White Precious Metals

White Precious Metals

Written by Harriet Kelsall on 3 May 2007

As a metalsmith and jewellery designer, the most common question that I am asked is 'What is the difference between the white metals?'. There is quite a bit of information about this on our website but I think there is a lot more to say, so in this section of our blog, I will take you informally through the best white metals to use for precious jewellery one by one starting with silver. Then I will add to this the other metals each week or two.

Diamond Twist Engagement Ring

By the way - before I start, there are pictures of the different precious metals here so do click and have a quick look first. I know that exactly how the picture colour appears will depend on your monitor settings but hopefully you can still see the difference between the look of the white metals.

First of all it is important to say that all precious metals are soft - this is why jewellers can work them into beautiful shapes and forms for jewellery - because they are malleable. Steel (which of course is not a precious metal!) is not malleable and so when you find steel jewellery it will have been machine made because it cannot readily be hand worked with steel tools. Being slightly soft, all of the precious metals will scratch with wear. You will already know that even steel scratches from your steel cutlery or sinks at home - and this is much much harder than platinum for example. So first it is important to know that no precious metals will stay high-gloss with wear and everything will dull and get a lovely soft patina with wear. Every time you pick something up whilst wearing a ring, you are lightly scratching or rubbing (burnishing) the surface and we all do lots with our hands every day without thinking about it. Don't be afraid of this light surface wear though... when you buy a new engagement ring you notice every single scratch for the first couple of weeks and then before you know it, each gentle scratch burnishes into the next and your ring develops a lovely soft worn patina which looks great with precious metals. I just think that it is important to know that no metal will stay gloss-shiny when worn even with light wear. Also though, do beware of steel objects as these can damage your precious metal rings. Our tools are made from steel and so if, say, when you wear your ring you are regularly shutting a steel filing cabinet, walking a dog with a steel-chain ring or clapping with another metal ring on the opposite hand; then you are effectively hammering your ring with metal which is just what we do in the workshop when we want to permanently distort the shape of metal.

Silver

Many people already own a piece of silver jewellery and are familiar with its properties. It is a naturally blue-white metal and is very malleable and soft to work. Silver does scratch and dent relatively easily though in wear but it does look good when it has this 'worn look' and gets a nice 'lived in' look quite easily. However I think it is a beautiful white metal and it is very popular. It isn't that expensive which means that it is popular with less experienced metalsmiths when they are training as mistakes aren't too expensive for them to cover! This is why you often see lots of silver jewellery at craft fairs and the like...and also this means that it can be relatively cheap to buy when it has been worked by an amateur jeweller or when it has just been cast into a repeat mold which is done a lot with ethnic jewellery for example.

Amateur jewellers aside, it is possible to find really special silver pieces too. I would say that if you don't have a big budget and want to invest in a beautiful piece of jewellery design it can be great to buy a really good pendant or ring that you love from a really experienced metalsmith. Search for something that you just *must* have and go for it in the name of investment in good design. The antique jewellery experts usually agree that it is better to invest in good design rather than gemstones...so you never know, you could buy from the next big designer and your grandchildren may be pleased that their pieces will command high prices as collector’s items in years to come! (Or anyway - you can just enjoy wearing the piece in the meantime anyway!). When you invest in a great designer silver piece of jewellery you get all the love and care of a really good craftsman at a lower cost than gold. We always have a few really good silver pieces in our range for this reason like lovely simple silver hand made bangles (not just cut off a tube or cast like the ones you will find at markets!). 

None of the precious metals tarnish very easily as they are not very reactive compared with, say, iron which rusts (i.e. oxides or tarnishes) easily. However, silver is the most reactive of the precious metals and so will tarnish in damp conditions. So if, for example, you leave a silver pendant in your jewellery box when it is damp or rainy outside, you may go back to it in a few weeks and find that it has gone dark - sort of browny black. This is the surface of the silver lightly oxidising in the damp air. Nothing to worry about - just buy a silver cleaning cloth and give the surface a gentle rub and the silver soon comes up bright again (we sell them here in the shop for about £1 and you can see more information about them at www.towntalkpolish.com). If you have a satinised silver piece and leave it in the bathroom for a couple of days by mistake, this can be harder to clean because if you rub it with a silver cloth you may burnish off the satin finish. In these cases silver-dip may be a better idea but be careful - you can't silver-dip anything like pearls, emeralds or any porous stones..so ask your jeweller for advice before doing this if it is anything other than plain silver. If you have a piece of silver jewellery that you wear all of the time, it probably won't have appeared to tarnish at all - this is because any surface oxidation (which is what tarnish actually is) will have worn off again quickly because it is regularly touched and in contact with things which slightly burnish the surface clean again before any tarnish build-up occurs.

Also silver oxides quickly in the presence of sulphur - so if you have a planned trip to Iceland or Lanzarote and visit the hot pools wearing your silver jewellery - be prepared for it to come out completely black! Actually the water in these sorts of volcanic places is thick with sulphur which is why it smells a bit eggy and even being in the vapour will effect your silver jewellery and once oxidised this heavily it will need lots of attention to get its finish back to a bright white again - so it is best to leave your silver jewellery at home!

It is soft, but is sometimes a good choice for bespoke silver wedding or commitment rings as long as you are aware that it is a soft metal there is no reason not to use it if it is your favourite. We have several totally unique silver rings (or pairs of rings) in our collection which have been hand worked and hand engraved individually like these for example.

However, I would not recommend setting precious stones like diamond into silver rings to be worn all the time and would not recommend silver for intricate stone settings. It works best for dress rings or simply without stones as it is just too soft to be relied upon for a fine claw setting for a costly stone or for invisibly set diamonds in rings to be worn every day.

I hope that you find this information useful, for anyone who’d like some more technical details on silver, take a look at the links below.