What is an alloy, and which alloy is better?

An alloy is a mixture of different metals, which for jewellery has to contain a minimum amount of gold or silver.

Fine or pure gold is 24 Karat

14 Karat gold would therefore have 14 of the 24 parts being gold (the minimum for 14K) and the remaining 10/24 other metals used to control the characteristics of the alloy such as colour, hardness, flexibility, elasticity etc. It can be obvious why someone would want to influence a characteristic like colour. But there are other characteristics that are less obvious but important nevertheless for the specialist who wants to influence the characteristic of an alloy.

If the gold is to be used to create a spring, which will have to stay sprung over a long time. Naturally such an alloy has to be more elastic than the flexible alloy in which a gold or silversmith has to press a shape.

Although 22K is worth more than lesser alloys, it will wear down easier than lower ones (gold being the soft metal that it is).

That in these days different countries do not have one standard alloy finds its origin in old national laws (which goes back to the Middle Ages) and old habits. One cannot say one alloy is explicitly better than the other. Of course there is a difference in intrinsic value, simply because there is more gold in one alloy than the other. But to call one better than the other does not make much sense. One could say ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’.

Sterling silver which has 925/1000 parts pure silver in its alloy, is no worse than French silver which has 950/1000 parts silver. Neither of these is better than German silver which has 800/1000 or Danish silver which has 830/1000. The difference in value too is minimal even in larger quantities like kilograms. I believe you will find that many people who prefer a certain type of silver over another have chauvinistic reasons rather than real technical arguments for this.

The Use Of Combination Of Metals
The use of the different metals together is not arbitrary or at least not originally. About 200 to 300 years ago it was common for diamonds to be set in silver. Jewellers of that time believed that only a silver mounting could secure the true beauty of a precious stone. The backs of these jewels were for the most part gold. The silver on gold technique where the back of the silver jewel was covered by a very thin layer of gold was developed as a precaution taken because jewellers of the time knew that silver jewellery could leave black stains on clothing or skin. There are some very beautiful examples of this sort of jewellery.

Because the craftsman had gotten used to using two layers of metal in different colours, they continued to do this at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century. Only by then they were no longer using silver but platinum. Platinum a precious metal as expensive as gold, does not leave black stains. So the use of gold with it was for aestetic rather than practical reasons. The use of these two metals can still be found in jewellery from the 1940’s.

An interesting aside – platinum has not always been considered to be a precious metal. Moreover in Russia in the beginning of the 1800´s countereiters used platinum as the core for their ‘golden Roubles’. This because of platinum’s high gravity. When around 1870, platinum started to be recognised as a precious metal the price of it rose accordingly, many Roubles were then cut in half in the hope of finding platinum inside.

Laws and Regulations
Around 1800 Napoleon abolished the guilds and left the regulations of gold and silverware to the legislator.

The guilds guaranteed the integrity of the concerned trades. They appointed assay masters that had to control the objects made of precious metals to see if it was of the right alloy. Actually what they did was not so bad. The legislator later adopted most of the rules in his laws so that we still work according to the same principles.

The conditions that an object made out of precious metal must comply depends from the country where it is made, where it was made for, or where it is located. To make a long story short, “it needs a stamp”. However finding a mark in a piece does not always give you a guarantee that the object is really is what the mark claims it is. If I would strike a mark in a piece of iron claiming it to be gold, not many people would believe it. But if I would do the same in a piece of bronze it would be a lot more difficult for most people to refute this. From this we learn that just a mark will not do. Marks have to comply with certain rules. These rules are different from country to country as well as from period to period.

There are many hallmarks you could find on an object. Some 19 different sorts in all. The chance of finding them all together in one place is small. Normally there will be between 2 and 4 marks on any one piece.. These marks could give you information about:

The year the piece was made

The alloy

The time period the piece was made

The maker

The seller

The assay master

The designer

The country where the piece was made

The province or state where the piece was made

The city where the piece was made

The city where the piece was hallmarked

The weight

The tax or duty that might might have been paid for it

The importer of the piece to a certain country

The import into a country

The import into a city

The export from a country

The jubilee year in which the piece was made

The reigning monarch.

It is also possible that apart from these bits of information per hallmarks there can be marks with more than one type of information.

Take for instance the double function of a French hallmark, the eagle head. First of all this shows the alloy of the piece 750/10000, but the way it is struck into the piece and the location of the mark, as well as the amount of marks struck can give the expert an indication of its weight.

Another example of a so-called double function can be found in Holland in the 1700´s, in Groningen (northern part of Holland) it was common for silverware to strike the makers mark and the city mark doubled in a cross to show the alloy of the piece.

An explanation of the British hallmark system is dealt with separately.

Design, Fashion, Commissions, Users
Over the years it was royalty who commissioned and set trends for the different fashions. Obediently followed by the nobility and bourgeoisie.

The church too was a very important commissoner, although more for silver than for goldsmiths, in the second half of the 1900´s the fading of the system of the rich commissioners becomes one of the foremost reasons for the loss of the “haute joualiene”.

Many of the big names like Cartier, Boucheron, Tiffany and Van Cleef & Arpets nowadays still boast of the fame they had in the first half of the 1900´s as “haute joualiene”.

However they rarely come up with spectacular jewellery as in the days of old. Fine jewellery is now more a case of setting large quantities of diamonds in a piece rather than subtle and exquisite design. The Council of Rome (at around 1960), were responsible for the loss of the art of silversmiths The church was after all, one of the biggest commissioners for the silversmiths and from one day to the other it was decided that the service could do with less frills.