Palladium Q&As

Its no secret that palladium has captured the attention of the industry. In 2005, purchase of palladium for jewelry use worldwide shot up by 54 percent, according to Johnson Mattheys Platinum 2006, and this past year has seen a proliferation of articles and seminars about the platinum group metal -- specifically 950 palladium -- as well as the formation of a new industry group, Palladium Alliance International. Yet with all of that interest has also come questions -- about how best to work with the metal, how to market and sell it, and what to expect in the future: Is palladium really here to stay? To offer insights into those issues, MJSA invited several industry experts to share their thoughts on what manufacturers can expect when working with palladium.

15 Minute Read

By Tina Wojtkielo SnyderMore from this author

This article page is a collection of palladium questions and answer as compiled after the appearance of palladium in the jewelry industry.

Editor's Note: It's no secret that palladium has captured the attention of the industry. In 2005, purchase of palladium for jewelry use worldwide shot up by 54 percent, according to Johnson Matthey's Platinum 2006, and this past year has seen a proliferation of articles and seminars about the platinum group metal - specifically 950 palladium - as well as the formation of a new industry group, Palladium Alliance International.

Yet with all of that interest has also come questions - about how best to work with the metal, how to market and sell it, and what to expect in the future: Is palladium really here to stay? To offer insights into those issues, MJSA invited several industry experts to share their thoughts on what manufacturers can expect when working with palladium: Daniel Ballard of Los Angeles-based Precious Metals West/Fine Gold; Larry Fell of David H. Fell & Co. in Los Angeles; Teresa Fryé of TechForm in Portland, Oregon; Stewart Grice of Hoover & Strong in Richmond, Virginia; and BJ Williams of Johnson Matthey NY in New York City.

(This Q&A is based on a seminar MJSA conducted in the ET&S Pavilion at the 2006 JCK show in Las Vegas.)

Let's start with some of the characteristics of palladium. Even though it is a platinum group metal, it differs in several ways.

First, how does 950 palladium compare to platinum in color?

TF: In the as-cast state, the 950 palladium alloys I've worked with appear slightly warmer and whiter than platinum. However, after high polish, a significant difference in color is hard to detect. For other alloys this may also be true, although I believe it would depend on what the 5 percent additions were.

DB: Color is a very subjective term. If you take a bridal jewelry consumer and show her platinum in one showcase and palladium in another, the consumer will probably respond that it "looks the same."

However, if you ask certain well-known bridal designers, palladium is said to be "brighter." In fact, palladium is slightly darker or more gray-looking than platinum.

LF: I agree, 950 palladium is more grayish in color than platinum.

BJW: Color can be subjective, but the palladium alloys currently available have a comparable whiteness to platinum. Both are superior to white golds, though, and require no rhodium plating.

DB: Rhodium plating is an option only if you are the sort of buyer that rhodium plates platinum as well. Rhodium is not necessary by any standard, apart from that of "D" color diamond enthusiasts who have jewelry with a very high carat application — i.e., pieces just covered with stones.

SG: I agree, the main thing here is that palladium alloys, like platinum alloys, are much whiter than any white gold alloys on the market. I'm sure the general public has no chance to see any color difference between palladium and platinum alloys.

How does palladium compare to platinum in hardness and density?

BJW: In terms of density, it is roughly haLF that of platinum — but, as with color, hardness depends very much on the alloy additions. In its pure state, palladium is slightly softer than platinum, but both are impractical as a jewelry material because they would be too soft. The palladium alloys currently available are roughly comparable in hardness with the platinum alloys in popular use.

TF: In terms of hardness, it is important to distinguish between cast and machined or die-struck product, as wear resistance can be noticeably different. With respect to castings, there are several palladium alloys on the market with varying levels of hardness. The majority of these will produce cast product with hardness in the range of 110 to 120 Vickers. These values are similar to [those of] 900 platinum/iridium, although somewhat lower than 950 platinum/ruthenium [which has a Vickers Hardness of about 135 as cast].

