ALTERNATIVE METAL RINGS - THE 9 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE BUYING ONE

In addition to traditional precious metal wedding bands – those made of gold, silver, platinum, and palladium – today’s alternative metals provide many more options to consider. At Alara, we pride ourselves in being both highly knowledgeable about and capable of providing the full spectrum of alternative metal wedding bands available.

Combinations of Materials Provide Nearly Infinite Possibilities for Wedding Bands

Do you generally like the “dark and stormy” look of tungsten, but wish there were a way to brighten it up? Combos to the rescue! While not every combination of precious metal and alternative material is possible, many are. An inlay of gold, for instance, can tie together the color and glow of a partner’s engagement ring with the partner’s choice of dark gray. 

 Each alternative metal has different properties, and none has the “most” of anything people seek, whether that’s resistance to scratching, chemical attack, breakage, or penetration of surface color; as well as overall weight, color, and ability to remove in an emergency. There is no “best” alternative metal…only choices.

Since we first opened, Alara Jewelry has Offered Alternative Metal Wedding Bands

Babs first became interested in alternative metals while studying engineering in college. So, when she first was introduced to wedding bands made of titanium over 26 years ago in 1994, she jumped in. She found there was so much resistance in the jewelry industry, that myths quickly popped up–and those myths were perpetuated by her fellow jewelers! Ever since, she has been open to new materials as they’ve come onto the market, and Alara has been a source of legitimate information on these materials as a result.

Metallurgy: The Science Side of Jewelry

Why should you learn a little about metallurgy before you pick the material for your wedding band? Because while people have learned how to manipulate, mix, and manufacture in various ways, one cannot escape the science of it. A person cannot make a material or metal “do” something it cannot do due to the constraints of chemistry and physics. Learn a bit here, and you won’t fall prey to misinformation thrown at you by well-meaning friends or unknowledgeable “jewelry professionals.”

So... What Alternative Metal Should My Wedding Ring Be?

Now’s the time to pick from the various attributes that people consider when choosing an alternative metal wedding band. 

#1: Price

All else being equal and available, a stainless steel wedding ring will be the least expensive among the alternative metal options; while tantalum would be the most expensive option. Unlike precious metals, alternative metals do not have a lot of intrinsic value due to the materials themselves. Rather, it is the expense involved in manipulating and finishing the metals – the totality of the manufacturing process – that affects the pricing. Additional options at the lower end of the price scale are titanium and tungsten, with cobalt chrome being a bit pricier.

#2: Scratchability

Prior to the advent of ceramic and tungsten rings coming onto the market, a “ring that doesn’t scratch” wasn’t even a possibility. But now, we find that certain customers are very attracted to this possible feature. Please bear in mind that generally speaking, a material that is less likely to be penetrated is also more brittle. So, there is by nature a trade-off between “no scratch” and “breakable” plus “susceptible to chemical attack.”

 If, however, having a ring that doesn’t scratch is your dream come true, know that the two materials that are most resistant to scratching are both ceramics. “Ceramic” in the jewelry world is actually titanium carbide; and “tungsten” in the jewelry world is actually shorthand for tungsten carbide. The nature of these materials is such that they are very “slick” if polished, and they are, indeed, all but impossible to scratch (unless you have some really crazy ideas about how a wedding ring should be tortured). 

Once either a ceramic or tungsten ring is scratched or attacked by chemicals, they physically cannot be refinished. As you continue reading, you will learn about how to care for your ceramic or tungsten ring, so you do not find yourself with a ruined ring, despite its relative lack of scratchability.

The alternative materials easiest to scratch are stainless steel and titanium. But the upside of that feature is that you, as the owner of the ring, are completely capable of re-applying a brush finish to either of these materials at home, using very fine grit (800 or higher) sandpaper! To get an idea of how “badly” these materials scratch, think about what a stainless steel sink looks like after a bit of use.

In the middle of the range for scratchability is cobalt chrome and zirconium. The additional tricky part with zirconium is that it is typically oxidized with a black, thin-layer finish…so once it IS scratched, you will be exposing the natural gray color of the metal underneath the black oxide outer layer. 

With the exception of ceramic and tungsten rings, the good news is most alternative metals, once scratched, can be refinished by their manufacturers…typically at little cost.

#3: Durability & Breakage

As mentioned in the previous section, there are two alternative wedding band materials that, while being “no-scratch,” they are also brittle. We refer to both ceramic and tungsten rings as being “breakaway” materials. Literally, if one applies pressure to opposite sides, rings of these materials will literally shatter. Hence, these are not ideal materials for someone who works with their hands and would subject a ring to simultaneous forces on opposite sides of their ring. Imagine a stone mason or tile layer: the hand wearing the ring being palm-up against a hard surface, and then another hard item landing on the palm-side of the ring would most likely break the ring into two or more pieces. 

For some people, the breakaway concept is desirable–because if the hand sustains an injury that causes finger swelling, a simple pair of vice grips, tightened down on opposite sides of the ring will immediately release the ring from the finger in multiple pieces.

For most people, durability has to do with the long-term wear of their ring. In terms of ability to resist bending, titanium is superior to all the other materials used for alternative wedding rings. It is the strongest metal by weight in the world, in fact. It is a myth that a titanium ring cannot be cut off, although it is admittedly not a quick process.

