Titanium: The Jewelry Industry’s newest noble element.

Written and submitted by Edward Rosenberg, President and Chairman of the Board of Spectore Corporation and the World Titanium Council. This article was originally published in the American Jewelry Manufacturing Magazine.

The introduction of titanium to the jewelry industry goes well beyond the emergence of a new and superior material. It will prove to be the vehicle that accelerates the growth of the entire industry into the 21st century. For in order to fully explore the benefits and applications of this truly unique element will unquestionably require the quintessential marriage of art and science.

As with most jewelry entrepreneurs, my jewelry heritage is steeped in tradition, dating back generations. My jewelry education, built on the same principles and materials, passed down with little change or improvement for centuries. In the jewelry industry, changing tradition is frowned upon. The word "new" defines revisiting and modifying accepted paradigms handed down from generations past.

When I departed the traditional jewelry world to explore what, I believed, was to be the next chapter in jewelry history, colleagues, friends, and relatives thought I just plain lost it. Many thought I must have been dropped on my head or partied too much at art school. Looking back, I realize I was ill-prepared for a journey that would take me across metallurgic and manufacturing thresholds and take me around the world dozens of times for the next 20 years in search of answers. There was virtually no written material to help me conquer the obstacles I would face in trying to create and develop this new industry standard.

In order to fully realize our potential we have committed ourselves to, at long last, consummating the marriage of art and technology and developing the creative and technical mindset of each faction as one. This has proven no easy task. Neither the artist nor the scientist has the patience nor understanding that allows either participant to recognize, appreciate, or value the infinite possibilities such a union will place before them. What is even more amazing, these barriers exist through the mutual respect and admiration of what each perceives in the other as being foreign. The titanium industry has begun to recognize the direct value and rewards resulting from its involvement in consumer products.

I proudly introduced the first complete collection of titanium jewelry in 1982 at the JA show in New York. Buyers curiously gathered, admiring this unique collection and asking questions. What is it made of? I informed them it was titanium. The replies consistently came back "isn’t that the stuff that killed Superman" or "isn’t plutonium radioactive". I realized that day, introducing this miraculous new element to a stoic and resistant jewelry industry might prove as difficult as creating the product itself.

Today Spectore (Ed Rosenberg's titanium manufacturing company) remains the world leader in the design, development and manufacture of art titanium. Our designer line of high end titanium jewelry is sold under the brand name of Edward Mirell

As our technology and capabilities expand so has our product depth and diversity. We have led the World in exploration and development of virtually all phases of proprietary manufacture and finishing processes. We have expanded our offerings through dozens of industries, hundreds of applications, thousands of various items and tens of thousands of highly improved products. What is attributed to this unprecedented meteoric growth? Titanium is simply better, and we, the most formidable producer.

Imagine an element with the strength of steel and yet a weight comparable to aluminum. A material more compatible with the human body and impervious to most chemistry with a corrosion resistance superior to any known metal. Titanium is all that and more. The name titanium was derived from the Titans of Greek mythology, known for their extreme and superior strength.

Titanium belongs to an elite category of elements known as refractory metals. One of the more outstanding characteristics of these materials lies in the refractive abilities inherent in their oxides. Titanium is naturally platinum gray. By applying heat or electricity one may unleash its refractive properties by inducing various oxide thicknesses on the material surface. Titanium anodizing is best performed electrolytically. The resulting titanium oxide causes an optical interference with a purity and vivacity much the same as witnessed in the luminescent colors of oil on water, a peacocks feathers, or a rainbow.

Titanium was first discovered at the end of the 18th century but it wasn’t until 1910 that it was able to be separated from its compound materials. By nature of its reactive properties, titanium was not able to be processed by conventional extraction methodology. It took nearly half a century for scientists and metallurgists to develop a cost effective method for its extraction and refinement.

It is often said, that most things in life have a balance. I often refer to titanium as a beautiful woman. To hold such beauty is not without hardship. The properties that are the nature of titanium’s beauty are the same that create the difficulties in transforming this miraculous material into an artistic product.

Titanium is the first element in over 2,000 years to join the ranks of gold, silver, and platinum in the Noble Metals arena. Never before has a material been so embraced by the consumer market, and enjoyed the meteoric growth through the broadness and variety of product categories, as has titanium.

From its emergence out of the aerospace industry,titanium has broadened the pallet and vista of metallurgy with the same drama and magnitude as the introduction of color to motion pictures.

In order to enter the titanium arena one must be prepared to either employ technology foreign to the conventional jewelry industry or significantly limit the design pallet. Titanium’s strength limits its malleability and, in fact, work-hardens during manufacture. There is an extreme diversity of available alloys. In most cases hardness is governed by oxygen content, though other alloy combinations are available. Commercially pure titanium, grades 1 and 2, form more easily, but are generally the most difficult to cut or machine. Titanium melts at over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit and becomes highly reactive at those temperatures, unless processed within an inert atmosphere. Joining titanium is best performed by welding in a controlled Argon environment. This limits the formation of oxide or Alpha-casing, and minimizes the possibility of imbrittlement.

