Titanium’s New Push

It’s the stuff of space rockets and golf clubs—not a terribly romantic association for a metal trying to make it in fine jewelry. But members of the jewelry industry are taking a second look at titanium precisely because it’s unusual—an industrial metal being sold in fine jewelry stores.

Titanium’s reputation has come a long way. Ed Rosenberg, president of Spectore Corp. in Deerfield Beach, Fla., is a pioneer in working with the metal. He says he was nearly handcuffed by police at a 1983 Jewelers of America show in New York for selling what authorities and jewelers thought was “radioactive plutonium”—his titanium jewelry. Jewelers who responded to a recent JCK Retail Panel survey about titanium jewelry extolled certain virtues of the metal: it’s durable, inexpensive, lightweight, and terrific for specialty earrings. Some even said that consumers ask for titanium jewelry and that they like the styles manufacturers are selling. Of the 47.5% of respondents who said they carried titanium jewelry, 35% said they sold only watches.

Of those who didn’t carry the product, 26% said they don’t because of possible liability issues—cutting rings in an emergency. An Illinois-based jeweler says he’s armed with a bolt cutter to remove titanium rings in a jiffy, and a shop owner in California says he asks customers to sign liability release forms when they buy titanium rings. [Contrary to this belief, titanium rings can be cut through with relative ease as long as they are made from the commercial-grade metal.] Another 4% don’t carry titanium jewelry because it’s “impossible to size.”

Other survey respondents question titanium’s desirability as a metal for jewelry. A panelist from Virginia calls titanium jewelry “cheap.” Another from Maryland calls it “junk,” and one in Iowa says he only sells “real jewelry.”

But titanium jewelry makers say men love the masculine look of titanium (and steel), and note that titanium costs less and weighs less than platinum. Some even say titanium wedding bands, at least, are an opportunity to sell two rings. “Titanium jewelry doesn’t have to mean the cannibalization of another metal category,” says Rebecca Foerster, vice president of marketing for Frederick Goldman, New York. “Some couples want titanium for everyday and another metal to wear on special occasions.”

Titanium jewelry (excluding watches) “isn’t for everybody,” says Foerster. Goldman, a prominent bridal jewelry manufacturer, has been conducting an aggressive titanium marketing campaign for its ArtCarved division over the past year. “But it looks great and has other lasting benefits.” For example, it’s hypoallergenic, and in its natural state it has a steely, matte charcoal-gray surface that appeals to many men—particularly those who are fascinated by high-tech looks but have a low-tech budget.

So when trying to close sales, tell shoppers the truth about this tough and masculine metal: “Titanium jewelry will match his golf clubs,” says Michelle Venus, officer manager, COGE Design Group, Dallas, whose company makes titanium wedding rings.

The facts. The commercial grade of titanium—99% pure—is strong enough to remain attractive for long-term daily wear, but giving enough to allow jewelers to cut through with a common ring cutter. And after three months, titanium doesn’t show wear,” Rosenberg says, “unlike platinum, which ends up resembling worn pewter.

“Don’t use the ‘aerospace’ grade of titanium,” he warns. The stuff used by NASA is too tough for jewelry use because it’s not pure titanium—alloys make it even stronger, which is something to consider in case of an emergency (see “Tough Stuff,” page 95).

The commercial grade can be cut in an emergency, but rings need to be cut twice, “unless you’ve got Superman strength enough” to pull the piece apart, notes Rosenberg. In fact, the strength of the metal makes it hard to manipulate, thus increasing labor costs and boosting the price of the finished product, even though the raw material is relatively inexpensive compared with other metals.

Others in the industry say titanium is great—for watches. Watch companies make lots of titanium parts, so repairs are easy for jewelers, says David Wiggins, co-owner, Creative Jewelers, Corrales, N.M. But resizing this metal for jewelry without damaging set stones or scrapping the piece altogether is virtually impossible. Using titanium also increases the cost of replacing jewelers’ cutting tools, notes Rosenberg, since it’s so strong. (See “Mohs Knows Strength,” page 98).

Experts say the metal allows very little play when resizing—perhaps three-quarters of a size up and less going in the opposite direction. “So it’s easier to resize rings if consumers gain weight rather than lose it,” jokes COGE’s Venus.

