This post was originally published on March 9, 2016, and has been edited for clarity and relevancy.
Prepare yourselves, people. I'm talking quality and price, and I apologize, but it might take a while. But also, it might be quite informative. "What is the difference between all the variations in quality of jewelry on the market these days?" is a burning question I hear all the time. This is my attempt to answer that question and give some clarity to those feeling hazy about the whole subject.
Here's the thing: not all jewelry is created equal. It's a hard but true fact, and this fact is also why not all jewelry is priced equally. One of the biggest factors affecting price in jewelry is the materials used and how much of that material is used in making it. If you use cheap, minimal materials, chances are, your jewelry will be more inexpensive in price. If you use high quality, durable materials, well, you see where I'm going with this.
Okay, so. To begin, there's one thing you need to know - the jewelry I produce, the jewelry that comes out of the Mary Frances Flowers studio, is fine jewelry - meaning it is made of purely precious metals. To be honest, the definition of fine jewelry vs fashion/costume jewelry is also a debate in the jewelry world right now, but for the purpose of this post, we're going to go with the short definition found most often which says "fine jewelry is made of precious metals and precious or semi-precious stones." Alternatively, this would mean that jewelry made of non precious metals (brass, bronze, etc) or alternative materials (think: leather, bone, etc) is considered fashion or costume. Plating is not addressed in these definitions (which is one of the reasons for the debate), but, we are make an assumption here that if gold (a precious metal) is plated over silver (another precious metal) then, by definition, Mary Frances Flowers jewelry is fine. The lines are blurry on this, which you'll find if you ever simply google "fashion vs fine jewelry," but ultimately, what you buy as a consumer should not be all about particular labels, but about the quality of what you're buying and personal preference in design and style.
To understand where the price of your jewelry comes from, it's important to know why certain metals cost more than others, because, as I said before, materials is one of the biggest factors affecting final price. Now, let's talk fundamentals of these metals for a second.
A precious metal is rarer than other metals, hence why it is called precious and why it costs more than brass or bronze (both metals are much easier and cheaper to source). Historically, the precious metals are silver, gold, and platinum. Most recently, palladium has been added to that list. The list also includes variations of the classics, such as rose gold (which is yellow gold mixed with copper to get its rosy hue) and white gold (which is yellow gold mixed with nickel or platinum).
The silver that we use at MFF is Sterling Silver - it is 92.5% silver and 7.5% of another metal (called an alloy), usually copper. Another type of silver you may have heard of is fine silver. Fine silver is 99.9% pure silver, but, oftentimes it is too soft to produce functional objects; it is also more expensive than sterling because the silver content is higher. This is why nice flatware is always sterling silver, not fine. Some jewelers, do, though, choose to use fine silver rather than sterling. For me, it was a personal choice to use sterling. I strive for durability and longevity in my pieces (as well as affordability), so sterling was the obvious choice. One negative of sterling vs fine is that due to the alloys in sterling, it is more prone to tarnishing. But, to combat that, I just say "wear your silver everyday!" The natural oils in your skin help to prevent tarnishing - how rad is that?!
One other thing to consider when working with silver vs a non precious metal is that silver is charged by weight whereas brass is charged by size, or at least such is the case with my production team's rates. Say you have two items of the same size, but different design. One item is bulkier and the other is delicate. Even if they are both 1" wide, the bulkier item will still cost more because there is more metal involved in producing the design. Or, you can look at it this way, if you're a numbers person. If one 1" item weighs 5 ounces in silver and another 1" item weighs 10 ounces, the second item will, of course, cost more to produce. For example, although the Honeycomb Pendant Necklace is the same exact piece used in the Honeycomb Studs, the earrings ultimately cost more because there are two pendants! The Honeycomb Cuff costs the most out of the three because it is the largest, and therefore, the heaviest.
Okay, now let's talk about gold. There are so many options for "gold color" jewelry pieces on the market these days that it's nearly impossible to keep up, know the difference, and know your quality. But, that's why I'm here - to help, I hope :) For the sake of brevity, we'll discuss three areas of this "gold color" dilemma: gold plate, gold vermeil, and the somewhere in the middle - that's where I am!
