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Precious Metal Options

January 19, 2012

I often get asked by customers about the differences, advantages and disadvantages of all the metal options I offer for my designs. I write these long emails late at night, when it would be so much easier to just send them a link to a blog post. So here it is:

I do work with various precious metals. I don't ever use copper, bronze or brass for my rings. It's just not my thing really. I personally don't wear those metals as I don't like the color and they react to my skin by turning my fingers green. But there are some amazing artist that do beautiful jewelry with these metals. My preferences are sterling silver, palladium, a mix of both and white or  yellow gold alloys or even Platinum.
I can't currently work with Titanium or Steel, although I would love to use those. But they require some totally different tools that what I have in my arsenal.

All the different white metal alloys I offer: They are stacked in order of cost - Sterling the cheapest and Platinum the most expensive.

Sterling silver is the whitest metal alloy, followed by Platinum, then close after Palladium. The Silver/Palladium alloy has a slight warm hue, 14k palladium white gold a noticeable warm color. Don't have 18k palladium white gold shown in this picture, but it would be just slightly less warm than the 14k version. All metals are beautiful on their own. Often the color difference can only be noticed if held next to each other.

Sterling Silver

I often use sterling silver in my designs. I love it since it's fairly inexpensive, a very white metal and polishes beautifully. Sterling silver is an alloy of 925 parts of fine silver and 75 parts copper. The copper makes it more durable than the fine silver alone. Fine silver is too soft to hold up well in rings. It's better suited for earrings or pendants. Sterling silver is still much softer than white gold,  palladium or platinum. It will scratch deeper and can bend easier out of shape when subject to impact. It's not really suitable as a wedding band or engagement ring, especially for someone who works a lot with their hands. If chosen for a engagement or wedding band I recommend to go for fairly heavy, substantial designs. Thin bands will easily bent or even break under impact.  Sterling silver will tarnish over time, especially when not worn daily. Tarnish can easily be removed with special solutions or polishing cloth. Please don't ever use tooth paste as tarnish remover as it will leave fine scratches on your silver. The best way to prevent tarnish is actually to wear it regularly as the oils from the skin will keep oxidation at bay. Sterling silver is the whitest of all metals but also the softest. It's the cheapest of the precious metal alloys on the market, although is has risen in price quite dramatically over the last year. Sterling silver is not a great choice for prong settings as prongs can easily bent away from the stone causing it to fall out and get lost. It's better suited for bezel settings. I only consider it somewhat appropriate for fairly inexpensive gemstones. It's definitely not the right choice to get your irreplaceable heirloom gems or large diamonds set.

From left to right: Tahitian pearl rings in18k palladium white gold (18KPDW), Palladium (950PD), Sterling Silver (925)

White Gold and Yellow Gold

White and yellow gold jewelry come mostly in 14 or 18 karat, some people also sell 9 karat, 10 karat and 22 karat jewelry. The higher the number the more gold is in that alloy.

Gold is always yellow, there is no such thing as pure white gold. To make white gold, other white metals get added to the yellow gold. For instance: 18kt white gold is made by mixing 75% gold with 25% other white metals. This could be either a gold/palladium/silver alloy or gold/nickel/copper/zinc alloy. Most of the white gold jewelry you see in malls is standard white gold, which contains some nickel and was rhodium plated to give it it's white color. Without the plating it has a not so pleasing yellow gray tone. It needs to get plated every couple month or years depending on wear and tear and one's body chemistry.
Nickel white gold has some issues with allergy problems for quite a few people. Once the plating wears off, the nickel can get exposed to the skin and cause allergic reactions. Europe has restricted the use of nickel in a very severe manner. In the US it is still very common and allowed at a higher percentage to be included in an alloy.  I only use palladium white gold without nickel content as it does not require to get rhodium plated. Plus I don't want to get exposed to nickel if I don't have to. The palladium white gold has palladium added to the yellow gold instead of nickel. It is more expensive than the standard white gold since palladium is a lot more expensive than nickle. But will it will save money over time as it does not need to get re-plated. It has a warm gray color, definitely not as white as Sterling Silver. Palladium white gold has high grayness because it is being used to mask yellow in gold. If someone really wants to get the whiteness that only Rhodium plating provides, even those palladium white golds can get plated. But then the cycle of replating starts with constant maintenance costs. Plus in my personal option there is something wrong about coating a expensive metal with a thin layer of another metal just to make it look whiter.

Custom Wedding ring set in 18k Palladium white gold with 18K yellow gold settings, sapphires and rough diamond cubes
I do use yellow gold too, mostly as accents combined with white metals. I can make most of my made to order designs in yellow gold upon request. I prefer 18 karat yellow gold over 14 karat due to it's richer color and easier workability. I am not a huge fan of rose gold as it can be quite difficult to work with, but I can use it if requested for a custom order.

14k Yellow Gold ring with a cushion moissanite set in a modified tension setting

Platinum

Platinum is really the best precious metal in terms of durability and it is a low maintenance metal. It's a naturally white metal that does not require rhodium plating. It looks very similar to palladium with platinum being slightly brighter than palladium if compared next to each other. This metal is extremely long wearing, holding up to wear and tear way better than any white gold will. It has a 23% greater wear resistance compared with white gold in terms of metal loss. It is a great secure choice for any type of stone settings including prongs. It is also less malleable than gold, which makes it more labor intensive to create a platinum ring than one made from white gold. Platinum is very dense making is the heaviest metal choice. Due to the increased weight and added labor cost a ring in platinum will always be more expensive than a white gold ring of the same design even with gold currently being more expensive on the metal spot market.
Platinum alloys come in high purity levels of typically 90 - 95%. Platinum is hypoallergenic, there are no documented cases of skin reactions. All precious metals will scratch, however, when platinum scratches, it tends to displace metal parts rather than lose metal weight.

Palladium

My personal preference for wedding and engagement rings is palladium if platinum is out of someone's budget. Palladium is a member of the platinum family and a naturally white metal. It is 30 times rarer than gold. The alloy I use is 950PD which has a high purity level at 950 parts of palladium per 1000 parts, the other metal in that alloy being 5% Ruthenium. It is very durable and has a 15% greater wear resistance over 14k white gold. It is perfect for wedding and engagement rings that get worn every day. Palladium rarely cause an allergic reaction when worn, but as any metal can be a problem for some people. It does not have the warm hue that palladium white gold shows, but rather has a neutral gray color. The 950 palladium used as an alloy is much whiter than palladium white gold and very similar in color to platinum alloys.

Ceylon Blue Sapphire in Palladium
Palladium does not tarnish and will keep it's white color indefinitely. It is much lighter than platinum, similar in weight to 14 karat gold. I find that at current precious metal markets the same design cost a bit less in palladium than it cost in 14k palladium white gold. Working with Palladium is a bit more labor intensive than working with gold or silver. It does take longer to polish and it's less malleable than white gold making setting stones take a bit longer. It is a secure choice for most stone settings including prong settings.

Silver/Palladium (discontinued)

This is  a hybrid alloy, called Stulladium. Stulladium contains approximately 54% silver, 25% Palladium, and 21% Copper. It is not sterling silver as it has less than 925 parts of silver and it's not white gold. It has a higher tarnish resistance and more strength than sterling silver. Its hardness falls right in between that of 14KY and 14KW golds. Due to the high palladium content it is a lot more expensive than normal sterling silver but way less that palladium alone. The color is almost identical to palladium without the noticeable warmer tone that palladium white gold has. I think this is a great alloy for engagement and wedding rings when palladium alone is out of one's budget. Palladium is still a better choice if the budget allow it as it is more durable and wears better and never tarnishes. But sometimes compromises are required.

Update 07/2015:

I discontinued this metal option as I won't be able to cast it anymore due to health concerns related to the lost-wax-casting procedure.

I won't be offering it anymore for any made to order ring. It was a metal I had to cast in my own studio and I won't be able to do that anymore due to ventilation issues and health concerns. If you got previously an engagement ring from me in the silver/palladium alloy I recommend to choose a 14k Palladium white gold wedding band to match it. The metal looks pretty much the same and it will wear similar. So there are no issues wearing these 2 different metals next to each other. They are similar in hardness too and both nickel-free.

