The New Platinum: A Story of Alloys
A new kind of platinum is making its way into the marketplace. What’s wrong with the old platinum? you may ask. A better question is, What’s wrong with the new?
Platinum is rarer than silver or gold. But unalloyed platinum is soft. It has a high melting point, which makes it difficult to fabricate into jewelry. It’s dense and it’s expensive. So what’s the big attraction of platinum jewelry?
The answer is in the alloys.
With the addition of certain alloys, platinum becomes one of the hardest metals known. It is more durable than silver or gold. This hardness makes platinum ideal for jewelry with diamonds and other gems because it provides the most secure material for setting gems.
Traditionally, jewelry manufacturers have used alloys from the “platinum group” of metals, primarily iridium, ruthenium and palladium. These metals have been so intrinsically part of platinum jewelry that they are covered in the Federal Trade Commission guidelines.
Guidelines for platinum jewelry, set by the Federal Trade Commission on April 8, 1997, say that only items consisting of 950 parts or more per thousand of pure platinum can be marked “platinum” without the use of any qualifying statements.
Jewelry with fewer than 500 parts per thousand (ppt) of platinum cannot carry the word “platinum” at all.
Jewelry with a composition that falls between 500 and 950 ppt of platinum must be marked with the ppt of platinum plus the ppt of the particular alloy from the platinum group metals, for example: “600 Plat.400irid.”
Now along come some new alloys on the block, and they’re not from the “platinum group” metals. The jewelry made with these alloys, usually copper and cobalt, is only 585 ppt of platinum—well below the 950 ppt that can be marked “platinum.” This “585 platinum” does not contain the platinum-group alloys and is not covered by the FTC Guides.
1. New alloys = less platinum = lower costs for the manufacturer.
Manufacturing cost is no small concern. The price of platinum has risen sharply over the last few years, and is likely to continue its upward move.
(You can check the prices of gold, silver and platinum yourself here.)
While the soaring price seems not to have slowed down sales of fine-quality jewelry, it does affect mass market retailers (Zales, Wal-Mart, Costco, etc.), which account for the vast majority of U.S. jewelry sales. Platinum jewelry is popular, and manufacturers are scrambling to find lower-cost ways to meet the demand.
Creating substitutes is not new. When platinum was unavailable during World War II, palladium was used to make white jewelry. It was harder to work with and had a more grayish look but was fairly durable. More recently, Japan has experimented with alloying platinum with gold. This lowered the price, but the jewelry was not durable and had an unappealing yellow cast.
2. Less platinum = less durability.
This “585 platinum” cuts the manufacturing price almost in half. The problem is that jewelry containing a low percentage of platinum (or platinum-group metals) is less durable. The very quality that makes platinum uniquely suited for fine jewelry, its reliability for holding gems, is sacrificed. The new alloys produce a more brittle platinum, more susceptible to damage.
3. All platinum is not the same.
Before now, the consumer has never needed to be concerned about the purity of platinum because the use of platinum group metals as alloys insured a standard quality. Now alloy is an important issue.
The new, lower quality, platinum looks the same as the higher quality. Unlike gold, where color changes occur depending on the alloys used (producing white gold, for example), platinum jewelry looks much the same regardless of alloys used. A knowledgable jeweler would recognize the “585 platinum” by its lighter weight, since it contains so much less of the very dense platinum, but the average customer would be unaware of this difference.
At this time, platinum quality marking is not regulated. The U.S. metal stamping act, which governs the purity marking of gold and silver items, does not cover platinum (though the international stamping act does).
The FTC Guides do not mention the new platinum alloys. Since it’s likely that jewelry made of the new alloys will become widespread, many dealers in fine jewelry are working to update the FTC Guides. These guidelines do not have the force of law, though violators could be accused of unfair trade practices.
All of this raises the old issue of DISCLOSURE. Consumers equate platinum with highest quality. Even if a manufacturer does mark platinum and alloy content, most consumers will not recognize the significance of particular alloys or of the ppt markings.
True DISCLOSURE means:
- the jewelry should bear a purity mark giving platinum and alloy content; and
- the consumer should be told the affect of the alloys used — in particular, that diluted platinum does not hold set stones as well and is more susceptible to damage
FOR AGENTS & UNDERWRITERS
Jewelry containing at least 950 parts per thousand (ppt) platinum can be marked “platinum.” Jewelry of more than 500 ppt platinum alloyed with a platinum-group metal can be marked according to its content, such as “600 Plat.350irid.”
Jewelry sold as platinum but bearing no mark as to content is likely to be of a low platinum content.
Jewelry with a low platinum content is more susceptible to damage and there is greater risk of losing stones.
An appraisal stating only that the jewelry is platinum is not sufficient. The appraisal should list the purity mark found on the jewelry (or state that there is no purity mark).
Examine the appraisal for a record of the jewelry’s purity. Be sure the settlement reflects the quality of the original jewelry. All platinum is not the same!
For a damage claim, check the jewelry for the stamp, which carries both the manufacturer’s trademark and the purity of the metal. Reading the markings usually requires magnification. Manufacturer and purity information make it much easier to determine like kind and quality (LKQ), facilitating a fair replacement or cash settlement.
The Gemological Institute of America is in the midst of a scandal over some of its Diamond Reports. Four employees were let go after being accused of accepting bribes in return for higher gem grades. Some lawsuits are still pending over questionable grading, as GIA continues its own investigations.
GIA has the most highly regarded independent diamond grading labs and the organization is eager to maintain consumer confidence. GIA has offered to recertify any diamonds for the next six months, at no charge, as long as the original certificate was from GIA and the diamond is loose (not in a setting).
Look for more details in future issues of JII as the situation develops.
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