Metals 101: A Guide to Jewelry Metals and Alloys
Shopping for jewelry can be an exciting experience: most people love peering into the huge glass cases filled with shining metals and sparkling gemstones under bright lights. But, for some, the whole experience can be a bit overwhelming as they realize they’re not quite sure WHAT they want in a new ring or necklace. Should you buy platinum? Silver? Which jewelry metal works best with a diamond? What will look best with your sense of fashion? And what type of gold will fit my budget?🤔
If you’re feeling a bit lost as you start your journey, consider reading this handy guide to common jewelry metals. This guide will explain the quality, benefits, and drawbacks of each metal or alloy.
A few words to understand before we begin:
The most common jewelry metals, AKA the “noble” metals
When shopping for jewelry, there are three metals that will always make an appearance: silver, gold, and platinum. They are known as “noble” metals on the periodic table for their resistance to corrosion and oxidation. These three metals are commonly used in crafting jewelry due to their malleability and natural beauty.
A soft, malleable metal in its pure state, silver is a greyish-white metal commonly used in jewelry. In fact, designers often combine silver with other metals to create a more durable alloy due to its pliability. A “925” stamp means a piece is “sterling silver” or 92.5% pure silver mixed with metals like copper. In fact, Tiffany & Co. centered their entire Return to Tiffany line around the 925 stamp, as they were the first to adopt the .925 silver standard in the U.S.!
Silver is a favorite metal for daily wear jewelry, as it is less expensive than other metals. Although it’s not resilient enough for wedding and engagement rings, silver is used for necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and fashion rings.
However, despite its buyer-friendly price, silver jewelry scratches, and it will oxidize if worn too often over time. If you plan to wear silver regularly, proper cleaning and storage will help your piece last much longer than anticipated.
Naturally beautiful and strong, bright white platinum is often the first indicator of high-end jewelry. It’s a rare metal with a purity rating of 900 (90%) or 950 (95%)—mixed only with a little bit of palladium, iridium, or rhodium for added strength. It’s also hypoallergenic, which makes it a sought after option for wearers with sensitive skin.
A common misconception with jewelry buyers is that upgrading to platinum means the item will never suffer any damage. Although it is durable, platinum jewelry CAN scratch or patina over the years with daily wear or abuse. However, both situations are easily remedied through proper cleaning with a soft jewelry cleaning cloth.
You can find platinum in most jewelry stores, often beset with diamonds and other gemstones. But, platinum itself shines just as bright as any stone, and it is often used as a standalone material in wedding bands.
Probably the most beloved metal of all, gold has a long history as the “chosen metal” of royalty. From pharaohs in Egypt to the Queen of England herself, royalty recognizes the regal nature of gold. People love gold not only because of its beauty but also its practical nature. It can transform into any shape, it never tarnishes or corrodes, and jewelers can reuse old, damaged gold to create new jewelry.
In its natural state, gold is soft and carries a yellowish hue. As such, jewelers combine other metals with gold to create a stronger product that comes in a variety of colors:
Yellow gold is a combination of pure gold, silver, and copper. It boasts a regal, warm yellow hue that is used in engagement rings and high-end jewelry. Yellow gold is also great for decadent statement pieces, as it provides dramatic flair for the wearer.
White gold mixes pure gold with silver, nickel, or palladium. The ethereal white color of this gold makes it a perfect option for those with refined taste, and it’s a less expensive alternative to platinum for engagement rings. However, jewelers plate a layer of rhodium onto the surface of white gold jewelry to maintain that glowing white hue. As such, wearers must bring white gold items to a jeweler every other year to touch up the rhodium and prevent the less lustrous natural hue from showing.
Rose gold combines pure gold with copper, which gives it a pink, “rosy” color. Purity for this metal depends on what color pink the wearer requires, as it can be a darker rose or a lighter, brighter pink. Originally an underrated metal, rose gold has become a more common choice for precious jewelry over the last few years. Additionally, it’s used in engagement rings as a romantic alternative to the standard grey-white and yellow tones of other metals.
