Metals Used In Jewelry - A Basic Overview & Maintenance Guide

Gold jewelry:

Gold is the softest of the precious metals. In fact, in its purest form, it is too soft to be useful in the making of jewelry.

That's why pure gold is alloyed with silver, copper and other metals. The percentage of "purity" is measured by "karat". Pure gold (100%) is 24k. In jewelry, the common karat weights are 22k, 18k, 14k, and 10k. The higher the number, the higher the gold content (and, of course, the higher the cost).

Caring for your gold jewelry is relatively straightforward. When handling harsh chemicals, be sure to remove any gold jewelry you are wearing, and it's a good idea to also take it off when swimming, as chlorine can damage your beautiful jewelry. Sand can also damage gold by scratching, so off your jewelry goes when heading to the beach (plus, you could always lose pieces in the sand)!

To clean your gold jewelry, warm water and mild soap is usually sufficient.

White Gold:
White gold was originally developed in 1920 as an alternative to platinum. It is not a different kind of gold, there is no such thing as pure "white gold" or 24k white. It simply uses a different metal combination that results in the white color.

Sterling silver jewelry:

Sterling silver is an alloy consisting of 92.5 percent fine silver and 7.5 percent other metals, usually copper. It is used because of its durability, because silver alone is too soft to be used in jewelry.  It may be coated with rhodium to help keep its shine; otherwise, it may tarnish over time.  However, this tarnish is completely natural for silver.  Without rhodium, it is suggested that the silver should be polished lightly with a polishing cloth specifically designed for sterling silver in order help minimize tarnish.  It can also be periodically washed with a mild soap and water solution, as long as it is rinsed well and dried completely.

When storing sterling silver jewelry, store it in a polyethylene bag.  This will help reduce tarnish, however even if tarnish comes up, it can be easily removed using a polishing cloth. It is important to note that if the tarnish has built up over many years, professional cleaning may be required.

Gold filled jewelry:

Gold filled jewelry is jewelry made with gold tubing, which is then filled with brass or other metals. This makes the item look and feel like gold jewelry, at a much more affordable price.  These items have about 100 times more gold than gold-plated jewelry, so there’s no flaking or peeling.  14/20 gold filled means the gold tubing is 14K gold, and that the gold weight is 5% (1/20) of the total weight of the item.  12/20 gold filled is the same and has the same gold weight, but with 12K gold.  Care for these pieces is simple, with gentle polishing and soap/water solutions being sufficient most of the time.

Alternative metals:

These metals include brass, stainless steel, titanium, tungsten, bronze, and copper. Metals such as these have been increasing in popularity, as the price of precious metals continues to skyrocket.

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, highly malleable and tarnish-resistant; no special care required.

Bronze is a timeless alloy of copper and tin, elegant and highly affordable. The patina that forms over time is often times desired, so there is usually no special care required.

Copper has been used for an estimated 10,000 years in jewelry, and will oxidize over time, unless it is coated with a lacquer. Like the other metals, a simple polishing cloth will do the trick in most cases.  

Stainless steel is durable and rugged. It is hypo-allergenic, so it is a great choice for those individuals who are sensitive to metals, as well as being highly affordable and long lasting. It requires little maintenance, with the occasional soapy water wash being sufficient in almost all cases.

Titanium is ever-increasing in popularity, especially for men’s jewelry. Like stainless steel, it is hypo-allergenic and incredibly rugged, in addition to being unbelievably light-weight. It requires little maintenance, with the occasional soapy water wash being sufficient in almost all cases. 

Tungsten carbide is an alloy of tungsten and carbon. It is a very heavy, hard, durable combination. Tungsten carbide is ten times harder than 18K gold, four times harder than titanium, and practically impossible to scratch. It will retain its shine for a lifetime, with little care necessary.