How Jewelers Are Thinking Outside the Precious Metal Box



Titanium: It’s not just for golf clubs anymore. And if you think ceramic is only for knick-knacks, think again. As visionary designers push the boundaries of fine jewelry, so-called nonprecious metals are becoming more valuable to everyday customers.

Titanium, cobalt, ceramic: This might sound like a shopping list to build a space shuttle, but these materials have more down-to-earth, although equally inventive, purposes. All are being used with increasing frequency by fine jewelry designers seeking new ways to excite customers. Today’s shoppers want pieces that speak to their individuality, have the durability to be heirlooms, and don’t break the bank.

A handful of fine jewelry marquee names like Germany’s Christian Hemmerle and New York City’s James de Givenchy pioneered the use of these materials years ago to make their bold couture designs stand out from the pack; now, their space-age pieces have more company, such as designer Stephen Webster’s new ceramic bracelets, Movado’s Cerena ceramic watches, and Scott Kay’s line of cobalt rings.

“Fine jewelry doesn’t have to be restricted to just gold, platinum, diamonds, and exotic stones,” Webster says. “There is an increased interest and enthusiasm for design-led jewelry using alternative materials.”

Rugged Good Looks 

Forget Me Knot bracelet with black ceramic chain and 18k white gold and white pavé diamond clasp; $7,750; Stephen Webster, New York City; 800-981-8862; stephenwebster.com

Sarah Graham, owner of Sarah Graham Metalsmithing in San Francisco, says an aesthetic shift among consumers is partially responsible for the growing appeal of alternative metals and materials. “It seems to be a trend, but also something that is here to stay,” she says.

Graham’s specialty is blackened steel. (The term blackened steel is a bit misleading because the material Graham uses is actually a different metal called oxidized cobalt chrome; real iron is too challenging for use in ­jewelry design because of its propensity to rust.) Her black ­jewelry, which has an organic feel she says is inspired by nature, has become increasingly popular because today’s buyers have a greater preference for unique earrings, rings,  pendants, and the like. Titanium, black metal, and their cohorts stand out in a way that silver and gold do not.

At the same time, contemporary materials are familiar to some consumers because of their use in other contexts. “Due to its long-term use in the watch industry, people have already accepted ceramics as a luxury component,” Webster says.

This is coupled with a growing trend of men taking an interest in shopping for and buying fine jewelry for themselves. “Men have really started to accessorize,” says Kathi Bogenschutz, executive vice president of Fable Designs, a 12-year-old company in West Jordan, Utah, that specializes in rings made with contemporary materials. The demand from men, she says, is fueling sales of right-hand rings, necklaces, and bracelets.

Bee double flower link 21-inch necklace in 18k gold and oxidized cobalt chrome with 0.55 ct. t.w. white diamonds; $13,045; Sarah Graham Metalsmithing, La Quinta, Calif.; 800-670-0917; sarahgraham.com

“Titanium is something men are knowledgeable about because it’s in aerospace, tools, and golf clubs,” said Adam Rosenberg, director of sales for titanium jewelry brand Edward Mirell. Its functional properties—hard and difficult to scratch—appeal to male shoppers, he adds.

Tough Materials, Soft Pricing

Then, of course, there’s the cost factor. “Because of the price of gold, everyone has turned to the alternative metals,” Bogenschutz says.

Mirell’s titanium pieces, says Rosenberg, are comparable to a silver product line: Half retail for less than $500, and 90 percent for less than $1,000. Pierre-Yves Paquette, a Quebec-based designer who creates jewelry using ­metals like niobium that are blended with gold or sterling silver, says a basic ring such as a wedding band could run for less than $600, a price point far below what a shopper looking for a chunky, bold style like Paquette designs would pay for gold or platinum.

But it can be a challenge for designers to articulate the value proposition of alternative materials since there’s no readily available benchmark as there is with the spot gold price. Some have turned the lack of intrinsic value into a selling point: The prices of gold and (to a lesser extent) silver have soared; a material like blackened steel or niobium not only offers buyers the chance to wear something truly unique, but also lets them do so at a price point far below the traditional cost of fine jewelry. Designers say this is particularly attractive to Gen X and Gen Y consumers.

Bogenschutz says the lower price point gives Fable the flexibility to combine these modern materials with precious metals, or to set diamonds or gemstones into them and still deliver a moderately priced product.

Graham combines her oxidized black pieces with ­yellow gold and diamonds, which subconsciously prepares would-be buyers to anticipate a higher price point. “I’ve learned a lot about perceived value, and I make sure there’s always an element or two in our jewelry that strikes the consumer as valuable,” she says.

“It’s about value for the consumer at the end of the day,” Rosenberg says. “Gold has priced itself out” of this equation.

Drawbacks and Benefits

Sarah Graham Metalsmithing Bee small cluster dangle earrings in 18k yellow and rose gold and oxidized cobalt chrome with 0.20 ct. t.w. cognac diamonds; $3,535

“Newer material such as titanium and ceramic have pros and cons,” says Susan Abeles, vice president and head of jewelry in the United States for auction house Bonhams.

Working with these materials is challenging, designers say. “The more intricate the design is, the more difficult it becomes to manufacture,” Rosenberg says of titanium jewelry. The relative hardness of titanium and cobalt in comparison with gold and silver also makes it very difficult to resize rings—a quarter to a half size is generally the maximum that a ring can be altered. Unlike precious metals that are cast, some modern metals come in bar form or as blanks, so there are limits to how they can be shaped and manipulated, Bogenschutz explains.

In Sarah Graham’s line, the oxidization that is responsible for blackening the top layer of metal wears off over time. While this attribute could be perceived as a drawback, Graham puts her own spin on it, highlighting the characteristic as a unique design factor responsible for evolving the look of the pieces over the years. Some materials, such as ceramic and tungsten, can shatter in spite of their hardness.

Prosperity Collection frog ring in anodized green and cast Black Ti; $199; Edward Mirell, Deerfield Beach, Fla.; 866-390-4388; edwardmirell.com

Some contemporary metals do offer unique selling points: Titanium and tungsten, for instance, are both very hard, so pieces made from them are less prone to being scratched than ones made from gold or silver. “These materials are going to last, over time, sometimes better than regular gold,” says Paquette.

Titanium and cobalt chrome also are biocompatible—which is why they have been used in medical devices and implants for a number of years. For people with sensitive skin or those with nickel allergies, modern metals open the door to a new world of jewelry.

There’s also a greater assortment of colors available in alternative materials. “Titanium is available in a variety of colors, which adds further dimension to any creation,” Abeles says. Ceramic, meanwhile, can be any color. Designers have various proprietary processes they use to blacken cobalt chrome and titanium, and Fable Designs also works with black zirconia.

Abeles said although materials like titanium are “not mainstream,” some visionary designers are nonetheless attracted to the lightness, strength, and flexibility they offer. With the right sales tactics, retailers can share this same vision with customers.