Metals: Contemporary Alternatives

One year ago, Palladium Alliance International introduced itself to the U.S. market at The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas. Since then, PAI has been working to educate the industry and its consumers about palladium’s properties and benefits. “It’s a phenomenal program for PAI,” says marketing director Dawn McCurtain. “We have been training retailers on how to sell palladium. If your salespeople don’t understand what you have to sell, that’s obviously not going to do any good.”

Ann Arnold, chief financial officer of Leiberfarb Inc., suggests that there is a learning curve for retail jewelers. “Someone with good platinum experience can make some easy adjustments to palladium,” she says.

“This is a bit of a learning process—which is a good thing, because it expands jewelers’ experience,” explains Bruce Pucciarello, chief executive officer of Novell Design Studio. “There are more highly qualified artists now than there were 20 years ago, and in general our factories are light years beyond the past. Platinum can take a lot of credit for that,” Pucciarello says.

PAI chairman John Stark, vice president of human resources for Stillwater Mining Co. in Billings, Mont., the largest palladium mine and refinery in North America, anticipates an internal growth rate of 10 percent in 2008 and ’09. PAI also estimates about 250 percent more manufacturers and retailers came on board with palladium than last year. At press time, palladium was trading at $375 per ounce.

Designer Scott Kay, of Scott Kay Inc., Teaneck, N.J., is one of palladium’s leading advocates. “As a designer and as an economist, and as somebody who is very practical within our industry and understands opportunity, the response has been phenomenal,” he says. He judges the success of palladium this past year by his own company’s success. “About 90 to 95 percent of my customers have jumped on board with it and have had tremendous success,” he says.

Companies like Jabel, Irvington, N.J., have been working with palladium since the 1940s. Alloys were difficult to cast back then, and die-struck pieces were jewelers’ only option for working with the metal. Recently, however, manufacturers like Hoover & Strong, Richmond, Va., have produced whiter and more malleable alloys that can be cast with less porosity, making palladium more appealing to manufacturers and retailers alike.

PAI and jewelers like Kay aren’t trying to send the message that palladium is platinum’s new competitor. “We want people to understand that it is a metal in its own right,” explains McCurtain. “We don’t look at it as an alternative to platinum. The ‘alternative’ conversation comes into play in the definition of ‘another choice’—another choice consumers have never had before.”

Price isn’t palladium’s only advantage. The metal made its breakthrough in bridal jewelry as a separate-but-equal metal choice for consumers, and now its malleability and light weight are catching the attention of fine-jewelry designers. “Shape equals beauty; beauty equals luxury,” explains Kay. “We value things for what they are, not how precious the metal is,” Kay says.

“Think about this metal,” McCurtain says. “You can make large pieces, pieces that you could never wear in platinum. It’s a niche in the fashion industry in that it has never seen a true white metal used.”

High-fashion couture lines like Prestige Jewelry International are paving the way for the introduction of palladium fashion lines. “This is a great niche for fashion,” says Paul Skaret, vice president of sales for the independent division of Prestige Jewelry International. “Platinum has a great place in the market; however, palladium allows you to do something on a larger scale and still be able to translate it into an earring/pendant combination.” Skaret explains that he intentionally wanted to launch a palladium-only line. “Palladium stands on its own,” he explains. “It is a precious metal with its own intrinsic value.”

Stainless steel is a popular choice for men’s jewelry, thanks to its durability and resistance to scratches. Steel rings, chains, bracelets, and dog tags hold up to aggressive wear. Now designers who use stainless steel are beginning to explore the women’s market. Chevron Royale, Beverly Hills, Calif., a business partnership of two women (a designer/rock ‘n’ roller and an architect), has created a line of women’s stainless-steel jewelry. “Stainless never changes,” says the company’s Aviva Carmy of their popular bracelet collection. “You can travel with it, swim with it, upgrade it for a formal event, or wear it with jeans.”