Machined or die-struck palladium, on the other hand, may have a higher hardness than castings. I have seen values reported in the 150 Vickers range. This difference in hardness would be due to the harder alloys that can be used with these methods, plus the cold-working applied to the metal stock used. However, if heat is subsequently applied through soldering or annealing, this elevation in hardness will be eliminated.

SG: Density depends on the alloys being compared. In general, though, palladium alloys have densities of around 12g/cm3, compared to platinum alloys' 21g/cm3. The obvious advantage of this is that one ounce of palladium goes much further than one ounce of platinum. The disadvantage of the lower density comes into play when a customer wants a very heavy piece, which is also quite often.

LF: This lower density makes 950 palladium an exceptional metal for earrings and necklaces, where weight becomes an important factor.

When designing a piece in palladium, should jewelers be aware of any special considerations?

SG: Palladium's lower density allows more design possibilities, since you can produce bolder, more massive designs of lesser or equal weight than in platinum.

BJW: I agree, palladium's lightness offers a great opportunity to design and produce fairly chunky pieces.

DB: The light density can be a great advantage: Fuller, taller, bigger designs remain more affordable and comfortable by comparison to heavier gold or far heavier platinum pieces. However, when casting, you have to consider "fill factors": Palladium does not fill as well as platinum or karat golds. If a piece you are manufacturing is very light or thin, you should consider breaking the design into pieces that can be cast individually.

TF: Because palladium alloys are less fluid, avoid extremely thin sections or small prongs in your designs.

SG: You should also keep solder joints to a minimum in your designs. The current palladium solders all work, but solders with high palladium content tend to absorb excess gas, which can generate porous joints. There is ongoing work to improve these solders, but you should take care.

What suggestions would you give to jewelers who work on palladium in such bench operations as soldering, setting, and polishing?

SG: We advise our customers to treat palladium like 900 platinum/iridium. However, palladium does not "gum" up files as bad as platinum, and as far as malleability and ductility are concerned, you can generally do what you want to it. Because of that, setting is a dream — bezels, Tiffanys, pavé, melée, anything you want. Palladium forms easily, with no spring back, but it work-hardens like platinum and stays where you push it. Also, polishing it requires fewer pre-finishing steps than with platinum.

When working with palladium, soldering is still the part of the manufacturing process that needs attention. As I said before, current solders with high palladium content can absorb gas. As an alternative, you can use platinum solders — 1,300, 1,200, 1,100, etc. Unless you are doing multiple joints that are close together, always try to use the hard solders, which tend to be more malleable and better color matches. Also, don't use flux when soldering palladium, since the melting temperatures are too high [about 1,552°C/2,826°F] for jewelry fluxes to work.

Because of palladium's tendency to absorb excess gas, palladium alloys also do not weld easily. However, palladium alloys can be laser welded.

TF: Lasering palladium is generally easy and very straightforward, although at times it may require argon and special machine settings. When we do inhouse repair, such as lasering a small pit, it's very easy and we don't need argon. However, I have heard of problems with micro-cracking when more complicated work, such as assembly, is performed. As basic guidelines, it is best to use low voltage, low milliseconds, and high frequency.

Overall, I have had extremely positive feedback from numerous bench jewelers about palladium. All of them say that it is quicker and easier to polish than platinum, and its setting characteristics are great.

LF: The ease of setting stones in 950 palladium is a benefit for any piece, especially if it has pavé. The malleability of 950 palladium — it can be reduced up to 70 percent before annealing — and its hardness complement each other in a way that makes it a perfect metal for setting any size stone or quantity of stones together.

DB: Depending on the alloy and application, palladium just might be the most secure precious metal for stone setting. Consider this: Often the act of assembling a platinum head onto a ring can at least partly anneal or soften the platinum alloy. I know of at least two palladium alloys that work-harden faster without going brittle, as do the 14k nickel white alloys.

Soldering palladium takes some adjustments. Both propane and natural gas work well for soldering, although you should stay away from hydrogen, which palladium will absorb if given a chance. You'll want an oxidizing flame, as with platinum. However, 950 palladium will lose its polished luster when heated to soldering temperatures, and you might have to repolish the area around the assembly once you're done.

