For centuries we have been drawn to the beauty, rarity and romance of gold, platinum and silver. Along with more recently developed alternative metals, these materials continue to be used to create fine jewelry that represents the most important milestones, celebrations, achievements, and events in our lives.
This guide from Jewelers of America explains what you should know about metals when shopping for fine jewelry.
Gold, Platinum, & Silver
Collectively know as “precious metals,” gold, platinum, and silver represent some of the most rare and sought-after materials in the world. A gift of precious metal jewelry says love and permanence as eloquently today as in all the ages past.
Precious metals share four basic characteristics that make them universally treasured possessions:
Beauty – From the radiance of gold to the lustrious shine of silver and platinum, precious metals hold an intrinsic beauty matched by no other materials on earth.
Rarity – Few materials are as rare as gold, platinum and silver. While these metals are found in many parts of the world, they are not easily extracted.
Durabilty – Precious metals resist corrosion and maintain their luster and shine with little or no maintenance. Just look in the nearest museum, where precious metal artifacts from ancient civilizations attest to the metals’ enduring beauty and permanence.
Workability – Jewelers have preferred gold, platinum and silver to all other metals for their durability and malleability; they can be shaped into almost any form imaginable. All three precious metals can be re-melted and reused to create new designs.
The most alluring use of the sun-colored metal has always been in jewelry. The Egyptians, the largest users of gold in the ancient world, equated gold with the sun and reserved its use exclusively for pharaohs. Gold jewelry – either purchased for yourself or as a gift – provides a lasting symbol of life’s significant events, emotions, and accomplishments.
One of the most popular gold alloys is white gold, and it is an affordable and fashionable white-metal option. White gold is created by alloying gold with nickel or palladium, zinc and copper. White gold alloys are never truly “white” in color, so most white gold jewelry is plated with rhodium, a platinum group metal. Should the rhodium plating show signs of wear, re-plating can easily restore its brilliant white finish.
QUALITY MARKS & PURITY
Always look for a quality mark in the gold jewelry you buy. Pure gold, or 24K is generally too soft for use in most jewelry, so gold is alloyed with other metals to increase its strength. In the US, 14K gold is the most common jewelry alloy, and nothing less than 10K gold can be legally marked or sold as gold jewelry. Review the chart below to lean the quality marks to look for when shopping for gold jewelry.
|Karatage||Karat Mark||European Mark||Percent Gold|
Pure, rare, eternal – these qualities set platinum apart. The metal of choice for late 19th- and early 20th-century royalty – in both Europe and Hollywood – the precious metal has enjoyed a surge in popularity particularly among discriminating bridal jewelry buyers.
STRENGTH & DESITY
Platinum’s strength surpasses both gold and silver and assures your most precious diamonds and gemstones will be protected and secured. Platinum is one of the strongest, most enduring and densest metals. In fact, a piece of jewelry containing 90-percent pure platinum weighs 60 percent more than a 14K gold piece of similar size.
QUALITY MARKS & PURITY
Platinum jewelry has a high level of purity that makes it naturally hypoallergenic and, thus the perfect choice for people with sensitive skin. In the US, platinum jewelry generally contains 85- to 95% pure platinum. By comparison, 14K gold is only 58.3% pure gold. Jewelry marked only “Platinum”, “PT”, or “Plat” contains at least 95% pure platinum. Platinum content can also be marked by 999 for 99.9% pure platinum, 950 for 95% and so on. In the US, jewelry containing less than 50% pure platinum cannot be marked with the word “Platinum” or any abbreviation thereof.
Platinum’s durability makes it ideal for wearing every day, as it sustains ver little metal loss over a lifetime of wear. Over time, platinum jewelry will develop a natural “patina,” which can be returned to a bright, white shine with a simple repolishing.
From the ancient worlds of Byzantium and Egypt 4,000 years ago, to the New World mines of Mexico and Peru during the 17th and 18th centuries, silver’s qualities have fascinated kings and conquerors. Today, sterling silver is a favorite medium for creative and innovative designers due to its affordability and malleability.
QUALITY MARKS & PURITY
In the US, only jewelry that is at least 92.5% pure silver can be called “silver,” “sterling silver,” or “sterling.” Sterling silver jewelry may also be marked with a 925, .925, 92.5, or “Ster.”
Sterling silver is naturally soft metal and is alloyed with other metals, most commonly copper, to increase its strength and durability. While sterling silver jewelry can tarnish or darken in color, it will never rust. The bright reflective luster of sterling silver is restored with simple polishing and cleaning.
Sterling silver jewelry is often electroplated with karat gold. When the thickness of the karat gold plating is at least 100 millionths of an inch thick, it is referred to as “vermeil,” pronounced “vermay.” Vermeil jewelry is an affordable alternative to jewelry made completely with karat gold. Items meeting this definition may be stamped with standard sterling markings or with the word “vermeil.”
Other Jewelry Metals
Palladium is the “newest” white metal to make a splash among jewelry makers. As a platinum group metal, palladium offers many of platinum’s benefits – bright white color, purity, and strength – at a more affordable price. Unlike most white gold jewelry, palladium does not require plating to maintain its lustrous white color, and is hypoallergenic. It will not tarnish. However, palladium is neither as rare nor as dense as platinum. Palladium jewelry alloys are very pure. Look for “950 Palladium,” which is 95% pure palladium usually mixed with five percent ruthenium, or “900 Palladium,” which is mixed with 10 percent iridium.
Titanium, Tungsten Carbide, & Stainless Steel
Titanium, tungsten carbide and stainless steel offer affordable alternatives to precious metal jewelry and are gaining popularity, especially in men’s jewelry. They are a steely gray appearance, which men in particular find appealing. These industrial metals have the benefits of being very strong, lightweight, hypoallergenic and scratch resistant, so they are well suited to active consumers who wear jewelry on a daily basis. When used in chain or link bracelets, the metals are less likely to break – making the need for repair infrequent. In fact, tungsten is considered the world’s hardest metal substance; it ranks 8.0-9.0 on Mohs Hardness Scale (diamonds are a 10.0). However their strength also limits their applications: resizing is sometimes difficult, so if you need a different size it is usually best to order a new ring in the correct size.
A very recent newcomer to the jewelry scene, high-tech ceramic is made of a material called titanium carbide (TIC). Its scratch-resistance and durability make it attractive to jewelry designers and wearers alike. It is affordable, lightweight, and hypoallergenic, making it the perfect jewelry material for today’s active and style-conscience consumer. It is often combined with other alternative metals, like tungsten carbide, in men’s jewelry and is popular material for watches. High-tech ceramic jewelry is most commonly seen in dark gray to black hues, but it is available in a range of colors including white, pastels, and bold hues.
Information courtesy of Jewelers of America.