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What are the metals commonly used to make jewelry and what are their pros and cons?

There are many metals used to make jewelry, but the main metals are yellow and white gold, platinum, silver and recently, palladium.

The karat of gold is a number assigned reflecting its purity. 24 karat gold is pure gold. It is always the same color, a deep yellow. It is a very soft, very heavy metal, softer and heavier than lead. 24 karat gold is unsuitable for almost all jewelry because of its softness. A heavy gentleman’s band made of pure gold can be bent using finger pressure alone. For this reason it is mixed with other metals. Another reason for mixing it with other metals is to change or enhance the color. The number associated with the karat of gold is used to indicate its purity by weight, not by volume. 12K would be 50% gold, 50% other metals. 14K is 58.5% pure gold by weight and is about 50% gold and 50% other metals by volume, because gold is heavier. 18K is 75% pure gold. The primary metals used to alloy gold into its various colors are silver, copper, nickel, palladium, zinc and silicon. By varying the amounts of the different metals, many different combinations can be achieved. More silver makes is it green, more copper makes it red. Nickel makes it white. Palladium makes it whiter. The addition of copper and silicon to nickel white gold makes it whiter still. Regardless of the color, the karat number still indicates the amount of gold.

 

 

When creating jewelry with yellow gold we use mainly 18 karat Royal Yellow gold. It is a little heavier in silver than some of the other alloys giving it a very nice balance of the beautiful color of pure gold and the strength of an alloyed gold. It is also a wonderful metal to work with, it is very predictable in it’s working properties, and holds up reasonably well to wear.

 

When using white gold, we use a premixed alloy that comes from one of our metal suppliers. They are very closed mouthed about what exactly the mixture is, and even asked us to sign a statement that we wouldn’t have it assayed to find out what it is. It is a very white metal, much whiter in color than any other alloy I have seen. It works very nicely and is substantially harder than yellow gold. We use this alloy in both 14K and 18K. The 14K is just a little whiter than the 18K.

 

This alloy has some nickel in it, but much less than “normal” white gold alloys, so it is a little bit less of a problem for people with an allergy to nickel.

 

Platinum, like gold is unsuitable for jewelry use in its pure form, but requires far less other metals to be added to make it much harder. The two metals commonly alloyed with platinum are iridium (Ir) and ruthenium (Ru). Iridium is commonly added at the rate of 10% Ir and 90% Pt and is called 900 Platinum, or 900 Ir Pt. Ruthenium is commonly added at the rate of 5% Ru and 95% Pt, and is called 950 Platinum or 950 Pt. We find that 900 Pt is slightly harder and slightly whiter and is a little easier to work with, so that is our metal of choice when platinum is being used. The difference in cost between the two different alloys is negligible.

 

The advantages and disadvantages of the various yellow gold alloys are mainly ones of color and hardness. 18K is a deeper yellow color, but is slightly softer than 14K. This is usually not much of a concern, unless the piece is light in weight, and consists of very thin cross-sections. 18K also costs a bit more than 14K as there is more gold in it. This difference usually amounts to around $150 or so for the average lady’s ring, and can be quite a bit more for a gentleman’s ring, depending on its weight.

 

White gold costs significantly less than platinum, and because it weighs less than platinum, a piece of jewelry made from white gold can be a lot less expensive than a similar piece made of platinum. It is also much less labor intensive than platinum, further reducing its cost in a finished piece. It is also much harder than platinum making it much more resistant to denting.

 

So why not use white gold for everything? Well, white gold isn’t really white. It’s sort of a brown color. Some of the older alloys are so brown that they must be plated with rhodium to give them a nice, white color. The problem with that is that the rhodium must be re-plated periodically so the color remains attractive. Rhodium is a very expensive metal, and the piece must be totally refinished to get the maximum brilliance of the coating of rhodium, so re-plating can be a costly endeavor if it is done with any frequency. Most white gold rings that are worn daily must be refinished and re-plated about every six months or so.

 

The following excerpts from a post I made on the Orchid Forum in answer to several questions from a fellow goldsmith explain why we love to use platinum:

 

Why is platinum popular in the jewelry industry?”

Platinum is the most noble of the noble metals.  It is totally non-reactive
(at least for jewelry purposes).  It will not tarnish.  It will not cause
allergic reactions.  It is valuable.  It is very resistant to wear, hence
the difficulty in polishing it.  It is very white in color, and does not
impart color to stones that are set in it.  It makes sense to the general
public to use the most noble of metals to commemorate their most important
occasions and to use the most valuable jewelry metal to set the most
valuable stones.  Plus, it feels good.

 

 

What characteristics make it more desirable to work with than white gold?”

One of the main reasons is that it is a pure joy to work with, at least for me.  It
doesn't firescale, it's easily welded, you can form it, forge it, draw, roll
and push it around very easily, and it will hold stones very securely if
used properly within its properties.  It works better with a laser welder
than any other metal I have worked with.  It is also an outstanding metal
when used with contrasting colors.  I especially enjoy doing 22K inlay in
platinum and then engraving it.  The two contrasting colors really show
well, as opposed to white gold and yellow gold.  In a highly polished piece,
14K yellow and white gold are almost indistinguishable, unless the white
gold is rhodium plated.

Stone setting in platinum is also a joy, especially when compared to white
gold.  White gold is brittle and hard as nails, comparatively speaking.
Prongs made of white gold are far more prone to cracking and breaking than
platinum, even when done properly.  This is truer of traditional white
gold than palladium white gold, which has its own idiosyncrasies, but sets
pretty nicely.

White gold is generally not as white as platinum.  There are new alloys that
are much whiter than the old ones, but they still have a brownish color when
compared to platinum.  I like using the new 18K white gold alloys especially
for gent's bands.  I really do like the warm color, and very rarely plate
it.  A lot of white gold is rhodium plated to make it look more like
platinum, but rhodium can wear off quite quickly.  I have had far more
complaints from my customers about their white gold "turning" than
platinum's patina, but it was usually because I didn't properly explain
about rhodium plating.  White gold is more resistant to denting and bending
than cast platinum, but not that much more than work-hardened forged
platinum.


”W
hat characteristics make is more desirable to wear than white gold?”

Its white color, its resistance to wear, its more permanent nature and
ability to safely hold valuable stones, its hypoallergenic properties, its
value, its heft and probably most importantly, its luxurious and exclusive
reputation.  Even banks, credit card companies and airlines reserve their
best services for their "Platinum Members", reflecting its regal stature.

There is no "perfect" metal.  Each metal has positive and negative
properties and platinum is no different.  The key when selling or designing
any metal jewelry is to help the client understand each metal's properties
and help them to make an educated decision.  Their choice of metal is
somewhat dependent on the design they want, and conversely their design
might well be influenced by the metals they choose.  Long slender pieces of
platinum are very easily bent, so it does not lend itself to tall skinny
prongs without some sort of under-gallery.  Rhodium plated white gold
earrings don't usually have the wear problems that a ring might, very thin
(24 - 28 gauge) pieces hold their shape much better, and they will weigh
(and therefore cost) substantially less than platinum, generally making
white gold a superior metal for earrings.  Platinum is sticky and not very
springy, even when work-hardened, so clasps and other pieces requiring a
hard and springy nature or needing to move freely under pressure (like Omega
style earring backs) usually work much better if made from white gold.
White gold posts and friction backs are far superior to platinum in
virtually every respect, except for those with allergies.  Hinges on the
other hand will last much longer if made from platinum, due to it's superior
wear resistance, but require slightly heavier gauge components to avoid
deformation and much more care in fitting and finishing if they are to be
frictionless.

I have virtually no complaints from customers about how their jewelry wears
as they know before it is even created how their chosen metal will look,
both new and with time, what care it will require and what they can expect
from it over the long term.  If someone is getting complaints from customers
about the metal their jewelry is made of, regardless of the metal, they
probably did a poor job of explaining its properties, both positive and
negative, up front.  At least that's my experience.

Dave

 

 

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