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For literally thousands of years, precious metals have been used for jewelry and accessories. Whether you’re looking to invest in them as a store of money or a source of fashion, here are the things you should know about them.
Types Of Precious Metals For Jewelry
There are many types of precious metals for jewelry, accessories, and other fashionable items. Here, we’re going to go over the three ‘big’ choices, then some of the more unusual options.
Platinum is beautiful, shiny, and extremely durable – which means it’s a great choice for anyone on the move. The bright color of platinum makes it ideal for showing off various types of gemstones, and since it doesn’t tarnish or react with oxygen, it will continue looking great even after constant use.
Most platinum jewelry is not pure (or at least as pure as it can realistically get). Instead, platinum pieces tend to include other rare metals from the same group (including palladium, rhodium, iridium, and so on). Officially, only pieces that are at least 90% platinum can be marketed as such – anything lower must be noted as a platinum alloy.
Platinum tends to work best in smaller pieces, such as rings and earrings. Allowing for a slight variation from other metals, platinum is roughly 40% heavier than gold – so large accessories could be quite heavy indeed.
The eternal favorite, gold is beautiful, resists tarnishing, and easy to work into a wide variety of shapes. However, its nature as an easily-worked metal is also a problem – pure gold, quite frankly, is not suitable for jewelry. Instead, gold jewelry is usually alloyed with stronger metals like zinc and copper. This preserves the color of the metal while allowing it to stand up to the impact of being worn.
The purity of gold jewelry is measured in karats (not to be confused with carats, a measurement of weight in gems). Each karat is equivalent to 1/24 purity. Thus, 24-karat gold is 100% pure – or rather, 99.99% pure since perfect purity is almost impossible – but any jewelry rated as such isn’t actually meant to be worn.
Modern jewelry usually has lower karat amounts. Some of the most popular units are 22-karat (91.6% gold), 18-karat (75% gold), 14-karat (58.8% gold), and 10-karat (41.7% gold).
Most recent pieces have their “hallmark,” or purity notation, given in karats. For space, it may be stamped 22K instead of 22-karat. Older pieces may have a three-digit numerical hallmark instead, expressing the purity out of one thousand. An old hallmark of 916 is the same as 91.6% pure gold, making a piece with that notation 22-karats.
Common Types Of Gold In Jewelry
There are several common ‘colors’ of gold used in jewelry. The most common is yellow gold, which is typically alloyed with a bit of copper or silver for strength.
Some pieces are white gold instead. This is an alloy created by mixing gold with a white metal, typically palladium, manganese, or nickel. Different alloys are suitable for different purposes – palladium alloys are soft and good at holding gems, while nickel is more durable and ideal for the band of a ring. White gold should not be confused with rhodium plating, which is commonly used with commercial jewelry to give a white color.
Red gold (along with Rose Gold) is less popular than the other two but comes in attractive pinkish and reddish hues. The exact color is determined by the amount of copper (and, occasionally, silver) used. 12-karat Red Gold is 50% copper, while 18-karat Red Gold is 25% copper.
Finally, rare colors include green, gray, purple, blue, and black gold. All of these are relatively easy – if somewhat expensive – to make. Most physical stores don’t sell these pieces directly, and if they do, it’s usually only in limited styles and designs. If you’re looking for a particularly exotic piece, you may need to custom-order it online or from a goldsmith.
The most affordable of the ‘popular’ metals, silver (or rather, sterling silver) is relatively soft and easy to tarnish, so it needs more care than gold or platinum pieces. The best pieces contain at least 92.5% silver.
Some silver jewelry is plated with gold, making it visually indistinguishable from solid gold pieces. This is a great way to get the appearance of gold at a better price – just don’t expect to fool any buyers, since pure gold would be much heavier.
Aside from the big three, there are several relatively precious metals used to make jewelry. Most of these aren’t quite as valuable as their more-popular cousins, but they have some traits.
Cobalt is a durable, hypoallergenic metal. It’s commonly used for implants and surgical tools, but in jewelry, it makes for damage-resistant accessories ideal for people on the move. It’s not quite as durable as platinum, but it’s measurably better than gold or silver – and much more affordable than the rarer metals.
Titanium has all the durability of steel, but only about half the weight, and it’s about as resistant to tarnishing as platinum. It also comes with an attractive white color, making it an excellent option for daily wear.
Titanium is the third-strongest metal used for jewelry (following ceramic, or titanium carbide, a hard but slightly brittle variation).
Tungsten is one of the heaviest metals used for jewelry – so, much like platinum, it’s better for small pieces like rings. This metal has an extremely high melting point, as well as the most tensile strength of any metal used for making jewelry – so it doesn’t need polishing to keep its shine. Like cobalt, tungsten is hypoallergenic, so it’s safe to wear.
Tungsten is the strongest precious metal used for jewelry. If you don’t want to make any compromises, this is the metal to get.
Choosing The Right Precious Metal
There are three factors to consider when selecting the sorts of precious metals jewelry, accessories, and other wearable pieces require: color, value, and strength.
The hue of a metal is arguably the most important consideration for fashion. Most pieces have a white-ish, reddish, or yellow hue, depending on the metal. On occasion, you’ll find darker colors (like black) with metals like cobalt. If you want a color outside this range, you’ll probably have to special-order it.
If you’re planning to invest in jewelry, its value is the most important consideration. Each piece’s value is determined by two factors: size and purity. A small piece of 22-karat gold may be more valuable than a large piece of 10-karat gold thanks to the actual amount of gold in each piece. Also, repurposing a purer piece is easier, and helps to increase its value above an alloyed piece.
Stronger is better, right? Well… actually, not as much as you might think. Strong metals like tungsten and titanium can’t be easily resized if you order the wrong item, which is inconvenient at best.
Worse, it may be impossible for an Emergency Room to cut off a strong metal in the event of an accident. They may need to amputate your finger instead of cutting a ring, and whether or not they can reattach it depends on the specifics of an injury.
In general, jewelry meant for frequent wear should be made of a stronger material, while pieces meant for irregular use (say, once a year) can be made of a softer material.
Caring For Your Jewelry
Different metals have different needs. Reader’s Digest has an excellent guide for common household products that can clean various types of jewelry. Most of these focus on removing tarnish (from gold and silver), and you’ll need to be careful with any pieces containing jewels – some cleaners can hurt those.
If you’d prefer to have a professional cleaning, most places that sell jewelry also offer cleaning services. They’ll make sure to use the right product for the job. Be sure to tell them what your piece is actually made of – that can affect the cleaner they decide to use, and with the value of jewelry, it’s always better to be safe instead of assuming they’ll recognize the exact karat and alloy.
Shape And Size
Accessories come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from small earrings to brooches, amulets, and bracelets. In general, larger accessories tend to be made of cheaper metals. For example, a ‘gold’ bracelet may actually be a gold-plated piece of steel.
Large accessories made of rare metals are prohibitively expensive unless you are fabulously wealthy, but you can get something visually similar at a reasonable price. For that matter, alloys and plated accessories tend to be stronger and more durable to begin with, which is helpful since large pieces are also more likely to smack into things.