Most costume jewelry is gold plated. You can plate over a precious metal (like I do), but more often than not (if it's not specified and is only labeled as gold plate), this means that the base metal of the jewelry piece is brass, bronze, nickel, or some other non precious metal. Many times, there is just a very thin layer of coating on top of the base layer - just enough to coat the piece with one uniform layer. Some costume jewelers do a very thick layer (at least 1 micron) of plate, but most have only a thin layer. Regardless of how much gold is actually fused to the jewelry, this fact remains: the base metal isn't a precious metal. If the base metal is not precious, the jewelry is less valuable and should cost less than the same exact piece in a precious metal. If you have sensitive skin (like I do), your skin may turn green when wearing gold plated over base metal jewelry. That is because your skin is negatively reacting to whatever base metal was used and the thin layer of gold that was plated on top is not enough to protect it.
Many fine jewelry designers offer their items in gold vermeil, pronounced "ver-may." By US regulation, this means that the base metal of the jewelry is sterling silver and that there is at least 2.5 microns of gold plated to on top of that silver. (1 micron = 0.0001 millimeter) When an item is "flash plated" as many gold plated over base metal items are, there is usually just 1/2 a micron (or less) of gold on top of that base layer. So, a vermeil piece because it is required to have at least 2.5 microns of gold has 5 times the amount of gold than a gold flash plated item does. This is a fantastic alternative to solid gold items; though vermeil does still have much higher costs than gold plated items, regardless of if the base is brass or silver simply because there is more gold fused to it.
Gold over Silver
Here's where my jewelry comes in. This is what I do at MFF. Our base metal is sterling silver, which as you know, is already more expensive to produce than brass or bronze. What I have done in the past (as in up until the new collection is released on March 21) is simply to flash gold plate that silver base. Like I said before, flash plating is only 1/2 a micron thick of gold - so there's barely any gold on there. And, if you're like me, you like to wear your jewelry everyday, that gold plate will wear off pretty quickly. Thankfully, the base metal is silver so you're still left with a beautiful precious metal piece of jewelry (unlike what happens when your jewelry was gold plated over base metal to begin with) - but silver isn't what you paid for. You paid for a gold over silver piece of jewelry. So, the idea that that gold is not staying on your jewelry is something that bothers me a great deal. I want to produce quality, and you deserve that quality. It's what you're paying for after all :) I'm telling you this because one of my biggest values in building this company is transparency. The gold plating we have been using is flawed by my standards, and I'm vowing to fix that going forward with the new spring collection and every piece going out my doors from now on.
To fix this problem, I am doubling the amount of plating I'm putting on the jewelry. Beginning March 21 when the new collection goes live, each "gold over silver" piece of jewelry will have at least 1 micron of gold on it. You will see a slight increase in price of all items (as all of the jewelry with then have thicker plating), but, in turn, it will also increase the quality - immensely. I'm proud of the designs I create, and I want to be proud of the quality that comes out of my studio, as well. If you have more questions about this, feel free to send me an email - I want you to know your jewelry's value so you can make informed decisions when buying!
Of course, I'm always happy to micron plate your item with at least 2.5 microns so it is legally considered vermeil or even cast your item in solid gold - however, I've chosen to do just 1 micron to keep my prices still affordable. Mary Frances Flowers jewelry is still an investment piece, but it's a reasonable investment. I'm not making jewelry you'll throw away in a couple of months due to poor quality, and I'm not using diamonds (yet ;)). I like being right in the middle, and so far, I think y'all have like my jewelry being there too.
Almost forgot to mention, all of my jewelry is plated with 14k gold. The subtle soft yellow color of 14k is pretty and just the right amount of femininity for my designs. I could go on about the different variations of color when talking about gold karats, but that's another topic for another day...
Also, just an FYI since I didn't address these in detail - if something is labeled "gold color" - there is absolutely no gold in it. No gold plate, no gold base metal, nothing. It simply is gold in color. If something is labeled "gold" and there is a karatage attached to it (like 14k or 18k), then it is made of solid gold, no plating whatsoever. However, when something is just labeled "gold", be sure to read the fine print. Sometimes it's solid gold, and sometimes it is gold-plate. It's best to ask the person/company selling the item. If they don't know, proceed with caution. I'll tell ya this, solid gold is rare and has a price tag to match that rarity - keep that in mind when you find a significantly inexpensive "gold" piece of jewelry. Gold fill is also something entirely different. It is what I use for all of my chain and clasp components, but as far as the fundamentals and technicalities of gold-fill, I think that might be another topic for another day as well. If you want to know more about gold fill vs gold plate, here is an article I found that might be helpful.
If you're still with me, THANK YOU! The value of your jewelry is of the utmost importance, and I hope I did the topic justice. I'm more than happy to answer any more questions you have - fire off in the comments below!
Happy Hump Day, folks!
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