Jewelry Metals and How to Choose
Jewelry metals range from valuable, precious metals to inexpensive, alternative options. Within this wide range of jewelry metals, the most popular for use in fine jewelry are platinum, gold and silver. This guide will outline the most popular metals used in jewelry, along with their pros and cons.
Durable, reflective and valuable, platinum is commonly chosen for wedding and engagement rings. Due to its hardness, platinum won’t corrode easily and doesn’t require polishing. Its durability makes it ideal for jewelry pieces that are worn daily and exposed to rough use, such as wedding rings. It’s also very lightweight and comfortable to wear.
- Platinum is denser than gold or silver.
- Platinum jewelry contains at least 80% of pure platinum, which means it has a higher level of purity than silver or gold jewelry.
- Platinum jewelry retains its appearance better than other metals.
- Over time, platinum jewelry develops a patina
The traditional metal of choice for most jewelry, gold is valuable and prestigious. Since pure gold is highly malleable and cannot be used for jewelry on its own, it’s alloyed with other metals. Gold is measured in karats, with 24 karats being the maximum. Popular gold alloys are 10K, 12K, 14K, 18K, and 22K. The higher the karatage, the greater the value of the piece, but the lower the durability. In the USA, any piece of jewelry that contains 10K of gold or more is regarded as ‘solid gold’.
Yellow is gold in its natural color. It won’t tarnish, corrode or rust and is alloyed with base metals to increase its sturdiness. Yellow gold is the most hypoallergenic type of gold, which means it’s safe for people with metal allergies. It’s the most classic option for wedding rings.
White gold is created by combining pure gold with other metals such as nickel, silver, palladium or zinc. This is then plated with rhodium to enhance its shine, hardness, and reflectiveness. White gold is a more affordable alternative to platinum. White gold may not be hypoallergenic due to the presence of metals such as nickel and zinc.
Rose gold is made by alloying pure gold with copper. It gets its ‘rosy’ color from the copper. Since copper is a hard metal, this makes rose gold the most durable type of gold. However, copper isn’t hypoallergenic, which means rose gold can cause problems for people with metal allergies.
Gold-Plated and Gold-Filled Jewelry
Since solid gold is expensive, there are many gold-plated or gold-filled jewelry pieces on the market. Both gold-plated and gold-filled jewelry are made by applying a thin layer of gold over a base metal (usually copper or brass). In gold-plated jewelry, the layer is very thin and can easily rub off whereas in gold-filled, it’s much thicker.
Other types of gold include:
- Green gold – made of pure gold combined with silver
- Purple gold – gold combined with aluminum
- Blue gold – gold alloyed with iron
- Black gold – electroplating a layer of black ruthenium or rhodium over gold
Silver is a popular white metal for jewelry because of its affordability, luster and mirror-like shine. Silver is also used for silver-filled and silver-plated jewelry pieces, but these are less valuable options and are also less durable. Due to its malleability, silver is easy to use for crafting jewelry in various shapes and sizes with elaborate details.
Sterling .925 Silver
Sterling silver contains 92.5% silver and about 7.5% of other metals, making it a lot more durable than pure silver. It’s the most popular version of silver used for jewelry. Sterling silver tarnishes over time and requires regular maintenance.
Fine .999 Silver
Fine silver marked .999 indicates that the metal is 99.9% pure silver. Unlike sterling silver, it has a dull and grayer look. Fine silver is soft and can dent, scratch or change shape easily, and suits jewelry that isn’t exposed to daily wear and tear.
Palladium is lesser known, but is a highly valuable, precious metal. In the past, palladium was less expensive than platinum, but due to increasing demand, the price of palladium has risen in recent years. It’s often cited as being the most expensive of the four precious metals. Naturally white in color, palladium is lightweight, comfortable to wear and is hypoallergenic.
Aside from the above-mentioned four precious metals, these alternative metals are also popular in jewelry.
Brass is commonly used for costume jewelry and vintage pieces, because of its affordability and attractive resemblance to gold. Made from copper and zinc, its properties vary depending on the percentage of these two metals used to produce it. Brass is extremely strong and often used as a base metal for plated jewelry. It’s highly durable and doesn’t corrode easily, but since it can contain aluminum and nickel, it’s not a hypoallergenic metal.
Aluminum is a silver-colored metal that’s alloyed with other metals to create costume jewelry and artisan pieces. It’s malleable enough to be formed into various shapes and since it’s lightweight, it’s often used for making large pieces of jewelry. Some jewelers use anodizing technology to color this metal in various shades. Like gold, aluminum is stable metal and won’t tarnish over time. It’s also tough enough to withstand rough use and exposure to water.
A beautiful metal valued for its warm, reddish color, copper is popular for artisan jewelry. It’s also used as a base metal for plated or filled jewelry. While it’s more expensive than brass, copper is much more affordable than most other metals. It’s easy to work with and can be made into various designs, shapes and sizes. However, copper easily tarnishes and can even leave the skin green.
Also known as ‘columbium’, niobium is a light grey, crystalline element on the period table. It’s often used for pre-made jewelry such as rings, earrings and piercing jewelry. While niobium is typically silver-colored, it can be anodized to achieve an extensive range of colors including red, pink and blue. It’s hypoallergenic, durable, and resistant to corrosion. Although it’s an affordable metal with many impressive properties, niobium is rarely used in jewelry, so there are limited designs featuring niobium.
Stainless steel is an affordable alternative to silver and other expensive silver-toned jewelry metals. It’s one of the most popular jewelry metals for rings and other pieces that are worn daily. Stainless steel is durable and resists corrosion. On the downside, it’s a rigid metal with high tensile property that makes it challenging to work with. Stainless steel jewelry is usually difficult to resize.
Pewter is a metal made up of 90% tin combined with copper. It’s an affordable metal and an excellent choice for artisan jewelry and costume pieces. Since pewter has a low melting point, it’s easy to use in jewelry-making and is an excellent choice for vintage jewelry. When making vintage jewelry, manufacturers usually apply certain chemicals to darken the metal and achieve the antique look.
An alloy of several metals, usually copper, zinc and tin, bronze is highly popular for costume jewelry. Due to its color, this metal goes well with various gemstones as well as other materials. Bronze is also used as a base metal for plated jewelry. Like brass, bronze is strong and durable that resists corrosion and exposure to certain chemicals. It’s also fairly affordable.
Also known as ‘wolfram’, tungsten is an exceptionally strong and durable metal, typically used to make men’s wedding rings. Tungsten has a beautiful luster, and its affordability makes it a good alternative to more expensive white metals. However, its hardness and brittleness makes tungsten more breakable unlike other softer metals that bend instead of breaking. If smashed, the piece will shatter. It’s also almost impossible to resize.