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Antique and Vintage Jewellery Lecture:

Alloys and Metal Standards

A working goldsmith and various alloys used in jewellery

What exactly is an alloy, and what properties can you manipulate by creating different alloys? Which alloys are superior and which are inferior? What determines their value?

An alloy is a composite of various metals. In the context of jewellery, an alloy must contain a minimum percentage of gold, silver, or platinum.

Pure gold is known as 24-carat, denoted either as 999/1000 or 100% fine. A 14-carat alloy consists of 14 parts gold out of 24 (or 585/1000, which equates to 58.5%), with the remaining 10 parts made up of other metals. These additional metals influence various characteristics of the alloy, such as colour, hardness, flexibility, and elasticity. While it's self-evident why someone might wish to alter a property like colour, other, less obvious characteristics are equally important to specialists aiming to tailor an alloy's features.

For instance, if the gold alloy is intended for a spring that needs to maintain its tension over an extended period, it requires greater elasticity than a more flexible alloy that a goldsmith or silversmith might use for shaping.

Though 1 gram of 22-carat gold holds more value than 1 gram of a lesser alloy, a piece of jewellery made from 22-carat gold will be more susceptible to wear and tear due to the softness of gold.

The lack of universal alloy standards across countries is a historical outcome shaped by national laws, medieval guilds, and traditional practices. While it's evident that the intrinsic value of an alloy varies according to its gold content, it doesn't make sense to categorically label one alloy as better than another. The adage, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," seems fitting here.

Sterling silver, comprising 925/1000 parts pure silver, is neither inferior nor superior to French silver, which contains 950/1000 parts. Similarly, German silver (800/1000) and Danish silver (830/1000) are not necessarily better or worse. The value difference between these is negligible, even in large quantities. My opinion is that preferences for one type of silver over another are often more rooted in nationalism than in objective technical reasons.

Platinum is typically used in a high-quality standard, usually 950/1000.

Upcoming Topic: Combinations of Metals
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