The precious metals of fine jewelry and watches are distinct from each other in everything from color to worth. While some have been treasured for centuries, others are newly appreciated in modern jewelry and watchmaking.
Gold is a soft, yellow metallic element that has been treasured for centuries. The purity of gold is measured in "karats," with 24 karats being 100% gold. Since 24k gold is too soft for jewelry making, it is alloyed (mixed) with other metals--typically silver, copper and nickel. For example, 18k gold is 75% gold, 25% other metals, while 14k gold is 58.3% gold, 41.7% other metals. 10k gold is the U.S. minimum karatage to be called gold, as it is 41.7% gold, 58.3% other metals. The higher the gold content, the more resistant to tarnishing a piece is, while its durability is affected conversely. You can find the karatage of a piece of gold jewelry by looking for the stamp (or "hallmark") on the inside edge.
Producing anything from "rose gold" to "green gold," the color of gold can be changed during the alloy process or by electroplating. All of these factors make it clear why gold is a classic choice for fine jewelry of all kinds.
Silver is a soft, white metallic element. Similar to pure gold, silver is typically mixed with copper to create "sterling silver," which is much more usable and durable for jewelry making. Of all the precious metals, sterling silver is the most affordable, making it perfect for fashion jewelry.
However, sterling silver can last a lifetime and beyond by following simple steps to prevent tarnishing and deep scratches. If your piece does become damaged, its original beauty can usually be restored through professional cleaning and polishing. Typically jewelry will be stamped "sterling" on an inside edge and may indicate purity as well.
Platinum is a dense, white metallic element, weighing 60% more than karat gold. In the United States, platinum jewelry is either 90% or 95% pure, making platinum a hypoallergenic metal. Unlike silver and gold, platinum is naturally strong and durable, making it an excellent choice for well-worn jewelry pieces.
Diamonds and other gemstones that rank high on the Mohs scale are particularly well suited for a platinum setting. Since platinum prongs show signficantly less wear than gold and silver, your stones will be more secure. Similar to gold and sterling silver, platinum will be stamped on the inside edge, usually indicating what percentage it is as well.
The newest of the white metals (though it is naturally gray), titanium is lighter, stronger, and more resistant to corrosion than steel. Due to its natural abundance, it is not technically considered a precious metal. Since extracting titanium is a very time consuming process, its cost can rival that of silver.
However, titanium is well worth the trouble. Since it can be used in its natural form without being alloyed, titanium is hypoallergenic, making it an excellent choice for people with metal allergies. This metal can also easily be colored to any hue, carved, engraved, and polished to a beautiful satin finish.
Stainless steel is an alloy of the elements iron and carbon (which make steel) and chromium. The addition of chromium to steel makes it highly resistant to rusting, discoloration, scratching and corrosion. Because of these qualities, stainless steel is a great choice for watchmaking and heavy-use jewelry.
Like titanium, stainless steel is not technically a precious metal, but it is a good alternative for people who have allergic reactions to silver and gold. Though it is heavier than titanium and less lustrous than silver or gold, stainless steel makes up for these shortcommings in affordability and durability. With plating, stainless steel's luster and color can be changed to suit your tastes. Most yellow metal watches are actually at their base stainless steel and then gold plated or gold tone. To check if a piece is stainless steel, look for a stamp on the inside edge, caseback or watch bracelet that says "stainless steel" or "stainless."
Cobalt chrome is an alloy of the elements cobalt and chromium (along with a few other metals). Out of the alternative metals used for wedding bands, cobalt chrome bears the closest resemblence to white gold. This alloy is also extremely durable and will resist scratching even under extreme wear, but it is not "scratch-proof." Like the other alternative metals, cobalt chrome is a good choice for people who need a hypoallergenic ring. However, some alloys of cobalt chrome include nickel, so make sure the one you choose does not contain nickel if you have an allergy.
One of the main advantages cobalt chrome has over the other alternative metals is that it can be resized.
Tungsten carbide is an alloy of the elements tungsten and carbon. If you're looking for jewelry that will stand up to extreme wear and tear, tungsten carbide is the metal for you. Out of all the metals, this alloy is the closest to scratchproof you can get. Offering a darker gray color, tungsten carbide is often chosen for its unique appearance. It can be finished with a high shine or a brushed satin look, as well as carved and inlayed with stones.
Like titanium, tungsten carbide is so tough that it cannot be resized. However, it is another hypoallergenic metal, providing people with a metal allergy another great option.