Jewelry Metals Guide: What is the Right Metal For Your Jewelry?
Posted on 16 November 2018
When picking out jewelry, it can sometimes be difficult to know what kind of metal and materials the jewelry item is made out of. Knowing what your jewelry is composed of can be helpful to your health, in addition to your style. Finding the right ring, bracelet or necklace is usually not just about its outward appearance -- you should also consider other factors to know which is the right metal for your jewelry.
When you are considering which kind of metal for your next piece of jewelry, think about how the metal choice affects your budget, how its weight feels in your hand or around your neck, how much maintenance is required to keep the metal looking good, and even whether you could be allergic to the material. Also, consider the fact that some jewelry items are composed of core materials that are obscured by an outside coating or plating of another material, while there are other jewelry items that are composed of metal alloys. Keep reading and we will get into all of this!
The most common metals used in jewelry are gold, silver, and platinum. There are also a lot of alternative metals for jewelry, such as ceramic, cobalt, stainless steel, titanium and tungsten. Since we’ve already described gold and silver extensively in the last blog post, we’ll start with platinum here:
Platinum is a precious metal that has a naturally silverish-white hue and was a popular metal for jewelry in the early 20th century. Though it was taken off the market during wartime, platinum has since increased in popularity in the 1990s and is now a top choice for engagement rings, wedding bands and other kinds of jewelry. Platinum’s naturally white sheen will not change color, fade, tarnish or oxidize (unlike gold, which needs to be polished), making it a symbol of everlasting love.
Strength & Durability
Platinum is stronger and more durable than gold, scratches easier than 14k gold, is 40% heavier than 14k gold, and is truly white, unlike gold. Regarding its strength, the prongs of a platinum ring holding an engagement stone are less likely to break than the prongs of a gold ring. Because platinum is so strong and hard, the details of an engraving on platinum jewelry often look more preciser and sharper than engravings on other kinds of metal jewelry. Though platinum is a stronger and more durable metal than gold, platinum is a softer metal, meaning that it will scratch easier than 14k gold. When platinum jewelry is scratched, the platinum is moved from one part of the piece of jewelry to another, creating something called a patina finish. This ends up looking like an antique or worn piece of jewelry, which a lot of people really like.
Platinum jewelry is very rare -- 30% more rare than gold -- which means it is usually more expensive than gold. When used in jewelry, platinum is often combined with a variety of other similar metals, known as the platinum group metals: palladium, ruthenium, iridium, rhodium and osmium. For a piece of jewelry to be considered “platinum,” it must have a minimum level of purity of at least 90% pure platinum. If the purity level is less than 90%, this piece of jewelry would be considered a “platinum alloy.” Platinum jewelry pieces are identified by a “PLAT” stamp on the inside of the piece of ring.
In addition to the common metals for jewelry (gold, silver and platinum), there are a lot of alternative metal options you could choose from. In metal jewelry making, professional jewelry makers and DIY jewelry makers utilize a variety of metal options, which produce different looks and styles. Whether you’re trying to find the right metals for jewelry making or to diminish allergic reactions, consider the following jewelry metals list to determine which metal is right for you.
Aluminum is a pure element. It is soft, durable, lightweight, non-magnetic, easily shaped, and resistant to corrosion. Some costume jewelry contains aluminum. It is silver in appearance but can be anodized to be colored in bright, pretty colors. When it comes to jewelry, aluminum has several advantages: it is malleable, affordable, tarnish resistant and lightweight.
Copper is a pure element that is often used in metal alloys. Its hardness allows for easy manipulation, making it a great metal for stamping jewelry. Copper is corrosion resistant, but a patina is formed with time.
Ceramic jewelry is a man-made product and is relatively new in the jewelry arena. Created from hi-tech aerospace material, ceramic is heat resistant, lightweight and incredibly versatile. It is not the ceramic found in pottery or stoneware -- instead, ceramic carbide is extremely durable and almost impossible to scratch. Ceramic jewelry tends to be cheaper than jewelry made from silver or gold, for instance, and provides for a beautiful alternative for wedding rings. Ceramic jewelry is available in a variety of colors, including pink, black and white. Ceramic carbide is also hypoallergenic, making this metal a great option for those who have allergic reactions to other jewelry metals. Ceramic jewelry doesn’t tarnish, darken, or oxidize over time.
