It was a thin, bearded clergyman in Cornwall who first discovered titanium in 1791. William Gregor was also an amateur geologist, and when he was sifting some sand he had collected from a stream-bed, he found a metal he had never seen before, which he described as a “reddish-brown calx”. Four years later a German chemist identified it and named it titanium, after the Titans, the immortal giants of Greek mythology.
Titanium is distinctive because it does not corrode in chlorine or seawater and it never causes people allergic reactions. That makes it an ideal metal for the modern age, used in pacemakers, aircraft, golf clubs, as a pigment in white paint and as the agent skywriters use to create readable patterns of white cloud in the sky. Such qualities are a boon to jewellers too, helping designers to create large, light and colourful ornaments that would not have been possible 30 years ago.
François Curiel of Christie’s, an auction house, reckons the first piece of fine titanium jewellery was probably the “Mogol” flower bracelet created in 1987 by Joel Arthur Rosenthal, an American jeweller who works in Place Vendôme in Paris under the name JAR. The purplish titanium bracelet was adorned with flowers paved in diamonds and coloured gems: five years later it sold at auction for $556,000, nearly three times the pre-sale estimate.
It took at least another decade for other jewellers to use the metal. Many of the early adopters were in Asia, where titanium has proved enormously popular. Michelle Ong, co-owner of Carnet, a Hong Kong boutique and atelier, says that the lightness of titanium allows her to design statement pieces that are large and yet comfortable to wear. Her brooches are “light enough to be worn on silk blouses without causing them any damage,” she says.
Luxury jewellers are also attracted to titanium because its natural silver colouring can be transformed by heat or electric current into a spectrum of different shades reminiscent of oil on water, a peacock’s feathers or a rainbow, says Edward Rosenberg of Spectore, a Florida-based manufacturer. He has been working to unlock titanium’s potential for jewellery since the 1970s, when he was first introduced to the metal’s colour-changing qualities. To do this, the third-generation jeweller first had to acquire a new set of skills.
The challenges of working with titanium are myriad. Titanium’s melting point is 1,600°C (approximately 3,000°F). To cast at this temperature you need a chamber, usually made of ceramic material, that is completely airtight and can withstand the heat. If atmospheric gases, such as oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, seep into the casting process, even in tiny amounts, the titanium becomes brittle or breaks – in rare instances it even explodes. Pieces are brazed or welded at high temperatures in argon gas, rather than soldered. That takes great skill. Titanium’s hardness makes gem-setting difficult too, says Curiel: “You need skilled workers to set stones in titanium. But once in, the stones are very set.”
Cindy Chao, a Taiwanese jeweller, says that working with titanium can be fraught because “one wrong step, even for the tiniest detail, might necessitate starting the piece from the beginning.” Yet it also allows some extraordinary creations: the base of her large 2016 “Black Label Masterpiece IX Winter Leaves Necklace” was hammered and crafted into leaves and vines, and set with about 6,000 diamonds. It took more than two years to make. Chao produces no more than 36 Black Label Masterpieces a year, every one unique. Each piece can cost millions of dollars.
There are both practical and creative reasons why jewellers are working with titanium. Alisa Moussaieff, a jewellery-maker in London, says titanium allows her to create jewels with exceptional rare gems because titanium holds the gems in place so firmly: “I can make large pieces because it is so light.”
Suzanne Syz, a Geneva-based jeweller, agrees. Because titanium can change colour, she has been able to make whimsical pieces such as a blue bracelet adorned with cartoon characters; an enormous, spiralling turquoise-coloured dragon bracelet with alexandrites and diamonds; and a lifelike giraffe brooch.
In recent years, Syz has also begun using nickel titanium memory wire, also known as Nitinol, calling it “a great next step for titanium”. This alloy is thin. You can use heat to shape Nitinol wire a certain way, and it will hold that shape under great stress. A pair of earrings made by Syz uses multiple Nitinol wires, each with a slight bend, which are strung with seed pearls and capped at either end with white gold or diamonds, giving the appearance of a three-dimensional cage. Inside each earring dangles a Ceylon, cushion-shaped sapphire. “I could give them a form I want, and those wires would stay in place,” she says.
Caroline Scheufele, co-president and artistic director of Chopard, a Swiss watchmaker and jeweller, sets vibrant-coloured stones in a matching titanium setting: “You can achieve a monochromatic setting where it looks like you’ve painted on a solid coat of jewels,” she says. “But if you are really looking to make diamonds pop, setting them in coloured titanium is a fun way.”
The possibilities are myriad. New York-based Taiwanese-born jewellery artist, Anna Hu, began experimenting with titanium in 2009. Her first piece, “Myth of the Orchid Earrings”, was inspired by “Avatar”, a movie. The big, bold, purple earrings look like exotic leaves with the centre paved in round brilliant-cut and briolette diamonds. “The titanium has this strong, intense purple colour that does not really exist in nature.”
Hong Kong-based jewellery artist Wallace Chan says he almost gave up trying to work with titanium after he first started experimenting with it. Like Rosenberg, Chan mastered the metal by ditching the methods he used for other precious metals and inventing new ones. Persistence paid off. Chan now uses it for nearly all his work, from elaborate brooches, necklaces and earrings set with large coloured gems and diamonds to six-foot-high sculptures. Chan says he has found new ways to express himself as an artist by using titanium. He was inspired, too, by its use in pacemakers. “I was looking for ways for jewellery to have a new life and a new chapter,” he says. “There had to be a breakthrough for me and the industry. When I saw this pacemaker that gives life, I knew titanium would give new life to jewellery.”