White Metals (Part I)

Antique platinum ring

Antique platinum ring

Although yellow gold and rose gold are making a comeback, white metal is still the first choice for many engagement rings, wedding bands, and all jewelry styles in general, really. But while there is only one yellow metal in the world from which to choose (gold), there are a handful of white metals on the market. White gold, silver, and platinum are the classics, but palladium made a jump into the market during World War II, and now alternatives like cobalt chrome and titanium are crowding the field. And they are both considered white metals suitable for jewelry.

So which one do you get? I deal with this question almost daily. It’s a major player in designing custom jewelry. In a world of marketing madness, consumer forums, and blogger exposés, making an educated decision as a consumer in the field is harder than it needs to be.

I’m big on consumer education, so here are some basic facts from a guy who sells all of the above. Since platinum and white gold are the two most common, I’ll start there. We’ll look at platinum first. Part II will focus on white gold, Part III on palladium, and Part IV will discuss the alternative metals.

Platinum, quite simply, is the perfect jewelry-making metal. For clarification’s sake, “platinum” in this article refers to platinum alloys used in jewelry-making. Pure platinum has slightly different physical characteristics than what are described here, and those differences are enough to render it widely unusable for jewelry. Platinum alloys are extremely durable. Their prime feature is that they do not wear away at nearly such a rate as gold alloys.

If you scratch a gold ring, microscopic particles are broken away and lost. If you “scratch” a platinum ring, it moves out of the way and deforms (called “furrowing”), rather than losing any volume. It takes a great amount of force and momentum to actually remove particulate from platinum, which is part of why it takes more effort and technique to polish.

Even during the process of properly polishing platinum, very little volume is lost. Most of the metal is just pushed back into place to create a smooth plane that displays a uniform finish. Platinum can take a high polish, but because of its tendency to move around, it does not hold its high polish for as long as gold. Some platinum alloys do better than others, but by and large, a mirror-finish doesn’t last long on a platinum ring.

Here’s why: When gold is scratched, only the area contacted by the abrasive is affected, leaving the surrounding polished surface untouched. When platinum is scratched, the surrounding area has to make room for the deformation of the furrowing area, so the surface finish is altered over a greater space. That’s why satin finishes are popular on platinum; it’s not supposed to be shiny with a satin finish.

Platinum’s durability is legendary. I’ve seen rings from the late 1800s that are still very, very wearable and show little structural damage. Antique rings with diamonds set in platinum channels have the platinum molded down onto their facets, rather than the metal wearing away. Aged platinum prongs may be dull, but they’ve worn so little, that they probably have another 100 years in them. Engraving in platinum bands from the 1920s have lost little to no details. It’s absolutely remarkable.

And platinum is a pure white metal. Unlike white gold, rhodium plating isn’t necessary to keep platinum looking white. As platinum ages and takes some scratching, it develops a unique patina all its own that is at once elegant and lustrous. Platinum is almost completely inert, it does not oxidize in air at any temperature, and it is almost universally hypoallergenic. Platinum contact allergies have been reported, but they are extremely rare.

Platinum has one major drawback. It’s expensive. It’s expensive in up-front costs, and if you have a really bad day and manage to actually damage a piece of platinum jewelry, it’s expensive to repair.  But platinum is expensive for a very simple reason: there is a higher percentage of precious metal in platinum alloys compared to gold alloys. Whereas an 18k gold alloy is only 75% gold by weight, a platinum alloy is at least 90% – if not 95% – platinum by weight. Its filler materials are also precious metal (iridium, ruthenium, palladium, etc.). So you’re certainly getting what you pay for. Platinum is well worth the price, anyway, both for its durability and its beauty.

When designing a piece of custom jewelry in white metal for a client, I will always pull for platinum because once it’s made, the chances of it coming back for repairs are slim. I’ll likely only ever see it again for the yearly polishing. I like low maintenance; it makes life so much easier.

Posted in: Gold, Silver, White Metals

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