Mystery Metals: RUBEDO and Other Secret-Recipe Jewelry

J. Tyler Teague is a modern-day alchemist-for-hire who loves to prove the impossible possible. Between 2001 and 2003 he developed several castable 950 palladium alloys. The best of these was later bought and branded as TruPd by Hoover & Strong. Last year, this metallurgical gunslinger, president of JETT Research in Johnson City, Tenn., consulted with Tiffany & Co. for its new private-label pink metal RUBEDO (a fancy reference to the Latin word for red).

Teague won’t reveal exact ratios of RUBEDO’s ingredients, but says “it contains a little gold, a lot of copper, and some silver with a dash of germanium and silicon. It’s a great all-round alloy, good for casting, laser-welding—you name it.” (In April, The New York Times assayed some RUBEDO jewelry and gave these results: about 31 percent gold, almost 55 percent copper, some silver, and a “smidgen of zinc.”)

© Tiffany & Co.

As long as the prices of gold and platinum refuse to obey gravity, expect many more such secret recipes. Among the best-known are a series of yellow-, pink-, and white-colored alloys from ABI Precious Metals. Basically brass, they use 20–25 percent silver and are touted as giving the look of colored gold at a fraction of the cost. Teague, for one, applauds the evolution of these “alternative metals”: “If the chief ingredient of your jewelry is artistry, who cares if it is made of gold, silver, copper, or brass?”

Victor Joyner cares—a lot. He’s a ­developer of casting technologies and a champion of ­tarnish-resistant silver alloys. Rather than a brave new world of metal mixtures, Joyner envisions a Tower of Babel world with every manufacturer and retailer speaking a polyglot of metals concoctions—none of which are held to the long-standing fineness standards of gold, platinum, and silver. “If everyone feels free to create secret-recipe alloys, you are talking about metallurgical anarchy,” he says.

Welcome to the world of semiprecious metals, where looks are deceiving (deliberately so) and silver is more likely to indicate a color than a metal. “The economics of pseudo-precious metals make perfect sense, but they raise lots of ethics issues,” says appraiser/silversmith Bill Hoefer, who fears having to assess or repair jewelry made from unknown, often unknowable blends of precious and nonprecious metals. “In a brands-only world, I can find out who the maker of an item is,” he says. “But it could be next to impossible to find out what he is using.”