I often get asked about metals in jewelry and I realized maybe it would be helpful and interesting to discuss the differences in metals used in jewelry. Traditionally the metals used in jewelry are silver and gold. The different kinds of silver and gold have to do with what those metals are alloyed or mixed with. Pure silver, also called Fine silver and Pure gold also referred to as 24k gold are as they are found in their natural state. They are, however, soft and scratch, dent and bend easily. They are easy to work with but they don’t hold up well in objects that are used often, such as jewelry. Therefore these metals are alloyed with other metals such as copper, nickel and in the case of gold, silver and other rarer metals, to make them more durable. The k or karats following a number in gold have to do with the percentage of pure gold to alloying metals and the smaller the number the less gold and higher alloy metal content.
Order of hardness
As a metal gets harder it is less prone to scratching and other wear but it also may become more brittle and hard to work. In my opinion after working with gold and silver for many years, the sequence from hard to soft is 24k gold, fine silver, sterling silver and 18k gold, 14k yellow gold, 10k yellow gold, 14k white gold, 10k white gold.
Suitability to design
The reason I am discussing hardness in metals is to explain why certain metals are suitable for certain pieces of jewelry and not others. You may want a piece to be harder and more durable or more ornate and the two are in opposition to each other. Ne reason is that as a metal is worked (hammered, drilled, etc. ) it becomes harder. My pieces are often hammer and bezel set because these are attractive and secure ways to set stones and they contribute to the unique feel of my pieces. When hammer setting stones in a piece, the metal is being worked and getting harder, so each successive stone is being set in harder and more brittle metal than the one before. This limits the number of stones that can be set in a piece especially in the harder metals before the piece starts cracking and flaking. Stones set in prongs or in other ways may not be affected as this work does not harden the metal. Heating softens the metal again but can not always be done once stones are set as this can darken, change the color of, or crack and even explode the stones. More ornate pieces that are worked or have multiple stones hammer set are made in softer metals. Pieces with few or no stones can be made with harder metals.
You will probably find that most artisan goldsmiths offer their pieces in all or some of the metals mentioned above. These are the traditional metals used since antiquity and the reason is that they are suitable to being worked by hand. Modern alloys such as titanium, carbon fiber, steel etc. are very hard and require mechanical techniques to produce jewelry. This is why these metals are available from large manufacturers but not artisan goldsmiths. The advantage of these metals is that they are often cheap and hard. The disadvantages are that they are cheap and hard! Often so hard that they can not be cut off the body in an emergency and often cause worse injury if on the body when the accident occurs. They are not considered precious and so are not considered heirlooms and in my opinion do not contain the magic and lore that gold and silver have attached to them. Importantly, they can not be recycled and reworked into new pieces. I have many customers who send me their damaged heirloom or outdated pieces to be made into something they can again wear and pass down through the generations. Platinum is another metal I get asked about often, and again, it requires much different temperatures and techniques to work and expensive equipment and separate shops. It is considered a precious metal and is expensive but can not be recycled easily into new pieces.