Alternative Metals Roll Along

By William George Shuster, Senior Editor

Ready for an explosion of nontraditional white metals in jewelry? That’s how a number of industry experts describe the expanding number of jewelry lines using precious-metal palladium and other white metals—stainless steel, titanium, and tungsten—as alternatives to platinum, silver, and white gold.

Palladium, especially, is making a significant impact. America’s biggest palladium mine and some jewelry manufacturers and casters have created the Palladium Alliance International to promote it. A number of new palladium collections debuted this year, and some predict palladium will be the most sought-after jewelry metal within 24 months.

Meanwhile, titanium and stainless steel sales are expanding, primarily in men’s jewelry.

Soaring prices of gold and platinum are pushing consumers, retailers, and manufacturers to these more affordable options. But jewelry makers say these metals have characteristics that will make them important to the U.S. market, jewelers, and men’s jewelry for years to come. Here’s a closer look at these other white metals.

PALLADIUM’S RISE

In the past 18 months, palladium’s star has risen, thanks to rising prices for platinum (propelled by speculators and high demand by automakers) and gold (investors’ refuge against record oil prices and global tensions). In late May, gold soared to $730 per troy ounce, a 26-year high, while platinum reached $1,275, compared with palladium’s $371.

So, jewelry manufacturers and retailers worldwide are turning to palladium. In 2005, purchases for jewelry use jumped 54 percent (to 1.43 million ounces), driven largely by the Chinese. Palladium represented 20 percent of new jewelry, up from 13 percent in 2004. In the United States, trade interest is up significantly this year, as shown in the number of new lines debuting at major jewelry fairs, including The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas.

Palladium’s price isn’t the only reason it’s booming. “Even at $1,000 an ounce, palladium would be an opportunity for the jewelry industry,” says jewelry maker Scott Kay, who spent much of 2005 studying, testing, and working it. “It’s wonderful, the perfect metal, our industry’s hidden treasure,” he says.

Kay is known for platinum jewelry (“my first love”). Yet he feels so strongly about palladium’s potential, he felt “compelled” to write in March to his 800-plus retail clients, declaring palladium will “change the jewelry industry as we know it. It’s going to explode into this industry, unlike anything we have ever seen.”

Why? Manufacturers of palladium jewelry—like Kay, Adair Jewelry, Frederick Goldman, Leiberfarb, and Novell—cite its characteristics. It’s a lustrous precious metal, in the platinum metals group. It’s naturally white-gray—indeed, whiter than platinum—won’t tarnish or change color, and is hypoallergenic. It’s 12.6 percent harder, more malleable, and less dense than platinum. It’s lighter, more versatile, can produce more jewelry than platinum from the same amount of metal, and costs a retailer less than platinum or white gold, providing better margins.

PALLADIUM’S CHAMPION

A new group formed this spring called Palladium Alliance International aims to do what Platinum Guild International did for platinum: effectively promote palladium to retailers and consumers. “All palladium lacked is a champion,” says Frank McAllister, chairman and chief executive officer of Stillwater Mining Co., Billings, Mont., America’s largest palladium producer. Stillwater is providing backing for PAI, and John Stark, Stillwater vice president of human resources, is PAI’s chairman. However, the idea for PAI came from Jonathan Goldman, chairman and CEO of Frederick Goldman Inc., a major jewelry manufacturer and the largest U.S. user of platinum for jewelry.

More than two years ago, his company sought a precious white metal that cost less than platinum and wouldn’t “yellow” (like white gold) with extensive wear. “After much study, we settled on palladium, which has the perfect look and feel,” says Goldman.

In January 2005, after six months of development, it unveiled a line of palladium jewelry, one of the first here. It did so well, Goldman this year added palladium bridal jewelry under the Art Carved name and palladium anniversary jewelry. It’s supporting them with full-page ads and in-store materials, including brochures and counter pads spelling out palladium’s virtues.

“We’re fully committed to this metal,” Goldman tells JCK. So much so, that in late 2004, he contacted McAllister and suggested an industry organization to position palladium appropriately in the marketplace and help retailers and consumers accept it. “We were delighted with the idea,” McAllister says. Several manufacturers, plus companies active in metals (i.e., Hoover & Strong Metallurgy, Johnson Matthey, Precious Metals West, and Rochoet) added support.

PAI was unveiled to the industry at The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas in June in a standing-room-only session. It has a Web site (www.palladiumallianceinternational.com) and informational materials.

Some jewelry makers expect palladium sales—now under 1 percent of the U.S. jewelry business—to mushroom in fashion and bridal jewelry. Kay, for one, has already sold “millions of dollars worth” of his new jewelry, and predicts palladium will be the industry’s white metal of choice within two years. “Today, less than 2 percent of fine jewelers sell palladium. A year from now, it should be 100 percent,” he claims.

“This metal has lots of life in it,” says Goldman. “It’s well priced (comparable to gold jewelry), and our several thousand jewelers are very enthusiastic.” McAllister expects Stillwater’s production to double in the next year. “The marketing is already expanding quicker than we expected,” he says.

THOSE OTHER WHITE METALS

While palladium benefits from platinum’s rising price, gold’s record cost strengthens the focus by retailers, manufacturers, and consumers on more affordable white metals: stainless steel, titanium, and even tungsten (see sidebar, p.TK). “With gold going up and up, people are looking for alternatives to increase volume in their stores, and major jewelry retailers are dedicating more ad space and flyers to these metals than ever before,” says Laurence Meskin, president of HMS, a U.S. gold and silver jewelry manufacturer that just published its first catalog devoted to alternative-metals jewelry.

This other white metals market is largely male, especially younger men. “In past years, men had a backseat in the jewelry industry, and yellow and white gold jewelry became identified with women,” says Meskin. “But titanium or steel jewelry appeals to men. A big burly guy who won’t wear a white gold bracelet will wear a stainless steel one with a couple of diamonds in it.”

Men already know those metals’ characteristics from other products, like golf clubs or watches. They’re bright, lightweight, strong, and durable; resistant to scratching, tarnishing, denting, and bending; and corrosion-resistant. The jewelry is “low maintenance, and you don’t worry about safeguarding it, like gold,” says Valentino Diaz, president of Miami Steel jewelry.

In addition, today’s men are “more fashion-forward,” notes Brian Nohe, president and chief operating officer of Spectore Corp., a leading titanium jewelry manufacturer. “So, men’s jewelry is increasing in popularity among different market segments, from Wall Street to Main Street.”

Men’s acceptance of these metals and growing ease with jewelry is “opening the eyes” of more manufacturers and retailers, says Diaz. “They realize, ‘If I have something in titanium or steel, I can get new customers. So, there’re more stylings that are good-looking, contemporary, and accented with gold, for young men who want to accessorize.”

Both Nohe and Jonathan Cohen, president of I. B. Goodman, Newport, Ky., a leader in men’s jewelry, call alternative metals jewelry “an opportunity” for jewelers to build business. “They offer male consumers very fine jewelry accessories at reasonable prices,” says Cohen. “Jewelers can catch up in marketing to men,” says Nohe, who suggests allotting 10 percent of sales space to alternative white metals. “Men will buy jewelry for themselves and others, if reasonably priced and good looking.”

STEEL’S ATTRACTION

Stainless-steel jewelry was once considered avant-garde, but in the past decade its appeal has widened, spurred partly by white metals’ continuing popularity and by more stainless-steel sports, mid-, and luxury-price watches. (Over half of Swiss watch exports are steel.) “Because men wear steel watches, they accessorize with steel jewelry,” notes Diaz, “and more jewelers who wouldn’t or didn’t carry that jewelry do now, because they carry the watches.”

Another reason is its flexibility. “You can do a lot you can’t with gold, and get a lot of look and value for an attractive price,” says Jonathan Goldman of Frederick Goldman, which does sizable business in stainless steel.

“Certain grades of stainless steel have good color that’s durable, and they’re well suited to innovative finishes we’ve developed for all kinds of men’s jewelry,” notes Jonathan Cohen of I.B. Goodman, one of the first jewelry manufacturers to put stainless steel in the U.S. market (in 2000), which now does “a significant amount” of business in it. In addition, jewelry makers “can buy high-quality material that’s relatively inexpensive, compared with precious metals, and combine it with precious metals and gems for all types of price points.”

The result: durable, stylish jewelry retailing for $20 to more than $1,000, with most sales between $100 and $400.

Not all stainless-steel jewelry is American. Some is European, like Germany’s popular TeNo, distributed by Universal Watch of Las Vegas, or Italy’s FIBO Steel (from FIBO SpA, a leading maker of gold jewelry) distributed by Miami Steel. European brands offer both women’s and men’s lines, because there, stainless steel sells better to women (80 percent of sales). Here, it’s the opposite. “There’s not an important demand by women,” notes Cohen, “but men’s stainless steel jewelry is growing faster than in Europe.” Most popular, he says, are bracelets (“in volume and dollars”), followed by cufflinks, money clips, key chains, and tie tacks, plus wedding rings, pendants on chains, and necklaces.

TITANIUM’S LURE

Titanium jewelry isn’t new. Spectore Corp., for example, has made it since 1983, though then it was mostly body jewelry for young women. In recent years, it’s grown in popularity (in tandem with titanium watches), and today, dozens of U.S. and foreign jewelry makers sell titanium jewelry. The consumer target, however, has changed.

“Titanium now is clearly a men’s market,” says Nohe, Spectore’s president, who puts the ratio at 70 percent men, 30 percent women. “Platinum, gold, and silver are such staples in women’s jewelry awareness, it’s difficult and expensive to reach them” through marketing, he says. “Men are easier.” (Some industry estimates say titanium jewelry, including watches, account for 25 percent of the U.S. men’s jewelry market, itself less than 10 percent of the $60 billion U.S. market.)

Wedding jewelry is popular. “Young people want something different than their parents had, and titanium has a different look and feel,” says Goldman. (Frederick Goldman is the largest U.S. producer of titanium wedding jewelry.) Philippe Payette, owner of TitaniumEra in Montreal, whose top market is the United States, began making wedding rings for men in 1999 and now produces over 40,000 a year (80 percent for men). “Most of my customers are guys who didn’t like jewelry, but they like titanium, because it’s lightweight, comfortable, and won’t bend in sports or training,” says Payette.

But it isn’t just men, adds Payette. “More women are into extreme sports, and want something sturdy that won’t scratch or get deformed like gold rings can,” he says. There’s a sentimental reason, too, he adds. “Titanium is very strong, and that appeals to a lot of women, who tell me it represents their strong bond of love with their husbands.”

Titanium also has design flexibility. “There’s so much you can do with it,” says Nohe, “coloring it, combining it with gold, onyx, silver, or platinum, or with accents like leather, ebony, carbon fiber, or enamel.”

Though a small part of the U.S. market, titanium jewelry is expanding. Goldman, for example, says that while less than 10 percent of his business, it’s his fastest-growing category. TitaniumEra, which began by selling on the Internet, is now in 20 U.S. cities and plans to be in 25 more by year’s end.

Spectore is making one of the biggest marketing pushes in men’s titanium jewelry. It’s spent over half a million dollars in the past couple of years promoting its Edward Mirell men’s jewelry in its successful “Be Noticed” campaign on TV, and in newspapers and contemporary men’s magazines. That continues this year with broader geographic coverage and full- or one-third-page ads in publications like Details, Esquire, GQ, Men’s Journal, and Wired for the Edward Mirell Racer collection (rings, bracelets, pendants, cufflinks, key chains) in patented black titanium accented by silver.

The popularity of other white metals won’t fade soon, say those interviewed by JCK. “Stainless-steel jewelry is a long-lasting business,” says Diaz, “as long as fine watchmakers make steel watches.”

“These metals aren’t just a trend,” agrees Jonathan Cohen. “They’re established in jewelers’ inventory and growing in importance, because of their unlimited design opportunities and opportunities in different price points, including higher ones.” But, he cautions, “This is a category where we must constantly innovate and provide value for those price points.”

“Titanium hasn’t peaked, nor have any of these other contemporary metals,” says Nohe. His prediction: “an explosion next year in fashion-forward use of all of them.”