Let me begin by saying that both are great, but different! Some people prefer the idea of "gold filled" jewelry, while others prefer gold-over-silver. Both are pretty, and durable. But is one better than the other?
Precious Metals - There are basically three metals used in jewelry that are considered "precious": Gold, Silver and Platinum (which includes a group of metals, such as Palladium or Rhodium). Gold is of course yellow in color, and is alloyed with various other metals to produce different colors of gold, and different ratios of gold, indicated in karats:
- 24k Gold is pure gold
- 14k Gold is 14 parts gold to 10 parts alloy
- 18k Gold is 18 parts gold to 6 parts alloy
Silver, in its pure form, is very soft and like gold is alloyed with other metals. Sterling Silver is marked "925" which means it is certified as having 92.5% pure silver, plus 7.5% alloy---usually copper.
What is Vermeil?
Vermeil is gold plated sterling silver. Sometimes it is gold plated pure silver, or nearly pure (97%) silver. The gold is usually 18k or higher, up to pure 24k gold. Vermeil has a lot more gold than other gold plated pieces. Vermeil is regulated by the FTC and has to have a minimum gold thickness of 2.5 microns on all surfaces. A Vermeil piece of jewelry is made entirely of precious metals, which gives the piece an intrinsic value. Vermeil jewelry should maintain the look of yellow gold for many, many years. I have vintage pieces of gold vermeil jewelry that are at least 20-40 years old and are still bright gold in color. Sometimes it tarnishes, but can be easily cleaned with sterling silver jewelry cleaner or cloths, and looks brand new. I like knowing that Vermeil pieces are only PRECIOUS metals - sterling silver (or pure silver) and gold---no "mystery metals".
What is Gold Filled Jewelry?
The term "gold filled" is actually a misnomer. It is not a tube that is filled with gold. It's actually a thin layer of gold that is bonded to a base metal, usually brass. It's sometimes called "rolled gold" or "rolled gold plate". A thin layer of gold is bonded to brass through heat and high pressure. Brass is not a precious metal---it is an alloy mixture of copper and zinc. If the gold used is 10k, the gold must be 1/10 the weight of the item. If the gold is 12k or higher, it must be 1/20 the weight of the item. The gold filled jewelry most commonly seen would be marked "1/20 14k G.F." or "1/10 10k G.F." If by law Gold Filled must be 1/20 the weight of the item, that means that only 5% of that piece is gold, and 95% of that is brass (or other metal). Contrary to popular belief, gold filled jewelry will not last indefinitely, but has a lifespan of daily wear of between five to 30 years before wearing through. Sometimes the gold filled layer will peel away from the underlying base metal. I have a vintage 1/20 14k gold filled chain from the mid-1970s that was very tarnished (looked like copper) but I cleaned it in tarnish removing solution (a cleaning cloth didn't work) and it looks like solid yellow gold now. I expect that chain to last at LEAST another 10 years.
Gold plated brass jewelry is similar to gold filled in that the same materials are used, but with FAR less gold used. The plating on simple gold plated brass is very thin and can wear off relatively quickly. However, this is still actual gold used over brass, rather than just "gold tone" metal which doesn't contain any gold.
Does Vermeil Tarnish? Does Gold Fill Tarnish?
The answer to both is: YES. ALL METALS WILL TARNISH. Although precious metals in their pure form are less prone to oxidation, it DOES happen---even solid gold or pure silver will oxidize over time and under certain conditions. Sterling Silver, whether you buy it at Tiffany's or ebay, will tarnish. How much it oxidizes and how quickly depends on a lot of different factors, such as air pollution (especially auto exhaust which contains sulfur), exposure to chemicals, exposure to lotions and chlorine and even the wearer's own body chemistry. Plating silver with Rhodium, or mixing the silver with Palladium or Platinum, will HELP prevent tarnishing, but nothing will stop it forever. A white gold ring, a yellow gold ring, any karat purity of gold WILL oxidize (or "tone") over time and needs to be cleaned. Vermeil will tarnish, and gold filled jewelry will absolutely tarnish as well. Eventually! When and how much just depends. Taking care of jewelry, just like taking care of clothing, means keeping it clean and storing it somewhere safe, away from the air (like in a zip lock bag).
But it's easy to remove the tarnish from vermeil and gold filled jewelry, as well as other types of fine jewelry. Just like the world's finest diamond or a precious sapphire or even a rhinestone or crystal, gemstones also need cleaning to keep them sparkling. Metals do as well. There are mild liquid solutions sold for cleaning jewelry, sonic cleaners, even using a soft toothbrush and Dawn dishwashing detergent in warm water will clean metals. (Do NOT use toothpaste or baking soda---it will scratch metal!) Sometimes quickly dipping a vermeil or gold filled piece into sterling silver jewelry cleaner (which can be found at Target or CVS or anywhere) for 2 seconds, then washing with mild soap will remove the tarnish but leave the gold intact. I don't really recommend that except in extreme cases of oxidation, because it's an acid that removes the tarnish and you have to be VERY careful when using that. The gentle use of a polishing cloth for jewelry is safer and will also keep metals sparkling clean and like new.
So Which is Better: Vermeil or Gold Fill??
The answer is: it's just your personal preference since they're both beautiful. To some people, Vermeil is better because it's made of only precious metals and therefore is more valuable. (I'm one of those people!) Most vermeil is made in Italy and is very high quality. To others, gold filled is better because there is more gold used, even though 95% of the piece is actually brass. It's becoming more difficult to find gold Vermeil chains (they are very expensive), and very easy to find gold filled chains, so the use of gold filled components has become quite popular. Gold filled jewelry is a great alternative to solid gold pieces, making it much more affordable to own the LOOK of gold.
But whether you choose a vermeil piece or gold filled, I think of it this way: the ONLY metal you see or touch is solid, real gold, and you can't go wrong with that!