There are a lot of gold jewelry options all at varying price points. There's gold plated, gold filled, gold vermeil, 10K, 14K, 18K, 22K, and 24K. So what's "real"? If you aren't a jewelry aficionado it can be confusing. In reality, all of these gold options contain gold making the definition of "real" somewhat subjective. But depending on your budget or how long you want to be able to wear the piece, certain options may be more appealing.
In the United States, we recognize 10K-24K gold jewelry pieces as "real". These pieces are usually stamped to let you know the gold purity. Gold is an incredibly soft metal; not only will gold scratch and mar easily, it's also malleable and therefore difficult to hold shapes. In order to make gold more durable for jewelry pieces, gold is mixed with alloys. These alloys contain various metals such as silver, copper, and zinc. 24K gold contains 99.9% and is the purest form of gold. As the carats decrease, so does the purity levels. At 14K there is 58.3% gold and at 10K the purity is only 41.7%. So while we may consider 10K gold "real", the reality is less than half of the metal is truly gold.
As the name suggests, gold plated jewelry is jewelry that's been covered with gold. Through a process called electroplating, a thin layer of gold (10K+) is deposited on the outside of another metal. The thickness of gold plating is regulated but can vary anywhere from 0.5-2.5 microns. Since gold is applied to a base metal like brass, nickel, and copper, gold plated jewelry costs less. The major advantage to gold plated jewelry is the cost. Out of all of the options, gold plated pieces are the most affordable. However, because there is a thin layer of gold applied to a base metal, gold plating over time will wear away or can flake off.
Gold filled isn't as popular as gold plated jewelry for a few reasons. First off, its name is misleading because the metal isn't "filled" in with gold. In reality, gold sheets are bonded to a core metal like copper and must be at least 5% of the metals weight. Secondly, gold filled jewelry will also wear away with time and the only way to repair it is by electroplating. Gold filled jewelry is more expensive than gold plated yet offers little difference for the price.
Typically more expensive than gold plated or gold filled jewelry, gold vermeil is in fact gold plating over silver. Unlike gold plated metal, the base metal must be silver and anything additional must be disclosed to the consumer. Gold vermeil is required in the US to be a minimum of 2.5 micron gold thickness. The thicker the plating, the longer the lifespan of the piece because it will wear at a slower rate. Gold vermeil though is more costly because its core metal is silver. It's a great alternative if you're looking for longevity and on a budget.
"Fake" gold jewelry is a great alternative when you're on a budget. While pieces may not last as long, the price point is appealing and usually easier to justify spending especially if you aren't planning to wear it every day.