Alternative Metals Show Their Mettle

It’s clear these are good times for alternative metals. It’s also clear that not everyone likes that term. “I prefer contemporary metals,” says Ed Rosenberg, the founder of Spectore Corp., in Deerfield Beach, Fla. “The industry’s presented these metals wrong. They called them alternative. But alternative to what? You could say gold is an alternative to platinum.”

Whatever one might call them, everyone agrees that sales of these metals have been greatly aided by the rising prices of gold and platinum as jewelers seek—dare I say it—an alternative. “There’s just a crisis on the market of affordability today,” says Gary Ford, president of Carson, Calif.–based ABI Precious Metals. “With gold at $1,000, retailers can’t hit the price points they once did.”

“It’s a perfect storm,” agrees Jonathan Goldman, of New York’s Frederick Goldman. “Consumers are challenged at the same time metal and commodity prices are rising. And that storm has created the opportunity for these contemporary metals.”

Probably the best known “other metal” is palladium. Its boosters don’t like to lump it in with some of the other alternatives, noting that it’s considered a precious metal and is a member of the platinum family. (It can be difficult to tell platinum and palladium apart, although palladium is somewhat whiter than platinum.)

“I don’t see it grouped with titanium or tungsten at all,” says Dawn McCurtain, marketing director for Palladium Alliance International. “Palladium is a precious, pure, natural white metal. And it’s rare. That’s why I don’t like to put it in with a trendy metal like titanium or tungsten. Those certainly have their place, but they are in a different category.”

Whatever group it belongs to, palladium’s popularity has grown in the last few years almost as much as platinum’s cost has skyrocketed. That’s largely because of its relatively low cost: At press time, its price was about one-quarter the price of platinum and about half the price of gold.

Palladium also has some advantages over platinum. Its comparative lightness (or lack of density), while not providing the luxurious feeling of platinum, makes it perfect for jewelry like earrings and bracelets, which platinum is not necessarily suited for. As a result, it’s being boosted by some of the same people—such as noted jewelry designer Scott Kay—who once championed platinum. “The acceptance of palladium in such a short period of time has just been overwhelming,” says Kay. “When I introduced platinum back in the late ’80s, we were a yellow-metals industry. That was a big hurdle to climb. But this will definitely be as accepted as platinum.”

He calls it “surreal” that there is still opposition to the metal, pointing to a recent quote in JCK by a jeweler who called palladium a “substandard” metal that “cheapens the industry.”

“We are talking about a metal that comes out of the ground naturally,” Kay said. “This isn’t fracture-filled stones or irradiated blue topaz. There is no doubt in my mind that palladium will soon dominate the white-metals industry. There is just no stopping it. In a year, it will be second nature.”

While awareness of palladium has undoubtedly risen in the trade, consumers are another story. After all, platinum has a place in pop culture—witness the American Express platinum card. But one never hears of a record “going palladium.”

“The problem with palladium is most consumers don’t know what palladium is,” says Ford.

That’s something its advocates are working on. They’ve founded Palladium Alliance International, which is somewhat modeled on Platinum Guild International. PAI, spearheaded by America’s largest palladium mine, Stillwater, based in Nye, Mont., is starting to spread the word about the metal, through press releases and a Web site (LuxuryPalladium.com). But it’s just getting off the ground, McCurtain admits. “We are still small,” she says. “You are talking to Palladium Alliance International right here.”

However, the group has been active in China and plans a program of trade and consumer advertising. “The consumer needs to be educated about palladium,” says McCurtain, who happily notes that the recent movie Iron Man mentions palladium. “It’s similar to when platinum came out. People really didn’t understand it at first.”

While some see palladium as competing with platinum, McCurtain sees them as fulfilling different niches. “Platinum is great for bridal,” she says. “But we see palladium as more of a fashion and now-type metal. Some people are going to use palladium for bridal, but we see it as so much more. There are designs that can be made with palladium, which have never been made with white precious metals before.”

