Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The History of Adornment: Jewelry Metals and Gems

By Star Sosa
From the time that man began to clothe himself, humans have been adorning their bodies. The first jewelry was created from bone and shell. Colorful feathers were incorporated as well. Many early cultures used beads as currency. To some extent, precious metals and gemstones are still considered currency today. Medieval Alchemists spend years seeking the secret of turning lead into gold as a way to discovering the secrets of life.

Jewelry is a universal theme throughout all cultures. Every culture in every time has had some form of relationship to jewelry and adornment. To some it was purely functional such as wearing a brooch to close your cloak. In many cultures it was devotional such as the rosary or crucifix. In Africa, the women of some tribes would wear fabulous gold jewelry displaying all of their family’s wealth. Today it is often viewed as a statement, of status, of wealth, of personal commitment, or purely for fashion and display. As cultures became more sophisticated and began working with metals, jewelry was crafted from silver, gold, bronze, and other materials. The ancient jewelry maker typically used pure gold or silver, valued for their color, purity, and malleability.

Today we alloy gold and silver, adding other elements to enhance or modify their appearance and performance. 14k gold contains only about 50% gold and the balance is made up of other base metals such as nickel, iron, and copper. 18k is approximately 75% pure and 24k is considered pure. There are different colors of gold now available which are created by adding specific metals such as platinum or silver to make white gold, copper to make rose gold, and iron to give it a blue tinge.

Sterling Silver is 92.5% pure silver with a bit of copper added to increase its strength and durability. However this also makes it tarnish as the molecules of copper oxidize. New alloys have been developed that maintain the white color of pure silver, increasing its strength and harness while dramatically reducing its tendency to tarnish. “Argentium Silver” is created by adding the element Germanium to Silver. It makes a very white alloy, tarnish free and harder than Sterling. This alloy is becoming very popular and is likely to become as mainstream as Sterling.
When talking about today’s jewelry you must include platinum. It is extremely rare, much rarer than gold. In fact, according to “PreciousPlatinum.com”: if you were to pour all the world’s Platinum into an Olympic swimming pool it would only cover your ankles (The world’s gold would fill more than three swimming pools). Platinum is used in a very pure form, 95% pure versus the 75% for 18k as we discussed before. Another wonderful quality about Platinum is that it is vary pliable. In fact, one gram of Platinum can be drawn out to produce a fine wire over one mile long. Platinum has uses in industry as well, most notably catalytic converters and pacemakers.

Another metal you will be hearing more about is Palladium. Used in alloying white gold and in the electrical industry, Palladium is a metal in the Platinum family. It shares many of the characteristics of Platinum but is not as expensive. Today’s price for Platinum is $969/oz and the price for Palladium is $262. It’s also less dense, making the same item of jewelry dramatically less expensive in Palladium than in Platinum. So for the price conscious, it is a great alternative to Platinum while still getting a very rare and pure metal. It’s a superior alternative to white gold because of its fine white color and greater malleability for setting gemstones.

Let’s move on to gems:
We know that the ancient Egyptians included gemstones in their jewelry including Amethyst, Turquoise, and Lapis Lazuli. They also incorporated enamel or glass into many of their artworks. Subsequent cultures utilized gems in much of their jewelry, initially in their raw crystal form and eventually cut into cabochons and later the faceted and polished shapes we are more familiar with today.

Throughout human history, gems and crystals were thought to have mystical and metaphysical properties. For instance, Amethyst was believed to prevent intoxication when dropped in your glass of wine. Opals were thought to have magical qualities. They were also the favored gem for wedding jewelry in Victorian times. Pearls have long been considered symbols of harmony, purity, and wisdom. The Romans believed that Peridot would help dreams become a reality and that they would drive away the evil spirits of the night.

One thing I’d like you to come away with today is the knowledge that there are so many gem options out there. There is so much more to life than rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. It’s amazing the colors found in our natural world and now such an incredible variety is available for your consideration in jewelry.
Choices for red gemstones include gorgeous options like spinels and garnets. For pinks you can turn to sapphires and tourmalines. Purple gems include the ever popular Amethyst but also purple sapphire, and purple garnet. The varieties of green gemstones are widely varied including Tsavorite Garnet which is a bright grassy green, and vivid Peridot which is brighter more yellow-green. Tourmaline offers many shades of gorgeous green color. While in the blue family you have Iolite and Tanzanite.

What’s really fascinating is how varied many gemstone species really are. Did you know that sapphires come in every color of the rainbow except red? When a sapphire is red, it’s a ruby! Also, you may not know that garnets come in multiple colors ranging from deep red, wine red, purple, orange and bright green.

In contemporary America, our relationship with jewelry is both very simple and very complex. To many people the only item of jewelry they will ever own or wear is their wedding ring. To others, it is a vital necessity, collecting colored gems and jewelry as accessories to every occasion and fashion ensemble. Watch MTV and note the huge, diamond- encrusted pendants worn by rappers and hip-hop artists. It’s clear to see that they view jewelry as a statement, loud and clear, of their success.

Today jewelry is also complicated some by political and ethical issues: conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone, the exploitation of gem miners in Columbia and Tanzania, the ecological effects of mining metals and gems or harvesting natural wonders such as coral, shell and pearls. The high intrinsic value of precious metals and gems has been subject for conquests of entire cultures. The Americas were “discovered” when Europeans went exploring, seeking gold, spices, and gems. The existing cultures of these continents were soon overwhelmed by the world’s desire for their precious resources.
Once you acquire these rare and precious materials, then comes the challenge of creating something wonderful from it. Crafting jewelry requires not only an artistic eye but also knowledge of metallurgy, engineering, geometry, and physiology. You have to know what the capabilities of the materials are, how to properly balance a design and how to make it comfortably wearable. Not to mention, the possibility of working to meet a limited budget.

Here at Spectrum Art & Jewelry, we can work with your materials or find them for you. We design the project with you starting with an interview to determine your style preferences and your lifestyle, as it pertains to wearability and durability. Then we hand craft the item, making your jewelry fantasy a reality!

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