The White Stuff

Although yellow gold remains the world’s best known precious metal, Jenny Berich reports that ‘white is the new yellow’ for many in the jewellery industry.…

Although yellow gold remains the world’s best known precious metal, Jenny Berich reports that ‘white is the new yellow’ for many in the jewellery industry.

Gold is no longer the only metal “that glitters” in jewellery buyers’ eyes. As we rapidly move towards the end of the first decade of the 21st Century the traditional yellow metal is facing increasing competition from precious white metals.
Twenty years ago fine jewellery buyers in Australia were largely limited to a choice between gold, gold and more gold jewellery. Today those some customers can choose between yellow, pink and white gold jewellery as well as silver, palladium, platinum and titanium pieces.
And according to many in the jewellery industry many are choosing white as their preferred option.
Many reasons are put forth for this change in colour preference, including fashion, celebrities and affordability, but it must be remembered price is really only a significant benefit for silver jewellery buyers as the other white metals can be almost as expensive, if not more so, than yellow gold.
Furthermore with the current shaky economic conditions it is difficult to predict future price of any precious metals (even short-term) with great confidence – although in its latest reports GFMS has said that silver prices are set to average around US$13 an ounce this year while gold could still reach $US1000 and Johnson Matthey has reported that platinum is expected to trade for between US$700 and US$1400 in the next few months while palladium is set to trade for between US$125 and US$300 in the same period.
Nonetheless, despite such metal price fluctuations many local jewellery wholesalers are confident that white metal sales will continue to grow this year. 
For example Miller Diamonds director Lonn Miller reports that his white gold jewellery is now outselling his yellow gold pieces.
“The vast majority of our production by units is presently white gold rather than yellow gold,” he says.
“Our trends show yellow gold demand is approximately equal to two-tone demand. And for every yellow gold item ordered five white gold items are ordered.
“Trends have definitely changed substantially. Ten years ago yellow gold was far more sought after.”
Miller, whose wholesale business sells diamond and yellow gold, white gold and platinum jewellery, believes that white metals have undergone a major image change in the public’s eye in recent years.
“There used to be a perception that white gold was ‘cheap’,” he explains. “However, the platinum industry has spent a lot of time and money promoting platinum and hence there is increased demand for it.
“Until recently platinum was substantially more expensive than white gold but to a layperson platinum and white gold are virtually indistinguishable. Platinum is a lot harder to work with (is more durable than white gold as it is denser) and platinum is more costly to work with, so white gold is a cheaper, easier to work with alternative.”
Miller believes that the current popularity of white metals has greatly helped the recent launch of his Passion8 jewellery range.
“The range is classic yet contemporary and elegant and largely designed with fashion conscious generation X and Y consumers,” he says. “These consumers closely follow the fashion trends which have been offering more neutral, softer expressions recently that attract the purity that comes from white gold or platinum.
“There is a mild association from this group of consumers that yellow gold suggests antique.”
Rachel Hehir, marketing manager for PW Beck (a supplier of solders and alloys and finished jewellery in yellow gold, silver, platinum, titanium, white gold and palladium), believes white metal sales are primarily driven by a market that wants jewellery with “crisper, cleaner more modern lines”.
“This is evident across both men’s and women’s styles across all product categories from traditional wedding bands to dress rings,” she says.
“Consumers are always looking for something different than previous generations and white metals are a great alternative. In addition the emergence of newer metals and alloys in white metals has greatly increased their accessibility and appeal.
Hehir says she doesn’t expect any major changes in the next 12 months.
“I expect the mix of product with respect to metals to continue to be driven by consumer trends and therefore any change to be progressive rather than a sudden shift. Generally white metal sales are strong and split between the traditional white gold as well as platinum and emerging metals like palladium.
Similarly Craig Symons, managing director of silver, platinum and gold jewellery wholesaler Osjag, agrees that the popularity of white metals has increased in recent years.
He says white gold is the dominant metal in his 18 carat gold and diamond jewellery sales although yellow gold is still dominating sales of nine carat plain or coloured stone jewellery.
He believes the biggest factors driving white metal sales, particularly silver, are price and variety.
“With the recent hike in the price of gold, the price disparity between the two metals has become more marked,” he explains.
“There are also many more suppliers of silver offering anything from the lowest quality to the highest German standard. That gives the consumer confidence and choice.
“The acceptance of white gold over the past seven years has led to any easy transition of acceptance of silver too. It partly comes back to the huge variety of silver jewellery available. Changes have been supply driven. Consider just one aspect of the silver market î º that of semi precious stone set silver. Over the last ten years we have seen an explosion in popularity of silver set with amber, lapis, onyx, moonstone, Mother of Pearl and various shades of quartz.
“Our new collection of Breuning Silver Branded jewellery has been targeted towards the top end of the silver market and we are attracting customers who may never have considered stocking silver jewellery.”
Symons believes that white metals are here to stay but “manufacturers will become more creative with blending other metal colours and textures with it”.
“Breuning and Blumer are doing that now,” he says.
Hot Diamonds managing director Rory Cowan says sales of his rhodium-plated sterling silver and diamond jewellery have been “well above expectations with no signs of slowing in the foreseeable future”
“There has been a profound shift away from yellow metal towards white metal over the past 10 years,” he says.
“I believe that the shift probably started even earlier and it has impacted both the watch and jewellery industries. It is also interesting to notice that even bi-colour jewellery appears to have given way to white metal.”
“I believe that the white metal jewellery trend is primarily dictated by fashion. White metal is perceived to be modern and clean.”
“In addition as white gold (and gold in general) prices increase, we believe that more consumers are choosing silver because it is more affordable.”
“There is little doubt that the influential fashion houses in Europe are now promoting yellow gold in their Haute Couture collections but we see no sign of a change of preference for white metal in our target market.”
Ciara Ryan, the marketing manager of Pastiche (a supplier of sterling silver jewellery), believes that the driving force behind white metal sales has been a shift in consumer perception.
For example, she says, silver is now perceived more favorably as a precious commodity.
“We have seen a consistent change in the way silver is perceived in the market as a more valuable commodity – the market no longer perceives silver as the poorer cousin of gold but rather as a unique, valuable metal in its own right.
“This changing view has set the stage for greater creative scope and a noticeable increase in the development of branded ranges and designer pieces. We have more interest in bold, designer pieces than ever before with customers more willing to purchase special pieces at a higher price point.”
She says Pastiche’s silver jewellery sales have held firm over the last 12 months despite the unstable economic climate but is hesitant to predict changes in silver (or general white metal) sales in the next 12 months as “sales will be affected by an increasingly unstable global market”.
Jo Tory, director of contemporary silver jewellery supplier Najo, believes silver jewellery is increasingly being seen as a fashion item and a very personal expression of individual style.
“The last 10 years have seen tremendous change in the acceptance of silver,” she says. “There is more appreciation for design, and I have seen a willingness by consumers to be more daring with the pieces that they buy.
“I think cost has something to do with it. I have always maintained that the relatively low cost of silver allows us to be very experimental with our designs, so that we can be both creative and closely follow the fashion trends.
“It is affordable, allowing the consumer to possess several pieces in their fashion “repertoire”
Tory says white metal sales for the next 12 months are difficult to predict given the current economic climate but is nonetheless “fairly sure” that silver sales will not be negatively affected.
“From my experience in times of recession products that are affordable and are “a feel good” purchase can actually increase in sales,” she concludes.