 

Princess cut white sapphire engagement ring and hammered finish wedding band in silver/palladium


There are a few drawbacks with this Silver/Palladium alloy that need to be taken in account.
It is a fairly new metal combination and not readily available from most jewelry suppliers. This can be a problem when resizing or repairs need to get done years after the purchase. Most repair shops won't have this alloy on hand to provide any repairs on your ring. It's also not easy to size these rings as the metal is harder but also more brittle than for instance Sterling Silver or Palladium. This makes it hard to size rings up by simply stretching it over a steel mandrel or in a ring stretcher. It tents to crack faster than more ductile alloys. This may be due to the fact that it has a high copper content. Plus there is no solder that provides a good color match for this alloy. It usually gets soldered with white gold solders that tent to be a bit yellower in color and will leave a fine visible hairline where the solder seam occurred. Palladium solders can't be used since the solder flow temperatures are higher than the Silver/Palladium flow point (the ring would melt before the solder would flow). Of course the better the joint is fitted, the less visible it will be and it usually fades away once the ring gets a bit of wear and light scratches. It shows more on highly polished surfaces than on textured rings.
Rings can also be sized or repaired using a laser welder instead of soldering with a torch. Laser wire of the same metal alloy as the casting can be purchased from Stuller. Since the laser wire is the same material as the cast ring the sizing joint usually blends into the adjacent metal and is not visible.

There are also some other hybrid alloys with lower palladium content, some are called palladium sterling silver as the silver content is still 925 parts but some of the 75 parts of copper was replaced with palladium. I don't really think the 3% or 4% palladium does much to increase durability compared to normal sterling silver but I haven't tried this alloy either and I am not planning to add it any time soon.

Casting grain of Sterling Silver, Silver/Palladium alloy and 18 karat yellow gold.

Recycled Metal

I recently stopped casting myself in my studio due to ventilation issues and associated health concerns with the lost wax burn out procedure. I am working with reliable commercial casters for the different alloys I use. All of them use recycled precious metals.  Platinum, Palladium 950PD and palladium white golds as those require melting temperatures and  requires some special casting equipment. For platinum and palladium I use Techform as my preferred caster as they provide the best quality and service I have seen so far from commercial casters. For my gold and silver castings I use Quality Casting.  I do buy my new recycled metals and milled stock from well respected trade suppliers like Hoover and Strong, Stuller or my local supplier in Los Angeles, D. H Fell, they also do my metal refining for scraps.   All metals in my rings including the one's from the offsite casters are recycled and refined.
Old silver like casting buttons, prototype designs and screwed up pieces are getting recycled and refined and remelted into new designs.

Metal Allergies

A few people seem to have allergic reactions to Sterling silver. This could be due to the copper content. My guess is also that some actually are allergic to plated silver. My designs are never plated, but some commercial jewelry gets plated with rhodium to prevent it from tarnishing. As I understand it, to plate silver it needs to be plated with nickle first and then with rhodium. Once the rhodium wears off, it exposes the nickle layer underneath which causes allergies.
Some are also allergic to yellow golds as those contain copper too. Basically any metal when constantly worn can cause an allergic reaction. If allergies are a concern the best (but most expensive) choice using platinum followed by palladium and nickel free high karat (18K) gold alloys (palladium white gold or yellow gold). Standard white gold in the US often contains nickel and causes allergies for quite some people. Therefore I only use nickel free palladium white gold in the ring designs I offer.


Metal allergies are complex and it's often hard to really be able to pin point which of the ingredients in an alloy causes the reactions. Keeping jewelry clean is crucial to avoid skin reactions. Sometimes trapped soap residue is actually the cause for rashes and not the metal. If someone experiences allergic reactions, it is best to consult with a medical specialist and get an allergy test done.

I will add to this post in the future with new metal options that surface and other findings. Feel free to leave comments or questions below.


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