In her downtown San Francisco studio, jeweler Corey Egan creates hand carved, wearable works of art filled with personality that can be can be enjoyed for generations. Here she shares her expertise in precious metals to help you choose the right metal for you.
This article first appeared on coreyegan.com.
When shopping for an important piece of jewelry, most of my clients know the design or style they’ve set their hearts on. But when asked about their preference for precious metals, their answers can be somewhat hazy. It can be confusing parsing through your wide variety of options. Even if you’re sure of your preferred color, you may not know the physical properties of each choice, let alone why one warrants a higher price tag than another.
All of the precious metals shown below are well suited for crafting heavily worn jewelry such as wedding bands or engagement rings. As you read through, consider how each metal will suit your needs on three fronts: color preference, lifestyle, and budget.
Gold Colors and Karats
Gold has been used in the creation of jewelry since ancient times. It was revered for its sun-like color and ability to polish to a lustrous shine. Of all the precious metals, gold is the one that offers up the widest variety. It can be found in different levels of purity, and mixed with other metals to create a plethora of colors.
To understand gold jewelry best, we should first look at its purity. Gold purity is measured in karats. 100% pure gold is 24 karats. So gold purity is measured by how many parts per 24 are pure gold.
14 karat (14K) is 14/24 karats = 58.5% gold
18 karat (18K) is 18/24 karats = 75% gold
Pure 24K gold is actually quite soft, and can’t withstand the daily wear and tear we put on our jewelry. Instead, it is mixed with other metals to add strength and alter its color. This resulting mixture is known as an alloy.
Since alloys with a higher karat number have a higher gold content, the resulting color will be closer to its natural color: yellow. Yellow gold is typically alloyed with copper, silver, and zinc.
Rose gold alloys have the same gold content as their yellow gold counterparts. But they get their rosy color by being mixed with a larger portion of copper than silver and zinc. Higher karat rose gold alloys will appear more peach since they contain more gold. Lower karat rose gold alloys have a larger dose of copper, and will therefore be more pink.
The world of white gold gets more complicated since there are multiple options. The main points to consider when choosing between white gold alloys are: metal allergies, color preference and maintenance.
Nickel White Gold
Like rose gold, the color of white gold is attributed to the other metals in the mix. In traditional white gold alloys, nickel is used as a bleaching agent to deplete the yellow color of the gold. This alloy still appears slightly yellow and is commonly rhodium plated. Most commercial white gold jewelry has this layer of rhodium plating. While it gives the surface of the metal a bright white color, it eventually wears off. This plating usually needs to be reapplied every 1 to 2 years, but depending on the wearer’s body chemistry and wearing habits it could be as frequently as every 6 months.
In addition to the pesky maintenance of rhodium plating, nickel reactions are the most common metal allergy. It is due to these two big factors, that I prefer not to work in nickel white gold unless specifically requested.
Palladium White Gold
In these alloys of white gold, the precious metal palladium is used as the bleaching agent to deplete the yellow color of the gold along with silver and copper.
You can read more about palladium as its own precious metal in the section below, since it’s an excellent metal for jewelry creation in it’s own right. But, I recommend palladium white gold for another important reason: by using palladium instead of nickel in the mix, the resulting alloys are hypoallergenic.
Palladium White Gold alloys are a warm grayish-white. While it could be rhodium plated for a bright white finish, I think they look excellent as-is.
Palladium is a member of the Platinum Metals Group (PMG) on the periodic table and is more rare than gold. It’s a naturally occurring grayish-white metal, just a touch darker than platinum. It’s typically used in an alloy that is 95% pure palladium and mixed with another PMG member: ruthenium.
Palladium is great for jewelry production. It’s malleability makes it excellent for holding diamonds in place, while still being a very durable metal that resists scratches better than platinum or white gold. Its naturally white color means there’s no need to rhodium plate. Palladium is also hypoallergenic.
Palladium has a lower density than other precious metals, meaning a piece of the same size and shape will be lighter in palladium than in platinum or white gold. This makes it a great candidate for creating wedding bands that feel lightweight and comfortable.
The price of a palladium ring typically falls between the price of 14K and 18K white gold. It’s purity, hypoallergenic quality, and lower maintenance are the main arguments for choosing this alloy over white gold. Its lower density and lower price tag are typical reasons one would choose this alloy over platinum.
Platinum is a rare precious metal that is naturally grayish white in color. Like palladium, platinum is hypoallergenic and needs no rhodium plating.
Platinum has been used in precious jewelry for centuries. It polishes to an excellent shine and is very malleable, so it is great for setting stones in intricate designs. Platinum is also the densest of the precious metals, making it a sturdy metal for intricate filigree designs. This density also lends itself to setting large diamonds since prongs made of platinum are sturdier than ones made of white gold.
The malleability of platinum allows the metal’s finish to develop a patina over time. Instead of losing metal when scratched, the surface of platinum is only displaced, causing a rich matte finish over time that can easily be re-polished or re-textured down the road without removing metal.
Platinum is truly an heirloom quality metal. Its physical properties make it a coveted metal for jewelry designs that last for generations. While it may be the most expensive of the precious metals, platinum jewelry is worth considering for it’s rarity, purity, and density.