But many point out that sizing can be just as troublesome for jewelry made of other metals: Engraved rings, special-order pieces, patterned bands, and those set with stones are all difficult to resize—regardless of the metal. One big difference, however, is in the scrap value. Gold, silver, and platinum are worth sending to a refiner. With titanium, there is no reclaim or product to remelt or solder, because the metal is currently available to manufacturers only in huge rods and blocks. In other words, scrap is trash. “If I recycle 1,000 pounds of scrap titanium, I get 30 cents to the pound,” says Rosenberg. “I’m not losing that much money if I just throw away the scrap to free up shop space.”

A fine line. In the United States, “fine” jewelry is made from “precious metals”—gold, silver, and platinum, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Titanium, on the other hand, isn’t rare and is abundant worldwide. “If [consumer] demand is out there, who cares?” asks Tony Lapour, president, Gitani, Los Angeles. Some jewelers may be bothered by non-precious-metal jewelry sharing space with precious, but remember that titanium—and stainless steel—watches are already in jewelry stores. Some of the finest watches in the world are made of titanium, says Guy Beard, president, Guy Beard Collections, Jacksonville, Fla., a maker of titanium cable jewelry.

“And why does jewelry have to be romantic?” queries Raphael Cohen, president of Universal Watch Co., Framingham, Mass., which makes the “TeNo” line of stainless-steel jewelry for the United States. (Cohen’s partner company in Germany sells titanium jewelry overseas.) Jewelry made of stainless steel—another industrial metal—gets a lot of attention from consumers looking for non-mainstream fashions, says Cohen. His proof lies in the attention generated by his company’s ads in magazines such as Wired and Metropolis that feature steel jewelry.

If you want to sell pieces on sentimentality, tell shoppers about titanium’s inherent durability. “When you get married, you hope to wear that ring for a lifetime,” says Foerster.

And though many in the industry feel that jewelry is about style, not materials, some longtime jewelers believe the fine-jewelry business is only for precious metals. Wiggins and his wife, Janet, have been creating custom-made platinum pieces for more than 20 years and consider titanium a “gimmick.” Perhaps if you take products on memo the financial risk is less, he says, but Wiggins is strongly opposed to carrying the product: “Titanium is new, unproven [in popularity] among consumers, and manufacturers are selling it to try and start a trend,” he says. He isn’t alone: A number of jewelers who responded to JCK‘s panel shared similar thoughts.

Titanium jewelry certainly is news, according to Foerster. It’s exciting the whole industry—in-house and private label designers, sales staffs, retailers, and consumers. Titanium is refreshing—perhaps just the revitalization the industry needs right now, adds Rosenberg.

In fact, the aforementioned buzz is the reason Rosenberg founded the World Titanium Council. “It’s a forum for scientific and artistic minds,” he says. Titanium has clearly been embraced in other industries—golf, aerospace, automotive, and more. Now, he says, it’s jewelry’s turn.

More is better. Many suppliers of traditional precious metal jewelry are cautiously supportive of titanium jewelry. They’re waiting out initial consumer reactions, researching the metal’s properties, and waiting to see how current suppliers handle ring sizing—for example, will companies simply hand out new product in exchange for the old? (See “How Resizing Is Handled,” page 97)

“We saw quite a bit of titanium in Las Vegas and New York this year,” observes Isabella Fiske, vice president of marketing for Orange, N.J.-based Lieberfarb, another successful manufacturer of bridal jewelry. “For now, we’ll stick with the products we’ve been branding,” she says. Ditto for A. Jaffe/Sandberg & Sikorski Co., New York, a manufacturer that for now is sticking with its platinum and gold best sellers.

But another choice of metals is great for consumers—options make jewelry more interesting and keep prices competitive. Stainless steel, for example, is a relatively new addition to the white-metal-jewelry family, and many consumers are buying it for its low price and good looks. “Steel permits us to make some very affordable two-tone pieces,” says Sharon Williams, national sales director for Tous, Walnut Creek, Calif. Though many consumers can’t afford all-gold pieces in this economy, they do appreciate the fashions available in stainless and gold, she says.

Lorraine Garvey, vice president, Stahl Design, Lincoln, R.I., agrees that the masculine matte finish of stainless combined with gold is an elegant look. Though Stahl makes very little titanium jewelry for the U.S. market—the company focuses on stainless—Garvey knows the importance of steel and titanium for the industry: “These affordable designs permit bigger looks for mid-range jewelers to sell.”