In jewelry, cobalt is typically found bonded to copper or nickel. Cobalt is highly durable and very popular since it resembles white gold in appearance, without having to pay the price for gold jewelry. Made from the same material used to build jet aircraft engines, cobalt has an extremely high resistance to scratching. Cobalt is harder than stainless steel, titanium, platinum, gold and silver. It is also hypoallergenic.
Palladium is a platinum group metal, offering many of platinum’s benefits (e.g. bright white color, purity and strength) at a more affordable price. Palladium is not as rare nor as dense as platinum; does not require plating to maintain its bright, white appearance; it will not tarnish; and it is hypoallergenic. Palladium jewelry alloys are relatively pure: a “950 Palladium” stamp on jewelry indicates the item is 95% pure palladium with 5% ruthenium, usually.
Precious Metal Clay
Precious metal clay, or PMC, was introduced in Japan in the 1990s. This jewelry material allows jeweler designers to create detailed jewelry pieces for a wide range of prices. Composed of tiny particles of silver, platinum or gold, the PMC mixture is then combined with an organic binder and water. The end result is a pliable clay-like material that can be molded into any shape. The organic binding compound is burned away when the material is heated to high temperatures, which leaves the solid metal piece.
Though stainless steel is most commonly associated in kitchenware, hardware and appliances, it is also commonly used in watches and jewelry. The term “stainless steel” is a generic term for steel metal alloys, which applies to grades of steel that contain more than 10% chromium. Two common grade types are Type 304 (most common) and Type 316. Stainless steel is silvery-white in appearance and has a mirror finish. It retains its color over time and doesn’t tarnish. Stainless steel is easy to clean, highly durable, scratch resistant, and corrosion resistant. Stainless steel is considerably less expensive than other metals for jewelry. Hallmarks for stainless steel are SSTL or SST.
Titanium is the hardest natural metal in the world and, in jewelry, is very lightweight. Titanium is a pure element that is a durable and lightweight metal, and is arguably the best available option for wedding band metals today. In appearance, titanium has a silvery-white metallic color. Titanium is hypoallergenic, making it relatively unlikely to cause allergies. However, it is not scratch resistant: titanium jewelry items show wear and tear easily, but can shine like new with a little bit of polishing. This metal is as strong as steel but 45% lighter in weight than steel. Titanium is more commonly associated with men’s jewelry, but it is becoming more available in women’s jewelry styles as well. Titanium’s strength and durability make it a good choice for rings and bracelets that are worn daily. The hallmark for titanium is TTN.
The name of this metal is derived from the Swedish words, “tung sten,” which means “heavy stone.” Tungsten jewelry can vary in appearance, from steel gray to a tin-white color. Of all the metals, tungsten has the highest melting point and the most tensile strength. Unlike other metals that must be polished to maintain its shine, tungsten’s shine will not fade due to its hardness. Tungsten has natural hypoallergenic properties that make it perfect to use as a jewelry material. One potential problem with tungsten rings is that, since they are extremely durable, they are unable to be resized. If a tungsten ring becomes too small or too large, it will have to be switched out for an entirely new ring. Tungsten carbide is an alloy that is 80% tungsten and 20% carbon alloyed with other metal materials.
Comparison of Metals
Mohs Scale of Hardness
Mohs scale of hardness is used to measure the scratch resistance of different metals used in jewelry. This method compares hardness by seeing which materials can visibly scratch others. This scale was was invented by German geologist and mineralogist Friedrich Mohs in 1812, but the idea was mentioned as early as 300 B.C. by Theophrastus.
Metal alloys are compounds composed of at least 1 metal and other metal or non-metal elements. The end mixture of chemical elements is an impure substance that retains the characteristics of metal. The composition of the alloy determines the properties of the material: e.g. its corrosion resistance and strength. There is usually a primary or base metal in a metal alloy, and the name of this metal can also be the name of the alloy.
Here are a few examples:
Brass - is a metal alloy of zinc and copper. It is used for its gold-like appearance, but, over time, it will oxidize to a green color (patina).
Bronze - is a metal alloy of tin and copper. Its appearance is gold-like, similar to brass, bot often exhibits traces of green.
Rhodium - is a metal alloy of copper, tin, zinc and/or nickel and it is usually used as a finish or a coating for sterling silver or white gold to give the jewelry item a bright, white appearance.
Pewter - is a metal alloy of tin and usually a smaller amount of another metal (generally, copper, bismuth or antimony). It appears silver-gray and is usually finished, or plated, with copper, silver or gold.
