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Precious Metals: Rare Resilience
Regularly used in jewelry-craft, gold, silver, and platinum are considered precious metals for more than simple rarity. Read on to learn what defines them—and what contributes to their value.
If you’re planning to travel back to the mid-1800s—and you want to wow the rich and powerful of the day—you might want to pack a few rolls of aluminum foil. Though it’s now used to wrap sandwiches and protect our thoughts from eavesdroppers, aluminum was once highly valued and difficult to extract. When chemists finally figured out how to isolate it, the public was so entranced by its sheen that aluminum tableware and jewelry quickly became status symbols.
It was, in short, a precious metal—until a better extraction process was developed, drastically increasing its supply and reducing its value. Rarity is key to the definition of a precious metal. Today, gold and silver remain rare enough that their ancient status as tools of investment and trade still stands. In more recent centuries, they’ve been joined by platinum and palladium, along with several other metals often found deposited with them.
The Noblest of All
Of course, even an extremely rare metal is of little economic use if it’s hard to store. (Francium, for instance, can be found in miniscule amounts in uranium ore but has a half-life of just 22 minutes.) The metals we call precious tend to be both very malleable and very resilient, resisting corrosion so well that they’re also dubbed noble. Those qualities often make them good for currency and jewelry alike. Here’s a look at the precious metals you’re most likely to find in a jeweler’s case.
- Gold: Though it might seem glamorous, a pure gold ring or bracelet isn’t always the way to go. Pure—or 24-karat—gold is quite soft and malleable, so jewelers frequently mix it with harder metals to form a more durable alloy. If an item is 14-karat gold, for instance, it contains 14 parts gold to 10 parts alloy metal.
- Silver: The designation sterling means a piece contains at least 92.5% pure silver. At the other end of the purity spectrum, silver plate is built from a base-metal core with a layer of silver bonded to the outside. Though silver is even softer than gold, because it is less expensive it often matters less if a piece shows wear over time.
- Platinum: The priciest and rarest of these three metals, platinum is also the heaviest and most scratch-resistant. It’s beloved for its ultra-bright color. Platinum will acquire a slight, distinguished patina over time, but buffing will easily return it to a like-new state if desired.
The Fine Print
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