Thursday, July 4, 2013

ASK A JEWELLER --- alternative metals?

And we are back with our second installment of  Ask a Jeweller the newest feature on our blog in which our readers submit gemstone or jewellery related questions that are answered by our Master Goldsmith, Dino Giannetti.

My fiance and I are in the market for wedding bands. He has never worn jewellery before and is not too thrilled about wearing gold or silver. Instead we have been looking at stainless steel or titanium wedding bands - he thinks the bands will stand up better to rough wear (he works in the construction industry) and we like the price points, under $100. I've found conflicting information online about the safety of these types of metals - your thoughts?

- Shannon W.

The growth of alternative metal wedding bands has exploded since gold prices began their speedy hike towards $2,000/ounce during the last five years, but the demand for something other than gold or silver has been a constant since technology made these alternatives possible.

The biggest players on the alternative metal field are currently tungsten, titanium, and stainless steel - as well as ceramic to a lesser degree - all of which offer a very hard wearing material at a significantly lower price than other traditional metals, including gold and platinum. 

As the demand for alternative metals increased, so too did the number of designs and styles available on the market - many online shops offer hundreds of alt-metal rings with countless combinations of inlays, colours, and even settings for gemstones or diamonds. But, it is important to always consider a few factors that are just as, if not more important, than how an item will look on your finger:

  • if this is an item you are expecting to wear every day, how does this item fit within your lifestyle?
  • how will this item hold up to a lifetime of wear - what kind of maintenance can you expect as the years go by?
In the case of Shannon's fiance, it seems like the concern is that traditional metals used in creating wedding bands will not hold up to the wear and tear that comes with a manual or labour intensive career and that stronger metals such as titanium would be a better choice. Our belief is that regardless of what metal a wedding band is made of, it is very dangerous to wear jewellery whenever there is a risk of swelling in the hand or finger. A bee sting, a broken or sprained finger, swelling from impact, an allergic reaction, and the list goes on can all pose serious health risks if a ring cannot be removed. At our shop, we regularly see clients who require their rings to be removed (this is often because they have worn their ring for years without ever removing, only to discover their knuckle has outgrown their original finger size) or to have their rings repaired following a trip to the hospital.

A manual ring cutter.

A silver, gold, or platinum ring is relatively easy to remove using a ring cutter - requiring only a few minutes and little to no discomfort and is often done in a way that repairing the ring once the swelling in the finger has receded is a simple task. Removing a tungsten, titanium, or steel ring is quite another thing. In the case of titanium and stainless steel, using a standard ring cutter is almost an impossible task. Recently we had a customer come in, experiencing unusual swelling on his left hand and he was worried that his wedding band would not come off. He was unsure of what the ring was made of, and after our first attempt with the ring cutter it was clear it was not silver, gold, or platinum. Removing the ring required over 30 minutes, damaged three blades, and was quite uncomfortable for our client. Luckily we were able to safely remove the ring - unfortunately, the ring was not salvageable and would have to be replaced. In the case of tungsten or ceramic, the ring would need to be put in a vice-like system with pressure applied until the ring shatters.

If this situation had been different - if our client had been in an accident that required immediate medical attention, not knowing the metal of the ring and factoring in the need for a quick and precise response certainly would have put the wearer at risk. Purchasing an alternative metal may mean you are assuming a lot when it comes to the question of whether a ring can be safely removed in an emergency situation - that a medical professional with be able to recognize the material, will have the knowledge and tools available to remove it, and lastly that they will have the luxury of time that can sometimes be required. This is not to say that all of these situations will result in an amputated finger, but there will certainly be a degree of pain and the ring will have to be scrapped. There is a significant difference between asking a titanium manufacturer how to remove a titanium ring and asking the same of medical professional in the midst of an emergency. For us, that is too much of a risk.

This leads to the second point, consider the maintenance required throughout the lifetime of a ring. As we age our knuckles continue to grow, often made worse by the presence of arthritis - the majority of rings will need to be made larger. When we lose or gain weight, it becomes evident as our finger size shrinks or expands. Also consider that many woman experience some degree of swelling from mild to extreme during pregnancy. Over the course of a lifetime, a wedding band will likely need to be resized - a very easy task where traditional metals are concerned. The rings can either be stretched, or a piece of metal is added or removed from the band, depending whether it is going up or down a size. 

This is not the process for alternative metals rings - not only can they not be stretched or soldered, but finding a jeweller willing to work on these metals is exceptionally difficult. The processes for creating alt-metal bands is vastly different than working with traditional metals and often involves industrial tools and techniques that are uncommon for most jewellers. You will often find that the cost to repair an alt-metal ring will come close to the cost of purchasing a new one. Many sites selling these types of rings will offer to replace the ring if it require resizing or any type of repair, but this means giving up the original band - a piece of jewellery that comes with an unmatched amount of sentimental value. 

This is an important consideration - if your expectations for a wedding band is that it is an item that will be worn everyday and last forever, something to be passed onto your future children, you will need to consider the level of flexibility it offers where maintenance is concerned. Every ring of any metal will require a certain level of maintenance as it is worn over the decades - in our opinion it is rare to find an alternative metal wedding band that is made for life.

Disclaimer: we work almost exclusively in gold and platinum because they are not only metals that we prefer to use from a hands-on manufacturing standpoint but also because we believe they offer optimum wearability and a life-long beauty. But we are also constantly researching new techniques and that includes new metals. We have only recently begun working with palladium, a precious metal that shares many of the characteristics of platinum, and we often offer this metal as a alternative to our customers who find traditional precious metals to be too flashy. Not only is it a strong metal with a bright white colour, it is also light in both it weight and it effect on your pocket book (compared to platinum) with the added bonus of being hypoallergenic. 

Our recommendation Shannon - if an alt-metal is what your fiance wants, make sure you are both aware of the risks and no matter what you decide make sure he takes it off when he is on the job site.

Have a question? Email them to us at service(at) with the subject line Ask a Jeweller. We will answer your questions here, every Thursday.

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