It's durable, it's inexpensive, and it looks great with basic black. What's not to love?
What, exactly, is sterling silver? Sterling silver consists of 92.5 percent pure silver alloyed with 7.5 percent of other metals, usually copper, which makes it harder and more durable. (An alloy is a fusion of two or more elements, at least one of which is a metal.) If the silver hails from another country, the country of origin along with the silver's purity may appear on the jewelry.
What other markings should I look for? Pieces made of sterling silver should be stamped "925" (for 925 parts pure silver per 1,000) and also with the name or registered trademark of the manufacturer.
What other types of silver are there? Designers don't usually work in pure silver, since it's quite soft. (A ring made of it would be damaged by the slightest bump.) If you don't fancy sterling, silver-plated jewelry is a fine alternative. In the plating process, a layer of silver is bonded to a base metal, such as nickel or copper. The price of silver-plated pieces usually depends on the thickness of the silver. Thicker, more expensive layers generally last longer, while cheaper coatings can wear off.
Silver is inexpensive, right? So why are some pieces extremely pricey? Basic machine-made pieces can cost as little as your lunch. If a piece has a higher price tag than you would expect, you're probably paying for the design (details such as gemstones and workmanship) rather than for just the metal itself. For a hand-crafted piece in gold at the same price, "you'd get something that is maybe one-tenth the size" and not as beautifully crafted, says Scott Kay, a jewelry designer in Teaneck, New Jersey. Because silver is a precious metal that's malleable, resistant to corrosion, and inexpensive, "it's the perfect playground for designers," says Kay.
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Ancient. Skin-flattering. Versatile. It's tough to beat the gold standard.
What is the difference between 14-karat, 18-karat, and 24-karat gold? Twenty-four-karat gold is pure gold; 18-karat is 75 percent gold (alloyed with a base metal, such as nickel or copper); and 14 karat is 58.5 percent gold. Generally, the higher the karat, the softer the metal, but the durability can also depend on the type of metal the gold is alloyed with. Rings made of 14-karat gold better withstand wear and tear.
What is the origin of karat? The word derives from the "carob" seeds merchants used in ancient times to balance scales in markets throughout the Middle East.
What markings should I look for? By law, each gold piece stamped with its karat content must also include the registered hallmark of the manufacturer. (Country of origin may appear but isn't required.) In the United States, anything less than 10 karats can't be sold as gold.
What is white gold? White gold doesn't occur in nature; it's gold that has been alloyed with lighter-colored metals and often plated with rhodium, a metal in the platinum family, to appear whiter. "The rhodium plating on white gold is like the wax on your car that makes the color shiny and pretty," says Duvall O'Steen, a spokesperson for the World Gold Council. Just as your car needs regular waxing, white gold may need replating to maintain its pale luster. Gold can also be mixed with other metals to make rose (pink) and even green gold.
What do the terms gold vermeil and gold filled mean? Gold vermeil is sterling silver coated with gold. Gold filled describes a base metal, such as nickel, bonded with a thin layer of gold. They are easy on the budget, but the gold will wear off with time.
Is polishing good for gold? Not if it's done with a chemical cleaner. Gold is a soft metal, so it shows scratches. And too much cleaning can strip away thin layers. Instead, keep your rings shiny by leaving them on when you wash dishes, or gently clean them with soapy water and a soft cloth.
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It's nearly indestructible, so it will last a lifetime.
Why is platinum so expensive? Platinum is 30 times rarer than gold, and its high price reflects its scarcity. "If all the gold that was ever mined filled three Olympic-size swimming pools," says Antonia Caamano, a spokesperson for the Platinum Guild International, "all the platinum ever mined would fill an Olympic-size pool only up to your ankles."
What's so special about platinum? Platinum is the Superman of metals. It's durable, it won't oxidize (react with oxygen―that is, rust), and it's hypoallergenic (won't cause skin reactions). Unlike gold, platinum, when scratched, won't lose any metal. Also, the white tone of a platinum setting lets light-colored gems, like diamonds, truly sparkle.
What stamps should appear on a platinum piece? The markings on platinum jewelry indicate its purity. If the piece is marked "Platinum," "Pt 900," "Pt 950," or "Plat," then it's 90 to 95 percent pure platinum. (The remaining 5 to 10 percent is typically cobalt or a metal from the platinum group―iridium, osmium, palladium, rhodium, and ruthenium―five elements closely related to platinum on the periodic table.) Markings on a piece indicate its percentage of platinum. A piece that is 85 percent pure, for example, will read "850 Plat" or "850 Pt," explains Caamano. If less than 85 percent platinum, the mark will indicate the proportion of platinum and other metals, such as iridium―for example, "600 Plat. 350 Irid." If the piece is made of less than 50 percent pure platinum, it can't be marked as platinum.
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Jewelry makers are taking a shine to these nontraditional metals. (These materials don't all have standard markings.)
Palladium Like the look of white metals? This may be your new love. It's half the weight of platinum, more than 12 times harder, and paler in color but just as shiny. Palladium is also much cheaper than platinum.
Stainless steel Hypoallergenic and durable, with a satin finish, stainless steel is expanding beyond the kitchen and into the jewelry box.
Titanium Feather-light, this silver gray metal has the strength of steel, and it's hypoallergenic and corrosion-resistant. Like stainless steel, titanium costs less than some white metals but more than silver.