Elemental Beauty

New metals, exotic gems and a bit of science create captivating jewelry

Beauty can instantly entice, even enthrall. But beauty steeped in strength endures forever.

In the world of fine jewelry, diamonds have long set the standard for desirability and durability, making the gemstones treasured the world over.

Now, new techniques for crafting previously unworkable metals are beginning to broaden the beauty standard. Their availability is accompanied by fairly recent discoveries of two rare stones of breathtaking intensity.

“Hard to work” and “hard to obtain” amount to new jewelry options that are proving hard to resist. For their owners, they are creating one-of-a-kind opportunities to possess truly distinctive pieces.

Only in the last few years have extremely durable metals such as titanium been introduced into the jewelry market. Aircraft-grade titanium was first developed by the aerospace industry, but its light weight, high strength and scratch resistance make it ideal for jewelry. A unique characteristic is that titanium, either by heat or chemical interaction, can be transformed from its metallic silver appearance into bright colors such as blue, purple and black.

Cartier employs titanium in its highest-end watches, including the Rotonde de Cartier, with pricing in the six figures. Watchmaker Bell & Ross also touts its titanium tourbillon timepiece, which retails for US$170,000.

Zirconium shares similar characteristics, as Moti Ferder, president and design director of Lugano Diamonds, discovered. Lugano in 2012 began offering wide zirconium cuffs and other unique pieces in the black metal.

The breakthrough was inspired partly by creative instinct, partly by market conditions. By late 2011, an ounce of gold had skyrocketed to US$1,814, making it difficult to acquire in sufficient quantity for the large pieces Lugano often crafts.

The timing seemed perfect to introduce a new metal with high visual impact.

“Zirconium is a very hard metal, and very difficult to work with,” Ferder explains. “The metal is not as expensive as gold, but the labor is more expensive. The advantage is there are not a lot of metals that are black that don’t scratch easily and don’t lose their color over time. It’s a great metal for rings and watches, which take a lot of abuse from wear.”

The crafting process involved lengthy trial and error. To achieve the desired results, his team designed and created special tools for working with the zirconium.

One of the more compelling pieces is a zirconium, pearl and white diamond cuff priced at US$56,000.

“We are seeing strong demand, and because every piece is so different, we’ve discovered many layers in zirconium design,” Ferder says. “It solved a lot of issues and gave a spectacular result.”

“Hard to work” and “hard to obtain” amount to new jewelry options that are proving hard to resist. For their owners, they are creating one-of-a-kind opportunities to possess truly distinctive pieces.

Now Invent

Image Courtesy Of Cartier

For American Elements, what started as a bit of a novelty has developed into a line of jewelry and a whole new business philosophy.

The Los Angeles-based firm is one of the world’s largest metals and chemicals companies devoted exclusively to advanced materials science. Customers include NASA, General Electric, Samsung and Los Alamos National Laboratory—relationships that require American Elements to work on a range of scientific and highly technological applications.

One little satellite ring opened a new avenue of opportunity. A project engineer working on a new satellite in 2008 admired the solidness of the pure iridium rings, which American Elements manufactures for use as sealing rings.

Iridium is the most corrosion-resistant metal known and is the second most dense. It’s one of six metals in the platinum family. Those six—platinum, ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium and iridium—along with gold and silver, are the eight elements considered precious metals.

The engineer began wearing one of the seals as a ring. Iridium’s high density gives it a feeling of substance, and its luster is richer than gold or platinum. Both attributes heighten iridium’s sense of value.

Michael Silver, the founder and CEO of American Elements, noticed the ring and agreed it made interesting jewelry. The first rings were introduced for sale in 2009. Customers include Eagles front man Don Henley and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk.

“A lot of our requests come from elemental enthusiasts and people who appreciate rare materials,” says Krista Adams, the company’s first director of jewelry research and development.

The iridium rings have served as inspiration. As CEO, Silver encourages employees to “use the periodic table as your playground.” With the adaptation of a sealing ring as jewelry, the company slogan became “Now invent.”

The company has moved from pure science to expand into designing watchbands, earrings, necklaces and custom pendants and charms. American Elements has patented the process for iridium rings, but expanding the jewelry offerings comes with some challenges. Iridium has an incredibly high melting temperature—4,435 degrees Fahrenheit—compared to gold’s melting point of 1,945 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Most jewelers don’t have the equipment or the experience to work with such a high melting temperature,” Adams says. “As materials scientists, that’s something we have the specialized equipment and expertise to work with.”

Some adaptations had to happen to make iridium viable for watchbands. Pure iridium becomes too brittle to provide sufficient flexibility needed for a watchband, so American Elements is adding alloys. The final product should have strength and a deep luster with a greater tolerance for movement.

Deep Blue Beauties

Another newer trend in high-end jewelry is due largely to one man’s determination, which ultimately yielded a rare gemstone, the Paraiba tourmaline, which radiates with a color intensity almost beyond belief.

A rare combination of copper and manganese gives a cut Paraiba tourmaline a shimmering, vivid ocean-blue color.

For years, Heitor Dimas Barbosa and a team of assistants dug in the pegmatite hills in the Federal Brazilian state of Paraiba, according to the International Colored Gemstone Association. Barbosa was convinced he would discover a unique gemstone.

His team found the first crystals in 1989, but the mine was quickly depleted. No new Paraiba mines have been found.

Because of their finite supply, prices for a single carat have climbed well above five figures. Jewelers from Cartier to Harry Winston and Tiffany have featured pieces with the Paraiba tourmaline, as has Lugano.

“Most people, even very sophisticated jewelry collectors, haven’t heard about it,” Ferder says. “Even though 99 out of a 100 people don’t know what it is, everyone who sees it asks what it is. They have to know. The fact that the stone glows is mesmerizing.”

Another equally captivating stone is tanzanite. Found only in Africa’s Tanzania, the stone is more rare than diamonds.

Swiss jeweler Van Der Bauwede featured a ring with a 12.95-carat deep royal tanzanite surrounded by 2.4 carats of white diamonds in last year’s Twilight collection.

The gemstone was discovered in 1969, and was first offered to Tiffany, according to the Gemstone Association. The jeweler suggested the name tanzanite, rather than its gemological name “blue zoisite.”

Part of its appeal is that the stone is trichroic, meaning the gems display three layers of color. Gray, purple and a deep royal blue are most common, with the deep royal blue the most coveted. The stone is also highly prized, according to the association, because “possessing something not everyone has has always been one of the main criteria in the way we esteem special gems.”



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