Stainless steel and cobalt chrome occupy the middle of the pack in terms of durability…but frankly, all the alternative metals on our list, with the exception of the two breakaway materials, are very durable in terms of not bending or breaking.

#4: Weight & Feel

People are quite varied in how they feel about a ring’s weight and smoothness. To some people. A denser material feels more luxurious, in that they are more similar to the weight of precious metal rings (i.e. gold, silver and platinum). Tantalum and tungsten are by far the densest of the alternative metals used in wedding rings.

For some people who have never worn a ring before, finding a material that is less dense is most desirable. Titanium and carbon fiber are the materials at that end of the density spectrum… and are described by many as being light as a feather!

#5: Skin Sensitivities

The most common metal to cause skin sensitivities and reactions is nickel. On the list of alternative metals used in wedding rings, the only metal listed that can contain nickel is stainless steel, which comes in literally hundreds of grades. Alara sells nickel-free stainless steel, so that you needn't have concerns about skin reactions.

In order to show the lovely array of colors that it does, Damascus steel contains multiple grades of steel, and often one of the grades used will contain nickel. If you know that you have a nickel sensitivity, it is recommended that you steer clear of Damascus steel for your wedding ring.

Aside from that, the alternative materials that Alara offers for wedding rings are not known to cause skin irritation.

#6: Color and Color Options

If you are interested in a black ring, there are only two alternative materials that are black through-and-through: ceramic and carbon fiber. The remaining materials that appear black on the outside are actually either oxidized or anodized to that color, which means the black is actually a very thin exterior layer which you definitely have the ability to remove through scratching.

The remaining alternative metals are in the white-to-dark-gray range. Tungsten is the darkest gray among them; cobalt chrome is the whitest among them (closest to how platinum and silver look); and tantalum, titanium, and stainless steel are in the midst.

Titanium can be anodized to almost any color in the spectrum–again, this is something that wears off through scratching. 

If you’re looking for a pop of bright color, you can consider having an inlaid line or interior that are Cerakoted (a patented clear ceramic material) with one of many available colors. Again, please note that this is not the native color of your metal, and it can certainly be affected or scratched off.

#7: Sizing

Stainless steel, Damascus steel, titanium, and cobalt chrome rings can often be ground out on the interior to make them slightly bigger. But, none of the alternative materials used for wedding rings can be sized in a traditional manner (like precious metal rings can). The way that sizing is handled by manufacturers is often through a “sizing warranty,” which allows you to trade in a ring which no longer fits–often after a specific period of time–for one which does. Be sure to know the details of your sizing warranty before ordering an alternative metal ring.

#8: Chemical Contamination

As touched upon previously, ceramic and tungsten rings are quite susceptible to chemical attack. While many metals have some sort of chemical “enemy,” those chemicals are typically so harsh or unusual, that a ring worn on a finger would not be subjected to them. But, ceramic and tungsten rings are known to become ruined by exposure to common household chemicals, grease, or hot springs (either in nature or man-made). This attack takes on the look of a dullness or smudgy-ness in the finish. This effect is completely irreversible, and is not covered by any kind of warranty. Basically, if you want a ring that doesn’t scratch, you must baby it in other ways.

#9: Style & Customization 

How able one is to truly customize an alternative metal wedding ring is part and parcel of the metal’s physical properties, which determine the methods of manufacture, manipulation, and finishing. 

Shape and Style

Tungsten and ceramic rings are manufactured using a process called sintering: a powdered form of the alloy mixture is put into a special metal mold in the exact size and style needed, and is heated to the point where the powder becomes solid. Finishing is done with diamond tools, and grinding into different shapes is not really possible. Because of that, an individual metal mold must exist for each style in each size. These molds are quite costly to produce, and therefore only make sense if many of the same size/style ring will be made in future. Therefore, the customization of tungsten and ceramic rings are not possible beyond inlaying a pre-made channel with a desired material.

Most of the remaining alternative metals used for wedding rings are milled–which means they are produced by cutting away from a solid tube or block of material. While technically many different shapes could be thusly created, there are usually limits to what a manufacturer will be willing to do. But, widths and thicknesses are readily changeable, as are various patterns being “engraved” (actually milled) into the exterior of the ring. 

Carbon fiber is the least-used alternative metal used for wedding bands, and it is generally not customized.

Diamond/Gemstone Accents

Diamonds and gemstones are only set into ceramic and tungsten rings when the metal mold is already set up to accommodate them. So, one is limited in diamond/gemstone arrangement and size when using one of those metals.

Small diamonds, sapphires, and rubies can be readily flush-set (level with the outside surface of the ring) into stainless steel, titanium, tantalum, and cobalt chrome.

Inlay Materials

The array of inlay materials that can be set into alternative metal wedding bands is vast…limits are imposed by individual manufacturers. In most cases, however, an inlay material can often be found that satisfies your druthers. There are well-known inlay materials such as turquoise, mother-of-pearl,  and lapis lazuli; lesser-known ones such as meteorite or lava rock; organically-based ones like antler; luxurious ones like precious metals; and ancient ones such as dinosaur bone…to name a few. So long as the base material is available to house the size of inlay you want, we can probably accommodate!

Engraving

Since the machinery used to manipulate alternative materials is so specialized, it is recommended that any interior (or exterior) engraving you desire is specified when you order your ring, as opposed to trying to have it done after the fact. Jewelers do not have the ability to engrave most alternative metals using engraving equipment reserved for precious metals.


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