How difficult is palladium to cast — does it require any special equipment or procedures for melting or for achieving the best fill?

TF: The casting of 950 palladium alloys appears to be the biggest challenge in the manufacture of jewelry pieces. This is true for several reasons, most dealing with the risk of oxidation. Unlike typical platinum alloys, palladium will heavily oxidize at temperatures between 600°C and 800°C (1,112°F and 1,472°F). Melting must therefore be done in a protected environment to avoid absorption of oxygen and the potential embrittlement of the metal. Temperature control is also important, since overheating of palladium alloys will typically increase the chances for oxygen absorption.

In the case of oxidation, once the oxygen is absorbed and has become soluble in the molten palladium, porosity in cast product can emerge as the oxygen attempts to escape in the form of gas during solidification. A second complication may arise when alloys with constituent elements that are volatile or have volatile oxides vaporize, also leading to the formation of gas porosity.

Given the above challenges, palladium requires a highly controlled casting process in order to produce good metallurgical quality. Induction melting is therefore recommended for maximum control over temperatures and environment. In terms of overall process techniques, the best approach is to treat palladium the same as you would platinum. This would include investing, crucibles, and devesting. The single exception would be spruing, where the addition of auxiliary sprues to thin sections is often needed to facilitate fill.

SG: Basically, if you can cast platinum you can cast palladium. Although melting temperatures are higher than those of gold and silver alloys, they are nowhere near those of platinum alloys, so you get much better consumable life, such as [with] crucibles. However, you do need to protect the melt with argon — I believe it's best to vacuum out, then backfill with argon.

TF: I think the jury is still out on the use of vacuum melting. In my exper ience, some al-loys respond pos-itively while others do not.

SG: Torch melting is another area that can be hit and miss — you need to know what you're doing to prevent gas absorption. As said earlier, palladium sucks in hydrogen gas, so if torch melting, you should use a gas like propane.

DB: Generally, palladium cannot be reliably cast by torch, regardless of fuel; the best way to melt any 950 palladium alloy is by induction heating. Also, because palladium does not fill as well as platinum — in fact, it doesn't fill as well as most karat golds — spin casting is the best way to cast 950 palladium.

TF: On the positive side, palladium is much gentler on investments than platinum. This is due to two reasons: its lower density, and the fact that its pour temperature is about 200°C lower.

Can palladium be easily refined?

BJW: No. You will need to send palladium back to your specialist platinum group metal refiner, just as you would platinum. Also, as with platinum, it is best to keep palladium scrap separate from gold and silver when possible.

SG: From a refiner's perspective, palladium is probably the hardest and most costly metal we deal with at Hoover & Strong. It is difficult to separate from other platinum group metals, has many stages to the refining process, and creates a significant amount of waste products.

DB: Yes, but while a customer's charges to refine palladium might be much higher than for gold, they will be less expensive than those for refining platinum. Con-sider two facts: First, the percentage charged by refiners (typically 10 percent and up) is the same from platinum to palladium. Second, palladium is at this time [mid-June] $311 per ounce, and platinum is $1,191. Since 10 percent of $311 is $31.10, and 10 percent of $1,191 is $119.10, that means palladium is currently $88 less expensive per ounce to refine.

LF: The refining process for palladium is much more intensive than for refining gold. However, the ease or difficulty of it relies largely upon the type of material (scrap, filings, polishings, etc.) from which the palladium is being refined. If a jewelry manufacturer requests the refiner to process a drum comprising gold, platinum, and palladium polishings, that job will take longer and incur more cost: The refiner may have to chemically separate the gold, silver, copper, nickel, and zinc in a specific order. Jewelry manufacturers need to separate their scrap.

What is the best way to distinguish palladium from platinum for customers, and to promote palladium to them?

SG: First of all, I do not see palladium as a direct competitor to platinum, nor do I see it as a direct competitor to white gold. It appears to be carving out its own unique niche, but if it has a competitor it has to be white gold, not platinum. Palladium is the same price as 14k white gold, it is 95 percent pure, and it is whiter. There is absolutely no need to rhodium plate, so your customers will not be returning in six to 12 months complaining that their jewelry is turning yellow where the plate is wearing off. Our information is that this is the single biggest complaint that retailers get from their customers of white gold.

The major distinguishing factor for palladium over platinum is, of course, price, price, and price again. Also, you can get matching sets — rings, necklaces, and earrings — from the same alloy. This is not always possible with platinum, or there has to be design compromises due to the density of platinum, particularly with earrings.

TF: Price and density are the two main distinguishing characteristics between palladium and platinum — for example, earrings and larger bracelets that are not practical in platinum alloys due to excessive weight are ideal in palladium. But if you can't afford platinum, or if you are put off by its density, then palladium is an excellent choice as a high purity, naturally white metal.

BJW: When someone genuinely can't afford platinum, palladium is a far superior fall back than white gold. However, just because someone says "That's expensive" doesn't mean they can't afford platinum. They may be looking for reassurance that the price is fair, and jewelers should explain why platinum is a higher price — its purity, rarity, and higher density. Its higher market price is a result of it being so valued, and only the best craftsmen work with it.

DB: To describe palladium to a consumer, start by describing it as a "platinum family" metal — not platinum, and not white gold. To distinguish palladium from all precious metals, emphasize its unique advantages. Also, stamp all 950 palladium jewelry "950Palladium" or "950Pall" or "950Pd." This avoids confusion with a "Plat" or " 90/10 Pt/Ru" stamp.

What is happening with palladium in the rest of the world, outside of the United States?

BJW: Palladium is being marketed in China by several manufacturers that have produced significant quantities to fill the distribution pipeline. It has gained some appeal with younger consumers in provincial cities, and a 99 percent pure version is proving popular in rural areas where consumers traditionally buy 99 percent pure gold jewelry. While jewelry fabrication levels have been significant, sell through to consumers has been patchy. Where it has been successful, though, it has taken share from platinum, white gold, and pure gold.

In Switzerland, some of the luxury watch brands are beginning to produce palladium models, and some are considering it as an alternative to their white gold production because of the issues connected with plating a luxury watch.

In the United Kingdom, the Assay Offices have applied for a hallmark, and several retailers have begun to sell imported ranges of palladium jewelry. Some U.K. manufacturers are planning to launch production soon.

Elsewhere, interest in palladium jewelry is limited currently, although there is some manufacturing activity in Italy and Germany.

In the future, could palladium's price rise close to that of gold? If so, what will happen?

BJW: Historically, palladium's price has exceeded that of gold and even platinum. Supply/demand fundamentals, however, do not indicate that this is likely anytime soon. Even if it does rise to price levels similar to those of gold, palladium has two natural advantages. One, it is lighter and therefore offers some cost savings. Two, it is naturally white, which offers an aesthetic benefit over white gold and a commercial advantage in that it obviates the need for rhodium plating — and re-rhodium plating, and re-rhodium plating, and …

LF: The price of palladium could easily rise to or above that of gold. Since there are so few mining companies supplying the metal, a labor strike, an increase or decrease in industrial production, and/or political issues could easily turn the price upward or downward.

BJW: Currently, South Africa, Russia, the United States, Canada, and Zimbabwe all produce palladium; it's unlikely there would be a situation that would affect all of these areas. There is also a lot of above-ground stock in Russia, and if this is added to the accumulated surpluses of recent years, there is at least two years' worth of stock available at current demand levels.

SG: Metal prices are usually influenced by factors outside the jewelry industry, rarely from within it. However, if the price does equal that of gold, it will not make a great deal of difference. Palladium is still a superior product to nickel white gold, for all of the above reasons. And even if the price of palladium reaches that of platinum, palladium jewelry will still be about haLF the price due to the density factor. Palladium is carving its own niche — and it's here to stay. Did gold jewelry disappear because the price went up? No. So neither will palladium.

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Tina Wojtkielo Snyder

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