Vermeil Jewelries

Considering metals prices continue to be sky high, it’s no surprise that plating companies’ phones are ringing off the hook. “We’re getting a much higher volume of inquiries from jewelry makers who produce silver or karat gold product and have never had items plated before,” reports Neil Bell, owner of Red Sky Plating in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

It’s the same story 2,000 miles away at Tanury Industries in Lincoln, Rhode Island. “Those who typically produce karat gold jewelry but can’t afford to at today’s gold prices are looking for alternatives for their product lines, and many are turning to vermeil,” says Michael Akkaoui, president and CEO of Tanury.

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Pendant by Charles Lewton-Brain

True vermeil is a layer of 24k gold that measures 2.5 microns thick over a sterling silver part. “Because of the rising cost of gold, a vermeil piece today has an elevated status level that it didn’t have five or 10 years ago,” says Bell. “Even companies that can’t afford to go the full vermeil thickness and opt for a gold plate of 1 micron are actually marketing the jewelry as containing 1 micron of pure gold. They are capturing a market of consumers who want the yellow look of gold — and the prestige associated with it — but cannot afford karat gold.”

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Ann Chikahisa of Chikahisa Studio in Chicago recently added vermeil to her line of 18k and sterling silver jewelry because she wanted to give her customers more options. “With precious metal prices through the roof, I needed an alternative for the gold customer who doesn’t want to drop two to three thousand dollars on a piece of jewelry,” she says. “I can offer the same ring design that costs $2,200 in 18k for $250 in vermeil. I’m doing this so a woman who wants an impulse buy doesn’t feel like she has to mortgage her house to pay for a piece of jewelry.”

Chikahisa is one of many jewelry makers today who is turning to plating as one way to bring down price points. In addition to making new molds to cut down on metal weight in her jewelry, designer Emily Rothschild of Brooklyn, New York, has also started having her work plated. “It gives me the finish that I want and it makes sense from a financial standpoint,” she says. “I initially cast some of my heftier pieces in sterling silver. They looked great, but there was no way I could sustain those price points, so now I’m casting in brass and plating.”

One of her popular lines is a series of plated brass rings shaped like wings, called Pinky Wings. Rothschild says that plating not only allows her to achieve a friendly price point, but also to experiment with new finishes. “I offered this line initially in rhodium and 14k, as well as a powder-coated white finish that resembles porcelain,” she says. “More recently, I have been using a satin 24k as well as a gunmetal finish, which have also been well-received. Plating gives you the option to try out finishes and test market them before adding them to your inventory.”

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Vermeil ring by Ann Chikahisa

That ability to experiment within a budget is the reason goldsmith, author, and educator Charles Lewton-Brain of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, has elected to plate his art jewelry pieces. He constructs the pieces by fusion-welding stainless steel wire, electroforming copper onto it, and tumbling in steel shot. After this very labor-intensive process, he sends the pieces out to be heavily electroplated in 24k gold.

“The plating is applied at five to eight times the normal thickness of 24k gold plate, giving it a buttery rich color that I love,” says Lewton-Brain. “Plating lets me make a lot of work, some experimental, with the color I prefer. And I don’t have huge amounts of money tied up in inventory that may or may not sell.”

Customized plating requests like Lewton-Brain’s are becoming more common, report platers. “With most costume and volume jewelry manufacturing being done overseas, we are getting requests for more specialty products and unique processes, such as heavy platinum plating, chocolate gold plating, or PVD (physical vapor disposition),” says Akkaoui, who has also noticed more jewelry makers moving to stainless steel as a base material for plating.

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“We’re seeing more customers applying precious metals over stainless because it’s a less expensive base than sterling silver, which recently took such a large jump in the marketplace,” Akkaoui explains. Using stainless steel as an alternative to sterling not only cuts costs, but also enables the manufacturer to tag the item as “hypoallergenic.”

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Pinky Wing by Emily Rothschild

Another shift platers are noticing is a move from gold plating to silver plating. “As a cost-saving measure, some customers who were gold plating over silver are switching to silver plating over bronze,” says Bell. “We’ve even had customers switch from bronze to pewter because the cost of copper has gone up, raising the cost of bronze. It’s all these little shifts that we see, a trickle down effect in response to high precious metals prices.”

With those prices not likely to come down to earth any time soon, plating companies will keep busy helping jewelry makers create product that works with their budgets, as well as the consumer’s.

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The award-winning Journal is published monthly by MJSA, the trade association for professional jewelry makers, designers, and related suppliers. It offers design ideas, fabrication and production techniques, bench tips, business and marketing insights, and trend and technology updates—the information crucial for business success. "More than other publications, MJSA Journal is oriented toward people like me: those trying to earn a living by designing and making jewelry," says Jim Binnion of James Binnion Metal Arts.
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