You can identify the purity of gold jewelry by reading the number of “karats” shown in the hallmark. Karats measure the purity of gold alloy, which depends on the amount of other metals mixed in to create a stronger material. As such, different karats of jewelry have different hardness, scratch resistance, etc. Look below to see the difference between each karatage.
|Karat||Gold Purity (Percentage)||Uses in Jewelry|
|24K||100%||Not typically used in jewelry production due to softness|
|22K||91.60%||Not typically used in jewelry production due to softness|
|18K||75%||Used in fine jewelry by most luxury brands|
|14K||58.30%||Used by luxury and affordable brands for fine jewelry because it is slightly more durable than 18K|
|10K||41.70%||Used by affordable brands for earrings and other jewelry despite being less than 50% gold|
Other jewelry metals used in fine and fashion jewelry
Outside of silver, gold, and platinum, there are plenty of other jewelry metals and alloys jewelers use to craft beautiful pieces. Currently, jewelers incorporate unique, beguiling materials into jewelry to provide buyers a one of a kind piece that speaks to their personal style. New metals provide budget-friendly, equally beautiful alternatives to pricier options. Here are six more gorgeous metals used in both fashion and fine jewelry.
Another beautiful white metal, Palladium is actually a noble metal with an interesting rise to popularity. During WWII, the U.S. government limited public purchase of platinum to reserve it for military use. As a result, palladium became the ideal alternative with its bright shine and durability.
Today, palladium’s popularity is still growing due to increases in the price of platinum and gold. Palladium’s purity is typically 950 or 95%, mixed with 5% ruthenium. It is also hypoallergenic and very lightweight, making it perfect for jewelry.
Palladium is a great metal for men’s jewelry, particularly wedding bands. However, it can definitely provide a cheaper alternative to platinum and white gold in women’s engagement rings as well. Its resistance to scratching and patina make it perfect for daily wear and tear, and—similar to platinum—it does not require rhodium to maintain its dazzling color.
Titanium boasts the title of “hardest natural metal in the world”, and it joins platinum in the hypoallergenic category. It is a shiny white or grey metal that is almost as strong as steel, even though it is 45% lighter! The hallmark for titanium is TTN, as it is not mixed with anything and maintains true purity.
Because titanium does not easily patina or scratch, it is a perfect choice for anyone who tends to abuse their jewelry. It is a common material used in men’s jewelry, particularly necklaces and rings. It is strong but understated, and it often appeals to men as a wedding ring.
Derived from the Swedish words “tung sten” meaning “heavy stone”, tungsten carbide is 80% tungsten, 20% carbide, and 100% strong enough to last forever.
This alloy can be grey or bright white, and it never loses its natural hue. The metal can also have a polished or brushed surface, or both of these finishes can be combined to create a unique look. Many jewelers also use it in mixed metal pieces with gold or platinum to create designer pieces. Additionally, tungsten carbide is exceptionally scratch resistant, second only to the hardest gemstones (diamonds, rubies, sapphires, etc.).
Tungsten Carbide is a very popular, inexpensive choice for men’s wedding rings, as men can put them through the wringer without ever seeing a scratch on the band. Just be careful: if this ring gets stuck on your hand, it can’t be cut off!
Meteorite jewelry has become very popular in the last few years, and it’s hard to believe people can carry a little bit of space with them🚀 wherever they go!
So what is a meteorite? Basically, meteorites are the material leftover from a meteor that entered a planet’s atmosphere. As it enters, the meteor burns up, and the pieces that manage to reach the planet’s surface are called meteorites. There are three types of meteorites: iron, stony, and stony-iron. You can learn more about these three unique space rocks here!
Most commonly, jewelers cut a cross-section of iron meteorite, submerge it in an acid bath to exaggerate the stone’s pattern, and use this pattern to create intricate pendants and rings. Because of the high iron content, jewelry made with meteorites can rust, and 99% of pieces made are magnetic.
Meteorite provides a beautiful and unique inlay for wedding bands or even a matching set for him and her, as no two slices of meteorite are alike.
Looking for something that will withstand the test of time? How about a material FOUR TIMES the hardness of platinum? If that’s what you need, Cobalt is your metal!
Cobalt jewelry is bright white, extremely hard, and is scratch-resistant. Although it’s exceptionally durable, Cobalt is very light and hypoallergenic for anyone with skin issues. It does not require any rhodium or surface plating, and Cobalt requires very little care.
