Buying Guide to Jewelry Metals

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The jewelry you wear or give should be an expression of you. Knowing about jewelry metal types can help you choose a piece that will be as individual as you are and pay tribute to your loved one’s unique personality and style.

Fine Jewelry

Which Look Do You Prefer?

When we think of jewelry metals, color is often the first thing that comes to mind. We’re stunned by the gleaming silver-white hue of platinum or drawn in by the lustrous warmth of gold. “Which metal fits me best?” you may wonder. But while appearance is a good place to start, there’s much more to consider, such as the alternate metals offered today as well as metal durability and wear.

How And How Often Will The Piece Be Worn?

Different jewelry pieces are subjected to different types of wear. Some pieces are worn only on special occasions, whereas others are worn every day. Be sure to consider how — and how often — you (or, if it’s a gift, the recipient) will wear a certain piece when choosing a jewelry metal.

Jewelry metals differ not only in color but also in properties such as weight, strength and care requirements. While all quality jewelry will hold its shape, some metals are known to retain their desirable properties longer than others. What’s considered desirable, of course, is often a matter of personal preference.

For example, tungsten is a popular metal for men’s wedding bands, thanks to its high resistance to scratching, low-maintenance care requirements and enduring shine. However, because it’s heavier than other metals, it may be felt more easily by the wearer than, say, an ultra-lightweight metal like titanium. (This may be a plus or minus, depending on the wearer’s preference!)

What Are The Properties Of Popular Jewelry Metal Types?

Use this chart to learn about popular jewelry metals and their properties.

Metal Color Scratch Resistance Weight Durability  
Sterling Silver Silver Low Heavy May lose its shine and tarnish easily. Not recommended for everyday wear. Sterling silver is often coated with a rare metal called Rhodium, which prevents tarnishing. It can, however, deteriorate with wear. A good jeweler can have your sterling silver re-rhodium plated. Sterling Silver
Gold Yellow, white, rose Low Medium Strength depends on karats. While 10K gold may be the most durable, its appearance may not be as desirable as 14K or 18K gold. Pure 24K gold is not suitable for everyday jewelry because it is softer and is easily damaged. White gold is often coated with a rare metal called Rhodium, which prevents tarnishing. It can, however, deteriorate with wear. A good jeweler can have your white gold jewelry re-rhodium plated. Image of gold ring
Platinum Silver-white Medium Heavy Highly durable and unlikely to lose its color. It’s the heaviest and densest precious metal. It is also considered the ultimate luxury metal choice. Image of platinum
Stainless Steel** White Low Medium Resistant to tarnish. Very durable and works well with today’s modern designs. Stainless Steel
Titanium** Neutral gray Low Light Resistant to corrosion, including that which is caused by seawater and chlorine. (A good choice for a water-lover!) Image of titanium ring
Tungsten Carbide** (also simply known as "Tungsten") White, gray, black Very High Heavy Extremely scratch-resistant and doesn’t require regular polishing. A popular choice for men’s wedding bands. Tungsten Carbide aka Tungsten
Cobalt** White (similar to platinum) Medium Medium Does not fade or tarnish and is scratch-resistant. Image of cobalt ring

**These are often referred to as alternative metals.

What Are The Different Types of Gold?

Gold has been extolled by humanity for centuries, making gold jewelry a classic choice that is sure to be cherished for a lifetime — or longer. Besides its hallmark warmth and richness, gold is beloved for its variety. It’s available in colors (the three most popular colors are yellow, white, and rose), and in different karat weights.

Yellow Gold White Gold Rose Gold

Yellow Gold

White Gold

Rose Gold

What Is A Karat?

The karat (not to be confused with carat, the weight measurement for diamonds and gemstones) is a measurement of gold’s purity. Gold in its purest form registers as 24K. But since pure gold is fairly malleable, alloys like silver, copper, nickel and zinc must be added for strength. Most gold jewelry is either 18K (75 percent pure gold) or 14K (58.5 percent pure gold), meaning it is comprised of a mix of pure gold and other metals. Gold’s color comes from the various combinations of alloys during the manufacturing process.

