June 2000

From the Vault

Vanishing Palladium

It peaked during World War II and may be masquerading as platinum in the estate jewelry market today

Palladium, unlike platinum, comprises only a small chapter in the history of jewelry. Of the platinum group of metals (platinum, palladium, iridium, rhodium, osmium and ruthenium), palladium has the lowest specific gravity and the lowest melting point.

Although William Hyde Wollaston and Smithson Tennant isolated palladium as a separate member of the platinum group in 1802, it wasnt used in jewelry until 1939, when platinum was declared a strategic metal and reserved for military use.

Palladium use was not restricted and was soon promoted in the jewelry trade press as a viable alternative to platinum. Because it weighed less than platinum, palladium jewelry could be made larger and still be comfortable to wear; in addition, palladiums malleability made stone setting a breeze. Palladium also could be combined with gold to produce a version of white gold, another substitute for platinum. Despite these advantages, palladium was gradually phased out after World War II when platinum became available again.

The Disadvantages

Palladium does have its drawbacks its the only member of the platinum group that oxidizes when heated. Though this bluish purple oxidation is easily removed by quenching the piece in water, repeated heating and quenching can cause the metal to become brittle and crack.

Where platinum is impervious to all acids except aqua regia, palladium is solvent in aqua regia, attacked by nitric acid and sensitive to sulfuric and hydrochloric acids.

Palladiums color may be a pleasing light gray, but it doesnt take a high polish the way platinum does and has a tendency to become dull over time.

These disadvantages outweigh palladiums lightweight malleability, and many jewelers refused to work with it once platinum was again available.

Unmarked in the Market

Most of the palladium jewelry made during the mid-20th century in the U.S. isnt visible in todays estate jewelry market. Where did it go? One thing to consider is that jewelry fabricated in the U.S. is not always marked to indicate metal content and fineness.

This opens up the possibility that some palladium jewelry is unwittingly being sold as platinum. There are reports a number of palladium pieces were rhodium-plated to give them a better color and that a few pieces were goldplated in the 1970s, when yellow gold set with diamonds became fashionable for daytime wear. Because its tricky to work with, particularly when repairs are needed, there isnt much of a demand for palladium jewelry among estate jewelry dealers. A large amount of palladium jewelry from the 1940s and 1950s was dismantled and sent to refineries. The price for palladium fell to around $280 an ounce in the 1980s, resulting in a flutter of palladium activity among craft jewelers, but this was shortlived.

Despite this general rejection, palladium continued to be used in findings in the 1950s through the late 1990s, especially as heads or plates and strips for bead-setting diamonds. Researchers recently discovered palladium performs better than platinum in catalytic converters for combustion engines and in oil refining. These industrial demands have suddenly vaulted palladiums price to $700 an ounce, making it totally impractical for use in jewelry.

by Elise B. Misiorowski

Wedding bands were in demand during the 1940s, and many were made of palladium. This diamond-set eternity band is engraved E.A.E. & M.OR. Oct. 20, 1943 and Palladium Tiffany & Co. (see inset). Courtesy of Kurt Rothner, Excalibur, West Hollywood, CA.

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications