Metals play a critical role in the creation of contemporary jewellery by affecting appearance, durability and cost. With such a dramatic impact, it’s important that anyone interested in wearing or purchasing jewellery develop a basic understanding of the metallurgy as it relates to jewellery. In an effort to give you a sound foundation, let’s review the basics of metals in jewellery making that include a brief history of metals in jewellery making, a review of the types of metals used in today’s jewellery and conclude with a glossary to familiarise you with terms that you may encounter during your search for the perfect ring, bracelet, necklace or another item.
Common Metals in Jewellery Making
Today jewellery is created using a wide range of material, however the number of metals that can be used is limited; there are only 86 known metals and of those, relatively few are commonly used in contemporary jewel
lery. However, the majority of jewellery crafted today tends to use only a handful of metals. Here, we will look at the metals that are the most popular.
Perhaps no other substance on earth has captured the hearts and minds of man more than gold. Popular for its rarity and lustre, gold quickly became a method of payment and a key component used in the manufacture of jewellery when it became fashionable during the times of Alexander the Great. After a temporary decrease in status, gold regained its popularity as a jewellery staple often seen used in gold rings during the 15th century and continues to be popular today. Gold is the most easily worked of all metals and ranges in softness based on its purity. Generally pure gold is too soft for use in jewellery, so it’s commonly mixed with alloy metals such as copper and zinc. Below is a breakdown of the percentage of pure gold in each of the popular carat weights:
24 Carat: 99.9% Pure
18 Carat: 75% Pure
14 Carat: 58.3% Pure
9 Carat: 37.5% Pure
When selecting jewellery like gold necklaces or bracelets, it’s important to balance gold purity with the durability. Jewellery items like rings and bracelets often take more abuse and are much likely to become deformed if softer gold is used; as a result, 18 carat gold may be a better selection for those types of items. In addition, there are a number of other forms of gold that must be considered when shopping for jewellery. They include:
Gold-Filled Jewellery employs a process in which gold is bonded to a base metal alloy such as nickel or brass. Commonly, the amount of gold used must make up at least 5% of the total weight and all exterior portions are solid gold. Most gold-filled jewellery pieces tend to be 18ct.
Gold Plated Jewellery employs a base metal which is then electroplated with gold. Usually a steel or brass item dipped into a bath of electroplating solution that deposits a thin layer of gold on the jewellery. The gold layer is less than gold filled, quite thin and will wear off faster than gold-filled.
White Gold Jewellery combines pure gold with other white metals, such as zinc, nickel, platinum and silver. Durable and resistant to tarnish, white gold jewellery is brittle and requires platinum or rhodium plating. Generally produced to be a more cost effective than platinum, white gold can cause allergic reactions once the plating wears off.
Rose Gold is an alloy that combines gold with copper to create a golden metal with a reddish hue. While it normally uses a gold to copper ratio of 3:1, rose gold can be found with varying percentages of each. Based on the addition of copper, the intensity of rose gold will be lighter or darker and will patina over time.
Silver has been used by man in jewellery nearly as long as gold. Mentioned in the Christian Bible’s book of Genesis, silver also appears in Greek mythology, where both Apollo and his twin sister Artemis carried silver bowls they had been given at birth. Clearly, the creation and use of silver jewellery has an ancient tradition.
Like Gold, pure silver is very soft and easily damaged, so it’s commonly mixed with other metals to improve durability for use in jewellery. Silver is normally mixed with copper and there are several levels of purity that indicate the quantity of pure silver contained in the metal. For example, sterling silver must contain at least 92.5% pure silver, however it’s also found in varying purity levels including 958 and 999 sterling silver. Those interested in silver jewellery should be able to determine the quality of the silver used by looking for a stamp that indicates the metal’s purity level.
With a variety of purity levels and uses, there are a number of different types of silver jewellery. Here are just several:
Fine Silver has a .999 level of purity, so it’s also known as pure silver. While particularly lustrous, fine silver is normally not appropriate for jewellery that’s worn regularly, because it’s not durable and bends easily.
Sterling Silver jewellery is an alloy that contains a mixture of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% of another metal, usually copper. In order to be called sterling silver, the metal must possess at least 92.5% pure silver, but the other components can vary. When mixed with copper, sterling silver will tarnish and may fire scale. Regardless, sterling is considered a standard among silver grades and provides strength to ensure that pieces like silver bracelets, rings and necklaces can withstand regular use.
As one of the precious metals, Silver is among the most popular metals for the creation of jewellery. While there are many possible reasons for this preference, most people cite the following reasons:
- Silver is Lustrous and Outshines Gold
- Silver is More Adaptable to Casual and Formal Wear
- Silver Flatters All Skin Tones
- Silver is Affordable