring than just choosing the right diamond and setting. The type of gold used in an engagement ring can have a huge impact on its appearance, feel and durability.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s no single type of gold used for all gold jewelry. The gold used for rings, bracelets, watches and other fine jewelry is rarely 100% pure gold — instead, it comes in a variety of different purity levels.

The most common gold purity levels are 10k (karat), 14k, 18k and 24k. Each level of gold purity offers its own range of advantages and disadvantages, from hardness and durability to the risk of certain levels of gold purity contributing to skin irritation.

While gold purity levels can seem a little confusing at first, they’re fairly easy to understand once you’re familiar with the basics. Below, we’ll walk you through:

  • The basics of the karat system used to measure gold purity
  • Why pure gold generally isn’t used for engagement rings and other jewelry
  • The most common gold purity levels
  • The advantages and disadvantages of 10k, 14k, 18k and 24k gold
  • How to choose the right type of gold for your engagement ring

We’ll also look at the impact gold purity can have on the cost of your engagement ring (or other jewelry) to help you use your budget as effectively as possible.

Karat vs. Carat: How Gold Purity is Measured

The purity of gold is categorized using the karat system. The karat system measures the ratio of pure gold to other alloys in a piece of gold jewelry. The greater the amount of pure gold in a gold ring or other piece of jewelry, the higher the purity level.

Pure gold is 24 karat, meaning that 24 out of 24 parts of the metal are gold. Although the terms sound familiar, the karat (k) system used to measure the purity of gold is different from the carat (c) unit of mass that’s used to weigh diamonds.

Isn’t All Gold Jewelry Made Using Pure Gold?

Contrary to popular belief, when you purchase a gold engagement ring or other type of jewelry, the metal used for the jewelry probably isn’t 100% gold.

Pure gold, or 24k gold, is gold that hasn’t been mixed with any other metals. 24k gold isn’t used for jewelry for several reasons:

  • First, it’s extremely soft. Because pure gold is so soft, it bends and warps easily, making it a poor metal for jewelry that needs to retain its shape. Pure gold also scratches easily, meaning it doesn’t take long for pure gold jewelry to become scuffed and unattractive.
  • Second, it’s very bright. The color of pure gold is much brighter and more orange than what most people associate with the gold used in jewelry. Because of this, it generally isn’t an attractive metal for rings, watches and other gold jewelry.
  • Third, it’s extremely expensive. Pure gold contains almost twice as much gold as 14k gold (the most popular type of gold used for jewelry in the US), meaning it costs much more to produce jewelry using this metal.

Because of these factors, it’s very uncommon for 24k gold to be used in engagement rings and other types of wearable jewelry in the United States and other Western countries.

Instead, 24k gold tends to be more popular in China and other Eastern markets, where it’s used in traditional Chinese wedding jewelry such as bangles, in gold bars and as a material for other collectible items.

10k, 14k, 18k and 24k Gold: What’s the Difference?

Gold purity content is categorized using the karat system. Depending on the ratio of pure gold to other alloys, the gold used in engagement rings and other jewelry is usually categorized as 10k, 14k, 18k, 22k and 24k.

Each type of gold has a different purity level. Pure gold, or 24k gold, is 100% pure. 10k gold, on the other hand, is only 41.7% pure. 14k gold, which is the most popular type of gold for jewelry, is 58.3% pure.

There’s no “best” type of gold for every application. Instead, each purity level has its own range of advantages and disadvantages. We’ve covered these below:

18k Gold: Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Advantages: As pure as possible while still practical, looks great
  • Disadvantages: Expensive and easy to scratch

18 karat gold is made up of 75% gold and 25% alloy. This type of gold is referred to as 18 karat because 18 out of the 24 parts that make up the gold are pure gold. 18k gold is usually the most pure form of gold used for rings, watches and other wearable jewelry.

18k gold has a rich, yellow appearance that makes it an attractive material for engagement rings and other jewelry. Since 18k gold is almost pure, there’s very little risk of jewelry made using this material causing any skin irritation if you have a nickel allergy.

In short, 18k gold looks fantastic, with the classic yellow appearance that most people associate with gold jewelry.

This stunning hand-engraved solitaire engagement ring from Blue Nile is a great example of the warm tone of 18k gold. Other great 18k gold settings include this classic four prong solitaire ring from Blue Nile and this pave and sidestone halo engagement ring from Brian Gavin.

18K Classic Half Round Solitaire

However, 18k gold also has several disadvantages. First, since it’s quite pure, it’s fairly easy to scratch jewelry made using 18k gold. If you’re active or work in a setting where your ring might bump into hard surfaces, 18k gold might not be the best choice.

18k gold is also significantly more expensive than other types of gold. Compared to a 14k gold ring, which looks similar but not quite as bright or saturated, you’ll usually need to pay upwards of twice as much for an 18k ring.

All in all, 18k gold is a good choice if you want gold jewelry that’s as pure as possible while still offering some practicality. However, it’s not the best option if you need a ring that’s very durable, or if you’re on a limited budget.