Torry Hoover, president of Richmond, Va.–based Hoover & Strong, notes that palladium has found a receptive audience among independent jewelers looking for something different. “The only ones that haven’t jumped on board yet are the chains,” he explains. “The chains are waiting to see what the industry does. So for now it’s an opportunity for independents who want to differentiate themselves.”

Other alternative metals, such as titanium, tungsten, and steel, are primarily embraced by male consumers, particularly younger, hipper, fashion-forward men who have long worn watches made of those materials. “Men feel very comfortable wearing alternative metals,” notes Deb McDonough, director of men’s accessories for Colibri. “They wear watch bands made of steel and titanium, so they are already comfortable wearing it. They don’t have the feminine associations of silver and gold. It’s an easier transition for them in some ways.”

Goldman calls tungsten “the hottest of the contemporary metals.” He says younger consumers want to buy something that “is not your father’s wedding ring.” Men also like the hardness and heaviness of it, Goldman says. “Tungsten doesn’t scratch when you go to the gym or play ball.” It’s also resistant to dents and corrosion.

“Tungsten is a great metal,” says McDonough. “It never scratches, so it always has a beautiful polished look to it. However, it is very difficult to work with. You can cut grooves into it or facet it, but you really can’t have a lot of texture.”

Its durability also carries certain risks: Tungsten rings are considered among the most difficult to cut from a finger.

Often mentioned with tungsten is titanium. Advocates note that titanium is easier to cast than tungsten, with more design flexibility. It is also arguably better known; it was originally used for body jewelry, because it’s hypoallergenic and doesn’t react against the skin. It, too, has found a predominantly male audience. “Titanium speaks to men an earthy kind of way,” says Laura Haber, product manager for Gotz Switzerland. “It’s very masculine.”

“Men have a sense of ownership to it,” agrees Rosenberg. “The male consumer gets it. It’s his material. It’s a material they associate themselves with, because they deal with it every day. The Apple P4 laptop case is titanium. The Schick razor is titanium.”

Still, he argues the industry needs to freshen up its designs for titanium to have staying power. “I think titanium has the legs to transcend being more than just a fad,” he says. “But I think if people don’t introduce new designs, it will get boring very quickly.”

Also in this category is stainless steel. Though Rosenberg says “it’s hard to think of steel as a precious metal,” it is also winning a male fan base. “I’ve never heard of a woman getting a stainless-steel ring,” notes Hoover. “But men don’t seem to mind.”

Others argue that the market can be expanded. Marc Letourneau, president of Labrea, which offers the SteelX brand, notes that stainless-steel jewelry is popular with female consumers in both Europe and his home base of Canada, and he thinks it can be in America as well. “Men and women both buy gold,” he says. “It’s just a matter of styling and marketing.”

That’s only the list of what can be called traditional alternative metals. There is also what might be called “alternative alternatives,” some of which are being brought to market to take advantage of the current run-up in metal prices.

Ford’s company manufactures Platina 4, an amalgam of silver, palladium, gold, and a proprietary alloy, which sells for one-third the cost of 14k gold. “Consumers know they are not getting 14 karat gold with our product,” says Ford. “But they are getting it for much lower cost. It’s a mid-range type of product.”

And Hoover has seen resurgent demand for controversial products like “585 platinum” (which can’t legally be hallmarked) and low-karat gold.

There also has been a surprising jump in demand for silver. “Silver tarnishes and will never be looked at as precious,” says Kay. “Yet you are starting to see silver necklaces and bracelets start to go in the thousands of dollars.”

Jonathan Goodman Cohen, president of I.B. Goodman, agrees the industry is rediscovering the benefits of silver. “Silver is a softer metal, a warmer metal, it feels good against the skin,” he says. “It is easy to work with from a design and manufacturing standpoint.” And, contradicting Kay, he says, “People perceive it as precious.”

That brings up a question: What exactly is a precious metal? And does it matter?

“I think [precious vs. non-precious] is an industry paradigm, not a consumer paradigm,” says Goldman. “We have to think about how the consumer thinks about these metals. They go into the store with how much they want to spend in mind. If we don’t have product that’s attractive at price points, we will find our consumers will buy other products. Our narrow definition of jewelry needs to expand.”