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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
The Rebecca line from Italy that is sold at Will Jewelers includes pieces made with bronze.

The new bronze age

Jewelers, buyers take closer look at cheaper metal

Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Bronze is used in the charms on a Rebecca gemstone necklace.
Bronze is used along with gold and silver in a necklace created by local artist Lydia Gerbig-Fast.

Gold, silver or bronze?

More and more, it’s a question pondered in front of the jewelry case.

Put off by continuing record prices for gold and silver, jewelry lovers craving something new and shiny have begun casting their eyes toward bronze, one of the world’s oldest metal alloys, as a new alternative to precious metals.

Steve Shannon, owner of Shannon Jewelers in Fort Wayne, says bronze mostly is showing up on television among jewelry’s mass marketers, including the Home Shopping Network and QVC.

“They’re going to get into it because gold is beyond the reach of so many people,” says Shannon, who notes that metal last week was selling at $1,640 a troy ounce, a standard metals measure.

Silver, meanwhile, surged to $29.60 a troy ounce, about four times what it sold for five years ago, according to Jim Fairfield, owner of Fairfield’s Coins & Jewelry in Fort Wayne.

An alloy of copper and tin, and sometimes zinc, that comes in many variations, bronze has been a choice of artisan jewelers for some time, says Lydia Gerbig-Fast, a local jewelry craftswoman. Gerbig-Fast has worked with the metal and understands why others might choose it for both economic and artistic reasons.

“I haven’t bought (precious) metal in four years because I can’t afford it,” she says. “Metalsmiths are having to look for alternatives.”

While bronze is harder than gold or silver and therefore a bit more difficult to work, it “has a warmer tone than brass, so it would have a little more aesthetic appeal from its coloring,” she says.

According to QVC’s website, bronze is benefiting from a new process that allows it to maintain its color throughout, unlike plated metals. The network in the last few months launched an Italian-made line called Bronzo Italia.

The jewelry is promoted on air as looking like rose gold, an alloy of gold and copper.

Styles include those familiar to lovers of traditional fine jewelry – wedding band hoop earrings, chain and rope necklaces and bangle, Byzantine and cuff-style bracelets. Most sell between $30 and $150.

Other TV designer names also have been dipping into bronze.

Nicky Butler and Jay King, who sell on HSN and are known for styles in gold and sterling silver, are now setting opaque and clear gemstones in bronze. Robert Lee Morris of RLM Studios in New York, known for working in sterling silver, also has been turning to the metal in QVC offerings, while Honora, known for freshwater pearls, now has a QVC line pairing them with bronze.

Locally, Helzberg Diamonds, with a store at Glenbrook Square, has been promoting a turquoise and smoky quartz set in bronze, as well as bronze earrings and a bracelet on its Web site.

And, at Will Jewelers, co-owner Dixie Clark says the Rebecca line of Italian-made jewelry, which uses all bronze in some styles and rose gold over bronze paired with stainless steel in others, has been selling well.

Many pieces include reconstituted clear gemstones and are in the $200 to $400 range.

“Rebecca is a great line for us,” Clark says, adding that she’s not sure if price is driving sales or if people just like the somewhat geometric, architectural look.

“Most of the pieces are larger, contemporary pieces. It’s a very fashion-forward line,” she says. “The alternative metals are something different to spark people’s interest.”

But there can be drawbacks to bronze.

Fairfield points out that the metal typically has been used under the surface metal in gold-plated, also called gold-filled or gold-clad, jewelry, as well as in costume jewelry.

If not of good quality, the plating can wear off and the jewelry can turn brown or leave a greenish or brown stain from reacting to a wearer’s skin, he says. If bronze has a protective coating, it too can wear off eventually, he adds.

The metal also doesn’t have the intrinsic value of silver or gold, Fairfield says. He points out that copper, bronze’s chief component had a melt value last week of slightly less than a penny per gram while silver was going for 95 cents per gram and gold $52 per gram.

“There’s no value to speak of in the metal,” he says, noting buyers should not expect to resell bronze jewelry for big cash.

Shannon says jewelers tend to be a cautious lot, and he’s not sure there’s value in plunging headlong into bronze.

“I don’t deny that I’ve seen it at craft shows, but it hasn’t to my knowledge hit the mainstream,” he says. “But who knows? It might just shoot to mainstream.”