14k Gold: Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Advantages: A great mix of purity, durability and value for money
  • Disadvantages: More expensive than 10k gold, but still fairly affordable

14 karat gold is made up of 58.3% gold and 41.7% alloy, or 14 out of 24 parts gold. 14k gold is the most popular gold for rings and other wearable jewelry in the United States, the UK and the other Western countries.

About 90% of all engagement and wedding rings are made from 14k gold, making this a good go-to choice if you’re not sure which type of gold is best for your purchase.

14k gold has a rich color, with the classic gold appearance that most customers look for in rings and other jewelry. Its color is slightly less saturated and intense than 18 karat gold, making it an excellent choice if you want gold jewelry that’s rich and attractive but not overly yellow, like this 14K Yellow Gold Petite Tapered Pave Engagement Ring.

Compared to 18k gold, the main advantages of 14k gold are its durability and affordability. Rings and other jewelry made using 14k gold are significantly more durable than those made with 18k gold, making this type of gold a good choice if you’re concerned about scuffs and scratches.

This 14k yellow gold pave engagement ring from James Allen, this unique twisted pave ring and this gorgeous petite diamond engagement ring from Blue Nile all have the classic 14k look, with a rich gold color that’s slightly less saturated than equivalent 18k settings.

14K Yellow Gold Solitaire Setting

14k gold is also more affordable than 18k, making it a good all-round option if you’re looking for a mix of quality, durability and value for money.

The only real downside of 14k gold is its potential to trigger skin irritation. Because 14k gold has a higher alloy content than 18k gold, it can occasionally result in itchy, uncomfortable skin if you have a copper, silver, nickel, zinc, or iron allergy.

10k Gold: Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Advantages: Very affordable, more durable than other types of gold
  • Disadvantages: Pale yellow color, more likely to trigger metal allergies

10 karat gold is made up of 41.7% gold and 58.3% alloy, or 10 out of 24 parts gold. 10k gold is the least pure, least expensive and most durable form of gold used in jewelry. It’s also the most impure gold can be while remaining legally “gold” in the US and most other countries.

Although it’s widely used in earrings and affordable jewelry, 10k gold isn’t a very popular metal for engagement rings and fine jewelry. Many high-end, luxury jewelry retailers don’t even offer 10k gold pieces due to its relatively low gold content.

Aesthetically, 10k gold has a pale appearance, with a significantly less rich yellow tone than 14k or 18k gold. Its pale color is something you either like or don’t — some people like it for its visual subtlety, while others prefer the rich gold tone of 14k and 18k gold jewelry.

The biggest advantages of 10k gold are its cost and durability. 10k gold is the cheapest type of gold available in the US, making it a good option if you’re shopping for a ring or other jewelry on a tight budget.

Since it has the lowest gold content of any type of gold, 10k gold is also highly durable. It’s very difficult to scratch, scuff or bend jewelry made from 10k gold, making it worth considering if you work in an environment with hard surfaces that could scratch or damage your jewelry.

The main disadvantage of 10k gold is its risk of causing skin irritation if you’re allergic to certain metals. If you’re allergic to copper, silver, nickel, zinc, or iron, it’s possible for your skin to break out with allergic contact dermatitis if you wear a 10k gold ring for a long period of time.

Which Type of Gold is Best for You?

There’s no “best’ type of gold for everyone. When you’re choosing the gold for an engagement ring or other jewelry, it’s important to keep factors such as you or your partner’s skin sensitivity, career, activity level and aesthetic taste in mind.

It’s also important to shop with your budget in mind. While an 18k ring might look fantastic, it’s almost always going to cost significantly more than a similar option in 14k or 10k gold.

Most of the time, 14 karat gold provides the best combination of a rich color, good durability and reasonable affordability. This type of gold is by far the most popular option for engagement rings and other fine jewelry, making up about 90% of gold jewelry sales in the United States.

If you prefer something more luxurious and don’t mind trading some durability for a richer gold color, 18 karat gold can be a good choice. Just be aware that this type of gold is quite soft and could scratch easily while you or your partner work or exercise.

Most of the time, 10 karat gold isn’t used for engagement rings. Because the difference in price between 14k and 10k gold is so negligible, the vast majority of reputable jewelers will offer 14k as their most affordable option for engagement rings.

If you see a 10 karat gold engagement ring,  it’s often a good indicator that the diamond or other gemstone probably isn’t up to the standards you’d want.

Need help choosing the right engagement ring? Send a message to our experts and we’ll get in touch with personalized advice on the highest quality options for your budget.

About the author
Mike learned the diamond business from the ground-up at Leo Schachter Diamonds - one of the world's top diamond manufacturers. He has been recognized as a diamond industry expert by Time, PeopleMoney, The Daily Mirror, NerdWallet, The Times Herald, Yahoo Finance Australia, The Art of Charm, The Washington Diplomat, The Next Web, and more. See more
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