Red Bronze - is a metal alloy of 80% copper and a blend of deoxidizers, which help to prevent the green color from forming.
But, Which Metal Is Right For Me?
There are a lot of factors that contribute to determining which metal material is the right one for you. Are you still not sure which is the best jewelry material? If the jewelry metals list above didn’t answer all your questions, consider the following 6 factors and weigh the pros and cons of each.
Prices for metal fluctuate daily, and sometimes even more than once in a day, due to the supply and demand for that particular metal material. In general, the cost of a metal is determined by how rare and how precious it is, which, in turn, affects its availability. The more rare a material is can oftentimes create higher demand, which can impact the price of the material.
#2 Strength & Durability, Hardness & Scratch
All metals can be scratched and can even dent. However, some materials (like tungsten or titanium) are scratch resistant. Certain metals are more durable, like platinum or gold. Regarding precious metals, there is a difference between their hardness and their strength. Hardness, or HV, is how scratch resistance the metal is when it is penetrated by an outside object. The Vickers Hardness Scale is used to measure the hardness and scratch resistance of the metal. Durability/strength, or PSI, is measured by the pounds in square inch. When the tensile strength is measured for overall durability
Metals that are hypoallergenic minimize the potential for an allergic reaction by the wearer. For instance, purer metals, like platinum or titanium, tend to be hypoallergenic, and therefore pose less threat for possible irritation to the wearer. Other metals, or metal alloys, have a higher potential for irritation for the wearer: e.g. though nickel and bronze may be added to a gold or silver to make the material stronger, some people are allergic to these substances and can have an allergic reaction when wearing them.
#4 Restoration & Tarnish
Some metals can be easily restored, while others are harder to restore. Copper, brass and silver jewelry is beautiful in appearance when first purchased, but can be difficult to maintain this beauty due to their more frequent need for polishing. Without protection, jewelry with patina can fade easily. Wire-wrapped and metal clay jewelry tend to require more protection to keep from tarnishing, and copper jewelry tends to darken the skin. Repairing jewelry can be difficult and best left to a jewelry dealer.
As mentioned above, the more rare a metal is, the more expensive it will be. Thus, items of platinum and gold are usually more expensive than items made of other materials.
The weight of the material can be a huge factor in determining if the material is right for you. For instance, if the product is too heavy, you will probably be less inclined to wear this item frequently, if at all. However, other people tend to enjoy the heaviness of their jewelry, and this can be a plus. For jewelry, platinum is the densest and heaviest material available, being 40% heavier than gold. Some of the lightest jewelry materials are titanium and stainless steel.
How do I know which metal I am buying?
If you are buying your jewelry item from a reputable jewelry dealer, it is fairly easy to check what metal is in the jewelry item. All gold, platinum and silver jewelry sold in the U.S. is required by law to be stamped with a quality mark, or hallmark, that shows the percentage of the metal used in the jewelry piece.
What kind of metal doesn’t tarnish?
There are two metals used in jewelry that do not tarnish: palladium and cobalt. Palladium and cobalt, as jewelry metals that don’t tarnish, also do not need to be rhodium-plated, so they are very low maintenance. Silver, on the other hand, can build tarnish on its surface unless you care for it by polishing it regularly.
What is the most durable metal for jewelry?
Tungsten is the most durable and strongest material for jewelry. While titanium, stainless steel and cobalt are also very durable and strong, tungsten is approximately 10 times harder than 18K gold and 4 times harder than titanium. The durability of tungsten makes it a good choice for wedding rings for men who work in physical labor-intensive jobs. However, tungsten’s durability also means that it is very heavy: since tungsten is denser than other metals, it is both stronger and heavier than other metals used in jewelry.
What is the most expensive metal for jewelry?
As mentioned above, the more rare the material is, the more expensive it will be. Platinum and rhodium tend to cost more than gold and silver because they are both more rare than gold and silver.
What does “patina” mean?
Patina is a green, blue, brown or white film on the surface of jewelry items composed of particular metals. It is produced by oxidation over time. Patinas are often found on platinum jewelry: over time, since platinum easily scratches, the platinum item develops a natural dullish-white color, or patina, that a lot of people actually prefer to the polished finish.
Thanks for reading our Jewelry Metals Guide! Feel free to comment your thoughts, likes and dislikes in the comments section below!