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Mankind and, of course, womankind have adorned themselves with precious metals for centuries. We've always loved the color, shine, and rarity of gold and silver, fashioning the metals into coins, crowns, and even dishes. For talented artisans and their patrons, fine jewelry meant gold and silver and, recently, platinum. However, other metals, such as steel and titanium, can be crafted into high-quality, durable and stylish jewelry, and jewelers have become more appreciative of these alternatives in recent years.
The jewelry industry uses the term "alternative metals" to describe the trend toward using industrial metals and alloys for contemporary design. This alternative metals buying guide offers some basic information to help you learn more about these fashionable metals.
Alternative metals can be designed into a variety of styles. New materials inspire creativity among designers who craft elegant jewelry in never-before-seen styles. While gold and platinum remain the preferred metals for fine jewelry, some people prefer the more subtle color and sheen of industrial metals. On the other hand, base metals which have been used in alloys now are being used to create the look of a precious metal at a much more affordable price. So, alternative metal jewelry can have both traditional and contemporary styling.
Affordability is another benefit of alternative metals. Retailers and consumers often find it more sensible to choose gold overlay items for fashion jewelry when the price of gold increases -- solid gold products being reserved for special occasion jewelry. This doesn't mean that alternative metal jewelry is of low quality. Steel, titanium and tungsten are strong metals; in fact, many wedding bands are now made of these metals due to their durability. This jewelry is fashionable, yet its style and quality will outlast shifting trends.
Inspired by the recent rise in popularity of precious metals, Platifina creates a new collection of pure rhodium-plated sterling silver jewelry. Pure rhodium plating, the most precious platinum metal, is combined with sterling silver to create durable jewelry that is tarnish- and scratch-resistant. Platifina jewelry possesses a rich white metal luster, making it a brilliant new alternative to platinum, white gold, and silver jewelry.
Gold overlay is an application of gold on a base metal piece. The process gives an item the luxurious look of gold for a fraction of the cost of crafting with solid gold. The gold layer in gold overlay jewelry must be at least 10 karat in quality. In previous decades, gold overlay jewelry was not very durable and the gold layer would rub off after extended wear. However, jewelers have improved the gold bonding methods and the layer of gold is thicker. A piece of gold overlay jewelry should have a stamp indicating the process and the gold's karat quality, such as 14k overlay for 14-karat gold. More and more retailers are offering gold overlay necklaces, earrings, charms and other jewelry to their customers, yet the name "gold overlay" is still new to many consumers. Here is a short list of older terminology for gold overlay jewelry:
Gold-plated: Gold plating refers to the process of chemically bonding a layer of gold to a base metal through electrolysis. Gold-plated jewelry has a layer of gold with a percentage of at least 10 karat and a thickness of 0.175 microns or greater. Electroplating applies the gold coating to the base metal by placing the object in a gold ion solution. Passing an electric current through the solution will cause the ions to bond to the metal. The result is a quality piece of gold overlay jewelry with an unmistakable sheen.
Gold-filled: To make gold-filled jewelry, a base metal item with a top layer of at least 10-karat gold is bonded to the metal with heat and pressure. For an item to be considered "gold filled," the gold content must compose at least 1/20th of the item's total weight. A piece of gold-filled jewelry will include a stamp noting the karat of the gold used; for example, a GF 14k stamp on a gold-filled bracelet indicates a composition with 14-karat gold.
Gold-over-silver: Gold-over-silver jewelry is also gold overlay jewelry but the use of silver as the base metal increases the value. Silver with a layer of yellow gold is the most luxurious of gold overlay jewelry. Previously these items, especially sterling silver with a plating of 18-karat yellow gold, were called vermeil (ver-may). Today, many retailers emphasize the use of two precious metals by calling this jewelry "gold over silver."
A metal with a finish that resembles gold in color and sheen is called gold tone. This is a popular finish for watches with a base of brass or stainless steel. Some products have a silver tone finish which resembles sterling silver. In general, jewelry and watches that are described as gold tone or silver tone do not contain any gold or silver.
Steel's popularity as a jewelry material, especially in men's jewelry, has increased in recent years. Steel is an iron-carbon alloy that has been used for millennia in crafting tools, structures and manufacturing. Stainless steel was developed in the 19th Century with a composition of 10 percent chromium and 0.15 percent carbon added to iron. Stainless steel resists corrosion better than earlier alloys. It does rust, but the rust (or oxide) is a thin layer that protects the metal from reacting with water or air. With its attractive grey color, strength and relatively low cost, stainless steel jewelry is a good alternative to pricier jewelry metals such as silver or white gold. Stainless steel rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets and watches resist tarnish and are hypo-allergenic.
Surgical stainless steel is a steel alloy composed of iron, carbon, 12-20 percent chromium, 8-12 percent nickel and 0.2-3 percent molybdenum. This steel is scratch-resistant and resists corrosion, even after multiple cleanings. It is called surgical because many medical implants and surgical tools are made of it. Body jewelry, especially belly rings, crafted of surgical stainless steel offers consumers a hygienic product.
Titanium and tungsten are industrial metals, and their use in jewelry production is relatively recent. Both metals are as strong as steel, and their popularity increases as consumers recognize their durability. Tungsten jewelry and titanium jewelry is grey with tungsten being the darker color, an attractive alternative to the prevalent white and gold metals. These metals resist corrosion, tarnish and discoloration. Tungsten and titanium can be crafted into almost any design, just like precious metals. Many men are choosing titanium wedding rings and tungsten wedding rings for their durability; this jewelry really will last for decades.
A common metal, titanium became valuable to industry in the mid-20th century as an indispensable aerospace material. Titanium has a weight of about half that of steel and can be alloyed with other metals to enhance its properties. Titanium is also hypo-allergenic, unless alloyed with nickel, making it suitable for medical equipment and implants including artificial hips. These properties make titanium an excellent choice for body jewelry.
Titanium uses an industrial grading system; three of these grades are used for manufacturing jewelry: "Commercially pure" titanium, called CP or ASTM Grade 2 (in jewelry terms, 990 fine) is the most hypo-allergenic and could be called medical grade. Ti-6/4, also called ASTM Grade 5 or aircraft grade (900 titanium/60 aluminum/40 vanadium), and Ti-6/6/2 (860 titanium/60 aluminum/60 vanadium/20 tin) are the extremely hard alloys. These designations are not always included in descriptions.
Tungsten, also called wolfram, was first distilled from the mineral wolframite. It forms super dense alloys when added to other metals and these alloys are used in products ranging from golf club heads to weapons. Tungsten is as strong as steel and about twice the weight.
Tungsten carbides are compounds of tungsten and carbon: monotungsten carbide (WC) or ditungsten-carbide (W2C). A tungsten carbide compound is denser than silver, steel or titanium, and tungsten carbide jewelry is effectively wear proof. Pure tungsten jewelry is available; however, pure tungsten is not as hard as the carbides.
Palladium is a member of the platinum group of metals and is actually a precious metal as rare as platinum. The British chemist William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828) discovered palladium in 1803 by isolating it from platinum ores and named it for Pallas, an asteroid honoring the Greek goddess of wisdom. This metal has been used increasingly in jewelry since 2000. Palladium features a silvery white color that retains its luster and doesn't tarnish or turn yellow. It is often alloyed with gold to produce a white gold that holds its color better and is less irritating to the skin than gold-nickel alloy. With its bright color and durable nature, palladium is a popular material for wedding jewelry which is expected to keep its appearance for decades.