In the U.S., a piece of gold jewelry must be at least 10K (41.7 percent pure gold) to be legally advertised as gold jewelry. While 10K gold is the strongest of all gold types, its color isn’t as rich and lustrous as 18K or 14K gold. In terms of the price tag, a higher karat count will usually demand a higher dollar amount. Most gold jewelry is stamped with its karat number, so be sure to check for this mark.

14K Gold

Which Golden Hue Is Right For You?

Gold naturally is yellow, however mixing it with nickel, manganese or palladium will turn it white. The amount and type of alloys added to pure gold also affect its color. As a rule of thumb — the fewer the alloys, the brighter the gold color. Alloys such as copper, silver and zinc create varying shades of yellow. White gold is typically alloyed with nickel, copper and zinc, although it can also be coated with Rhodium, which is a member of the platinum family. White gold coated with rhodium will have a bright white color, making it similar in appearance to platinum. Rose gold, as you may have guessed, gets its reddish color from copper alloys.

What Is Gold-Plated Jewelry?

You may see jewelry advertised as “gold-plated.” This means that the piece has a base metal (usually steel, brass or sterling silver) that has been electroplated with gold. The electroplating process involves dipping the base metal into a solution charged with an electrical current that causes the base metal to attract a thin coating of gold. Something to consider: Depending on its quality and the care it receives, the gold on a gold-plated piece may wear off over time.

"Vermeil" is a special type of gold plating. The base metal of a vermeil piece must always be sterling silver, and its gold coating must be at least 2.5 microns thick (about 100 millionths of an inch). Additionally, the gold used in the coating must be at least 10 karats, though some pieces are covered with 12 or 14 karat gold.

Gold Plated Jewelry

The type of care your jewelry requires depends largely on the properties of the metals it includes. If you’re in doubt, it’s a good idea to talk to a reputable jeweler. Here are some basic jewelry-care guidelines that apply to metals of all types.

Remove jewelry before:

  • Playing contact sports
  • Using machinery
  • Entering a swimming pool or hot tub
  • Applying hair products or makeup
  • Cooking or working in the kitchen
  • Cleaning with chemicals or soaps
  • Bathing or showering

General care:

Inspect jewelry regularly for signs of wear, and check the condition of metal prongs holding gemstones for wear and replacement. Use a cloth designed specifically for jewelry polishing to wipe jewelry clean. Do not polish your metal jewelry with tissue or toilet paper, as the fibers could cause scratches and get lodged beneath the metal work, prongs and gemstones.

Gold and platinum jewelry can be cleaned with a jewelry cleaner designed for that metal. You can also take a bowl of warm soapy water and mix it with a few drops of ammonia. Place the jewelry in the bowl and gently brush it with a soft bristle brush or old toothbrush. Rinse the jewelry in lukewarm water and let dry. Platinum jewelry should have a professional cleaning every six months to keep it in tip-top shape.

An ultrasonic cleaning machine may also be appropriate for cleaning gold jewelry, particularly if the piece does not contain gemstones. An ultrasonic cleaner bombards the jewelry with sound waves, and the vibration caused by those waves shakes off the dirt. Be cautious when using ultrasonic cleaners and follow the manufacturer's instructions.

Clean sterling silver with a mild soap and water solution. Allow the water to bead up on the jewelry then pat it dry with a soft cloth. If the dirt doesn't come off with soap and water, you can also use a jewelry cleaner designed for sterling silver to remove tough spots.

Store your metal jewelry in a fabric-lined jewelry box, case or drawer. Take extra care with sterling silver to not expose it to air and light during storage, as that can tarnish the silver. Protect jewelry during travel by securing it in a jewelry-specific travel case.