Jewelers use cobalt in men’s wedding bands, as it is a strong, long-lasting material.
Another very durable metal, stainless steel is man-made and provides a bright, polished shine or a brushed texture for a unique style. Stainless steel is used in many ways, and jewelry is just one of its many utilities.
Stainless steel is scratch and tarnish-resistant, and its budget-friendly price tag makes it a great option for reliable daily wear jewelry. It’s usually used for watches, men’s jewelry, and some women’s jewelry.
Choosing the right metal for your needs
When shopping for new jewelry, it’s important to examine all of the factors that separate each metal. 📝Certain pieces are expensive but built to last for a lifetime, while others with a lower price tag may be perfect for daily wear for a few years. Consider the list of differentiators below to compare metals and alloys when searching for your perfect piece.
Cost vs. Value
The rarer the metal, the higher the price: this is an important fact to keep in mind when shopping for jewelry. While platinum, gold, and other metals are beautiful, they may or may not be in your price range when searching for the perfect piece. Moreover, metal prices rise and fall daily, and current demand drives the market. Finding the balance between metal quality and budget can be tricky, but there are plenty of durable metals that can last for years without a hefty price tag.
Are you buying for someone with sensitive skin? You may want to consider a hypoallergenic metal to avoid any irritation or burning during wear. Metals with higher purity levels are ideal for wearers with allergies, as their base metals typically do not cause reactions. However, metals heavy with copper, nickel, and other additives may cause adverse reactions that can make long wear uncomfortable. Use the handy chart provided below to decide which hypoallergenic metal is right for you.
While some metals are very durable, others are softer and scratch when treated roughly. If you work with your hands or are hard on your jewelry, look for metals that don’t scratch or dent. Gemologists rate metals with the Mohs scale of hardness by scratching assorted metals and gemstones with each other to generate a “pecking order” of toughest materials. Here is a graph to give you an idea of each discussed metal’s hardness on the Mohs scale:
Are you willing to put in the upkeep for high maintenance metals? If not, you should think about metals and alloys that require less restoration and care over time. For instance, silver jewelry has a beautiful shine that requires polishing and, often, special storage to prevent tarnish and patina appearing frequently. In contrast, platinum and palladium jewelry will retain their shine with little to no maintenance required from wearers. However, level of maintenance usually coincides with price, so keep in mind that whatever money you save while purchasing your jewelry may be spent later on upkeep and repair.
Something often not considered when purchasing jewelry is the weight of each material. Though this may seem insignificant, it’s important to ensure a daily wear purchase won’t weigh you down or make you uncomfortable. When shopping for heavily metal pieces, keep in mind how hefty each metal really is. For instance, platinum is 40% heavier than gold!
Durability over time
Another important factor in jewelry buying is the durability of your chosen metal over time. Certain metals last for decades, and it’s important to find a product that will withstand daily wear for years to come. For instance, while more expensive, platinum creates more durable prongs for a diamond on an engagement ring compared to gold or silver. If you’re looking to buy a piece that will be more than a passing fashion trend, ensure that you spend time finding the right metal for your lifestyle.
Finally, you should always take your own personal style into account. Do you live in t-shirts and jeans? Or are you expected to wear business professional clothing to the office every day?
Metals and jewelry are an extension of personal expression, and a casual metal like silver can make as much of a statement as a more refined metal like gold. Anyone with a bolder fashion style may prefer the brash color of yellow gold or the sweet, sentimental glow of rose gold. Or, maybe you prefer the sleek, timeless sheen of titanium or stainless steel. Whatever you wear on a daily basis, make sure you pick a metal that will convey your personality just as well as your outfit.💃
Still not sure which metal is right for you?
|Metal||Cost Friendly||Pure Metal||Hypoallergenic||Scratch Resistant||Lightweight|
Last, but certainly not least…
Whatever jewelry metal you choose, the most important factor will always be how much YOU or your loved one adore the piece. Whether you prefer rose gold, titanium, or silver, choose the piece that speaks to your own style preferences and character. The factors above may play an important role in making an informed decision, but at the end of the day, the opinion that matters most is your own! 😎