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A future full of alternate metals and lighter designs

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Jewelry industry analysts agree that precious metal prices have skyrocketed, but they're torn about whether the use of gold and platinum in designs might crash and cause escalation of substitute metals.

Mike Riess, principal with Greenwich, Conn.-based metals consultancy Materials Management Co., said surrogate materials are already hitting the market where gold and platinum once reigned. "What you see is a lot of new alloys coming onto the market," he said. "That will reduce the platinum and gold content and emphasize less-expensive items like palladium and silver."

Riess said he's seeing not only precious metals substitution, but also an emphasis on alternate metals. "Stainless steel is popular and tungsten carbide is popular because it's heavy and has a nice color, more of a gray," he said. "You can spruce up the appearance of some metals by alloying them with other metals and they'll change color. I think as long as prices stay where they are the jewelry industry is going to be on the defensive. There will be substitutions."

Lauren Thompson, public affairs coordinator at the Jewelry Information Center in New York, said she's heard less about metals substitution than she has about designer ingenuity. "They are creating more lightweight pieces that are airy and not as solid," she said. "Gold is still popular even though the price is going up. Because it's in the news so much, consumers are almost drawn to gold a little more because the value keeps getting reinforced."

However, Thompson said that jewelry buying events held in early summer featured pieces made with precious metals when they were less expensive. Going forward, she said, things could change. "Up until now they've been using what they had in inventory," she said. "We definitely saw at the shows this year the industry is trying to work with the rising prices. They've even cut costs by sending fewer people to shows."

Tina Wojtkielo Snyder, editor in chief of MJSA Journal, a publication of Providence, R.I.-based Manufacturing Jewelers and Suppliers of America, said that she also is hearing about more airy designs since precious metal prices are in the stratosphere. "We're seeing more manufacturers moving to lighter-weight designs in precious metals such as platinum and gold," she said. "These looks are lighter designs that are hollow or with filigree or open work."

Stainless and titanium are already popular options, especially in the men's jewelry market, Snyder said, and they could become more prevalent. "We're seeing a lot of men's bands in titanium and stainless. Men's jewelry is a niche market that is growing, so we're seeing a lot of designers catching on and using these metals in more contemporary looking designs."

While stainless, titanium and other non-traditional metals are gaining ground, so are non-metals. "Designers are combining more non-traditional materials, such as exotic woods, with gold or palladium," Snyder said. "People are definitely innovating. On one hand, they're differentiating themselves in the marketplace and offering something totally different; on the other hand, they are looking for alternatives in response to high precious metal prices."

Jeffrey M. Christian, managing director of New York-based metals consultancy CPM Group, said he hasn't seen many substitutions yet. "We did see that back in '80 and '81," he said. "I remember going to a gallery and looking at titanium jewelry for the first time then."

However, substitution away from gold and platinum to silver and palladium is occurring, Christian said, although he noted that in palladium's case it's not entirely price-inspired. Palladium producers and a trade group recently began a marketing campaign to promote that material.

"One of the things we've seen is that there's been an increase in silver use in jewelry," he said. "It happened in the '80s and we're seeing it again."


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