Before germanium became the miracle anti-tarnish ingredient in silver, a small group of refiners discovered that platinum-group metals could whiten and brighten sterling as well as shield it from fire stain. Today, there are at least half a dozen silver alloys that rely on platinum and palladium to keep tarnish and fire stain at bay. While these alternative alloys are all more expensive than germanium-based ones, they are considerably less costly than their white gold counterparts. Moreover, they allow jewelers to sell sterling jewelry that owes its beauty and durability to its precious metal content.
As you would expect in a cost-conscious industry, there are fewer users of platinum-group sterling alloys than germanium-based ones. One of this still-small band is Victor Joyner of Chicago-based HD Pattern Co., a firm that specializes in new casting technologies using polymers. Last year, Joyner was invited by Stuller in Lafayette, La., to put a new 3 percent palladium-enriched silver alloy trademarked as Continuum through its paces in his shop.
“The problem with silver is you have to use a lot of it to get the kind of strength and performance you expect from gold,” Joyner explains. “And even that is no guarantee of longevity.” Bulk is needed to keep pieces from going out of round and to hold stones in place. Joyner says that using a palladium-enriched alloy makes it feel like he is working with 14k white gold; Continuum in particular has a hardness that he says gives his pieces a heretofore difficult-to-attain durability and definition. What’s more, he gets long-term shape retention using less than half the alloy he needed when working in more cumbersome traditional sterling.
Less bulk translates into lower material costs and helps narrow the price differential between palladium- and germanium-based alloys. Let’s do the math: At, say, $30 per ounce, a germanium-based alloy will cost about 20 percent more than standard sterling, or $36 per ounce. The palladium-enriched sterling will cost roughly twice as much—$60 per ounce. But since Joyner needs only half the amount of palladium-enriched alloy compared to standard sterling, the cost is much closer to sterling and germanium-based silver.
Platinum is another matter, of course. Expect to spend three to four times more for a platinum-enriched silver alloy than traditional sterling. Platinum’s prestige factor, however, may help offset sticker shock. “Platinum-group sterling alloys should be viewed as a separate category from germanium-based silvers,” Joyner recommends. “We’re talking about an affordable luxury metal that is at least 95 percent precious content.”