What Is the Difference Between PVD Gold and Gold Plating?

David C. from Taiwan asks:

What is the difference between gold-plated and PVD gold? Especially when it comes to watch cases. Which one is better? Which one lasts longer?

One thing that is important to state, is that not all PVD or plating processes are the same. Meaning, that there are really great platings and really bad PVD processes... and vice-versa. PVD is really a process more than a material. It stands for "physical vapor deposition" and is a rather effective way of literally blasting metal with another metal to bond them. Modern PVD processes are quite good, but really depend upon the material that is being blasted, and other details. A decent lab with the right equipment produces extremely good PVD-coated metal.

So, PVD is a coating, while plating is... well, a plating. Gold-plated metal is usually steel with real gold plated over it. A layer of gold, measured in microns (the thickness varies of course) is plated to metal to offer the look of gold at a lower cost. Gold-plating is more rare in watches these days because PVD gold has some advantages, but not all of them. A good gold-plated case can actually appear to look more like solid gold that many PVD coatings. Why? Well because it is really gold. The weakness is that overtime lots of rubbing can wear gold plating down, or scratches can reveal the base material.

What Is the Difference Between PVD Gold and Gold Plating? Ask Us Anything

For longevity, people often prefer PVD coatings. They are more expensive to apply, and are more durable over time. Though often times you'll notice that PVD gold cases are "PVD gold tone." That means no gold is actually used. Because PVD is a process versus a material, we believe that you can use gold in the coating, or just materials that look like gold. We've included an image that helps describe what a quality PVD gold coating consists of. You can see that in this high-end application there is steel, then a layer of titanium nitride for durability, and on top of that is a thin layer of 23.5 carat gold. That is a really good application, but some PVD coatings have merely gold-colored materials that are bonded to steel.

Overall, PVD coatings are going to be more durable in the long run when it comes to modern high-end watches. Though, in some cases, a gold-plated case can look better depending upon the materials used. It is difficult to answer which is better because is can really depend on the specific coating, cost of the process, and skill of the lab.

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  • belowzero3

    how or where can i find out if in the pvd process is used real gold?

  • belowzero3 Basically, PVD does not use gold (the metal) in plating watches. Electro-plating may (or may not) use actual gold. So if you see that a gold colored watch has a PVD coating, assume that it is not actual gold. Which is not all bad as PVD coatings are more scratch resistant than real gold (which is a soft metal).

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  • Whitehall

    So PVD just applies the gold on top of a TiN substrate that is first applied to the base metal. Maybe the TiN bonds more tightly to the gold than electroplating.
    Sorry, but this article doesn’t explain much.

    • Lethe

      Yeah, “plating is, well, a plating” doesn’t really clear anything up, lol.

      I have a feeling that the difference between gold-filled (best), gold-plated and PVD/gold (as opposed to PVD/gold-colored, which means NO ACTUAL GOLD) is the depth or amount of the layer of gold that is added to the substrate.

      I do know that gold-filled means a gold outer layer that is mechanically-bonded to a base metal (usually brass or copper, but sometimes iron); the gold content, by law, must be 1/20 (or 5%) of the total weight of the metal used to make the object, so you know you are getting a specific, measurable amount of gold.

      Gold-plated means something like a micron-thick layer of gold is electroplated over a base metal. (A micron is only a few atoms deep, so very little gold is used compared to gold-filled, and it can easily wear away. Gold plating is not good for any jewelry that will be handled a lot, or that will rub against skin and/or clothing, like bracelets or watches. The constant friction will wear away the thin plating pretty quickly.

      Vermeil is the same as gold-plated, except that the metal the gold is plated to is sterling silver.

      When it comes to PVD, I have no clue. I came here to learn about this process, which is new to me. From what I read here, it sounds like 1) if you want it to look like gold, you need to be sure that whatever is being deposited on the substrate is actually gold, even if it’s just an atom or two, and 2) if it isn’t gold, find out what it actually IS, because this is probably the cheaper process that the writer talks about and the object probably won’t keep it’s golden luster. I can’t really tell from what is written whether a PVD/gold object, although containing less gold, will be more durable than a gold-filled object. It does sound like it would be more durable than a gold-plated object though.

  • tentantoes

    I despise brassy looking gold color even in 24k solid.
    I’ve had 18k this and that from a watch to rings. Ugly to my eye.
    Give me 10k over even 14. Prettier, stronger, etc.
    I do have a PVD yellow gold tone watch now that is beautiful.
    A chance meeting with a fellow wearing the same brand, in a man’s version,
    I asked if he’d had it long, wore it often. Since it looked perfect.
    He’d had his Tissot for 3 years, wore it every day.
    So far, I’m a fan of PVD.