Metals play a critical role in the creation of contemporary jewelry by affecting appearance, durability and cost. With such a dramatic impact, it's important that anyone interested in wearing or purchasing jewelry develop a basic understanding of the metallurgy as it relates to jewelry. In an effort to give you a sound foundation, let's review the basics of metals in jewelry making that include a brief history of metals in jewelry making, a review of the types of metals used in today's jewelry and conclude with a glossary to familiarize you with terms that you may encounter during your search for the perfect ring, bracelet, necklace or other item.
History of Metals in Jewelry Making
Metals are as old as human civilization and their history in jewelry making can be traced back thousands of years. As early as 6000 BC, metals were used by ancient peoples like the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans for a variety of uses, only one of which was jewelry making. The source of the term "metal" is unknown, but it's widely regarded that it could have come from either a combination of the Greek words metallin ("to search after) and metallon ("mine" or "metal"), or the Latin word metallum ("mine" or "metal"). Over time, jewelry making continued to evolve as new metals were discovered starting with Gold (6000 BC) and continuing with Copper (4200 BC) and Silver (4000 BC).
Generally speaking, there are several ways in which metal can be classified and it's helpful to understand the differences. These include Ferrous vs. Non-Ferrous, Base vs. Noble and Precious vs. Non-Precious metals. Let briefly look at each:
Ferrous vs. Non-Ferrous Metals
A Ferrous metal is one that contains Iron, while a non-ferrous metal does not. Since these forms of metals tend to rust, most jewelry is created with non-ferrous metals. Normally, most jewelry is made from non-ferrous metals with the exception of steel jewelry.
Base vs. Noble Metals
The terms Base and Noble as applied to metals refer to the chemistry of metal. Base metals are relatively abundant and tend to oxidize or corrode relatively easily; some examples include iron, nickel, copper and titanium. Noble metals, on the other hand, are rare, possess a high surface luster and are resistant to corrosion. Examples of Nobel metals include gold, silver and platinum. Understandably, most jewelry is made with Noble metals.
Precious vs. Non-Precious Metal
The difference between Precious and Non-Precious metals is primarily one of rarity and value. Precious metals include Gold, Silver and the Platinum family while Non-Precious metals include all others. In addition to having a higher value, Precious metals are particularly desirable for jewelry because they are less reactive than most elements, possess a higher luster and are easier to work with.
Common Metals in Jewelry Making
Today jewelry is created using a wide range of material, however the number of metals that can be used is limited; there are only 86 known metals and of those, relatively few are commonly used in contemporary jewelry. However, the majority of jewelry crafted today tends to use only a handful of metals. Here, we'll look at the metals that are the most popular.