Aviva, a former architect, places much of her artistic focus on the integration of different materials, “not hiding the connection between the stainless-steel mesh and the silver rivets,” she says. She also explains that it took a team of engineers and chemists to find the proper neutralization of the stainless used in Chevron Royale’s pieces, “so it feels sexy,” she explains.

Edward Mirell, a titanium line offered by manufacturer Spectore Corp., hit the jewelry scene about five years ago when alternative metals were beginning to be accepted as a mainstream product. Like Chevron Royale, Spectore Corp. has begun to direct its marketing toward women with its new Palm Coast line. The company’s patented black titanium and colored titanium depend on a process called anodizing, which changes the molecular structure of the titanium. “Depending on the current you use, you can actually change the color of the metal to any color of the rainbow,” explains Spectore president Brian Nohe.

A year ago, HMS Gold introduced a program called the 22ss47 collection. The numbers 22 and 47 were taken from the periodic table of elements (a titanium atom has 22 electrons; a tungsten atom has 47). “It’s been a great success,” says Lawrence Meskin, president of HMS Gold.

Tungsten is a highly polished and durable ceramic cast at extremely high temperatures. “The look is beautiful—dark undertones beneath its highly polished finish give the metal a rich look,” says Elizabeth Pfahl, a goldsmith at Aurum Jewelers & Goldsmiths, State College, Pa. “The only problem is that although tungsten is virtually scratch resistant, the ceramic can actually chip and even fracture completely in two,” Pfahl explains.

Rings made of stainless steel, titanium, and tungsten have several disadvantages. Steel rings are difficult to size, and titanium can, on average, be stretched only about one size larger. Most prominent manufacturers like Frederick Goldman Inc., HMS Gold, and Spectore Corp. offer lifetime ring-exchange programs that allow customers to return their rings for different sizes if and when the rings no longer fit correctly.

There are also certain health risks associated with wearing stainless steel, titanium, and tungsten rings. In the event of an emergency, the rings are difficult to cut off, and tungsten has to be shattered: Cutting the metal is impossible. “I definitely believe that with anything you need to inform the customer of all advantages and disadvantages. It’s an ethical issue of communicating disclosure,” says Torry Hoover, president of Hoover & Strong.

“There’s something special about the feel of silver,” says designer Saundra Messinger, of Saundra Messinger, New York. Silver’s advantages are similar to those of palladium. The metal is lighter and can be used to create beautiful and intricate pieces of contemporary, fine designer jewelry. Silver is no longer considered an undesirable or “low” metal. Designers like Saundra Messinger, Frederic Duclos, Sarah Blaine, and even Scott Kay are revolutionizing the ways in which the industry perceives this metal.

“I love the whiteness of silver. It feels so clean,” says Messinger. “It’s a precious metal and a beautiful metal and a metal that is more affordable.” Messinger adds that she likes the idea that her jewelry can be available to a large range of women, those who can afford to wear anything they want, and those who can’t but can feel special about wearing her jewelry. Although her designs might be made of silver, “it is still produced the same way fine pieces are produced,” says Messinger.

Designer Sarah Blaine uses ancient Bali lacework and granulation in conjunction with unique stones to bring a contemporary flare to her designs. Julian Mullin, managing director of international sales and vice president of Hot Diamonds USA, tells JCK that their decision to set diamonds in sterling silver was initiated to bring diamond jewelry to a price point that everyone could afford.

“I have always been drawn to silver as a white metal,” says Duclos. He was born and raised in France and was exposed to contemporary jewelry through his mother’s love of German, French, and Italian designers. “It made me love contemporary designs, and I emphasize my collections with interesting materials—some known materials, and some newer to the market.”

Duclos unveiled his new Howlite collection, a snow-white opaque stone with a gray matrix, at the January JANY Show. He also sets diamonds in ebony, branch coral, and sponge coral, and he recently introduced a line that incorporates Venetian glass.