Since titanium was initially developed for aerospace applications, due to its structural integrity at reduced weights, the technology required for fabrication is among the most advanced in any metallurgical application. The technologies necessary for most processes are an extreme departure from those employed in conventional jewelry manufacture. Beyond traditional casting, titanium’s level of reactivity coupled with its high melting point and rapid liquid to solid ratio, creates a challenge as a manufacturing option. Again, most casting efforts, as with many existing titanium technologies, focused solutions on larger aerospace products. Many titanium fabricators turned toward powder metallurgy, forging, chemical etching, and machining as alternatives to cast parts. Today each of those technologies is approaching a new plateau of sophistication.

Over the past 2 decades the demand for titanium has expanded into a broad scope of industries, ranging from a wide variety of medical and sports related products to jewelry and decorative encasements. Utilitarian applications have further expanded the markets in architecture, automotive and industrial applications. The explosion in demand for smaller more intricate products has given rise to development of new technologies based on modification of existing large format methodology for manufacturing processes.

The following is a compilation of the more popular technologies, their applications and drawbacks. Each is governed by specific equipment and material requirements.

As previously explained, this process is best performed electrolytically. This method allows optimum control of oxide thickness and resulting color. The color is determined by the voltage and duration of exposure. Once the oxide reaches the thickness proportionate to the voltage it will not change unless the voltage is increased. This process, in many ways, is the reverse of plating. Unlike a typical power supply used for plating, the power supply for titanium anodizing is low amperage (5 to 15) and high voltage (0 to 120). Plating is a cathodic reaction. In anodizing the desired titanium product to be colored is the anode ( thus the name anodizing). For best results the cathode should also be titanium. The work piece is clipped or otherwise secured to a wire (out) lead of the variable voltage transformer (preferably DC) opposite in polarity to the lead attached to the cathode. As a safety precaution, install an in-line fuse holder no more than 3 to 5 amps into the anode wire. Protective gloves should always be worn. Here is an example of an anodized titanium ring.

The work piece is then submerged into an electrolytic bath, avoiding direct contact with the cathode. The electrolyte is the conduit for closing the circuit between the anode and cathode. Only the area of the part suspended in the electrolyte will anodize. Lower voltage colors may then be applied to the remaining (uncolored) area without affecting the existing higher voltage colors. During the process, colors will systematically transform within the oxide thicknesses until they reach the desired color prescribed by the set voltage.

Due to the molecular structure of titanium, and in order to maximize the vivacity of color and surface finish, all parts should be etched in a mild hydrofluoric/nitric acid bath prior to anodizing. This also should be performed within the safety parameters specified.

This is one of few areas where convention applies. Though it is more difficult, titanium may be sawed, drilled, stamped, or sheered. Naturally the added material hardness and choice of alloy will impact the life of the cutting devices. Stamping tools require tight tolerances in order to avoid excessive burrs. Harder materials will cut cleanest but may present a problem in forming. Avoid intricate, multiple, and sharp cornered piercing. Progressive or compound tooling may improve the quality of more intricate parts.

Titanium is abrasive by nature and will severely impact tool life and the consistency of detailed components. Commercially pure titanium is recommended for most forming processes.

Titanium may be etched in a Hydrofluoric bath. Several acid resistant photo-masking materials are available. Etching may be done to depths in excess of .010", completely cut through, in combination. Prior to removal of the photo-mask, the etched areas may then be anodized at voltages in excess of 70 for a look of stained glass or enamel. After the first oxide is applied remove the photo-mask. The remaining outline may either be left gray or anodized in the lower voltage ranges from 10 to 30. Cautionary note - Due to the nature of the process and chemistry, it is highly recommended that this procedure only be performed on equipment and in an environment specifically designed for photo-etching titanium.

Titanium Casting:
As previously noted, titanium casting poses far greater obstacles than those of conventional cast materials. The reactivity of titanium requires casting to be performed in vacuum or an inert atmosphere and investment material (ceramic is recommended).

In order to overcome the lack of fill often a result of the high liquid to solid ratio, parts must have an excessively large sprew and the molten titanium must be forced into the cavity at extreme speed and pressure. The finished casting is particularly difficult to clean and separate from the investment. This presents a significant problem in highly detailed parts with under-cuts. Naturally sprew removal is particularly difficult.

To date existing equipment for small scale titanium casting is not particularly cost effective and has a low throughput. Casting is not a preferred alternative for most applications requiring a near net shaped part that can be quality finished without secondary processing. The titanium industry is working feverishly to develop casting units and materials for cleaner small parts and higher throughput. The results of these efforts are scheduled to be available the later part of this year.

Powder metallurgy:
This is among the more significant contributions titanium technology will bring to jewelry manufacture. Powder metallurgy is an exacting science, only recently explored by the jewelry industry. It promises to cross the barriers of most metal production including gold and platinum as a preferred process to casting. The basis for creating powdered parts will allow for the manufacture of clean, crisp, higher density raw components requiring minimal finishing.

This process is performed by combining powdered metal with a resin based mix which is injected into a mold under high pressure and heat. The resin is then burned out, the part reduced to its final size and allowed to cool. Shrinkage is significant (generally 25 to 35%) and determined by the powder resin ratio which must be carefully measured to assure consistency of finished part dimensions.

As with all other processes, machining titanium poses an entirely new set of rules and challenges. Each of the various alloys has attributes on one end of the equation that may be offset with challenges on the other. Cutter’s material and life are governed by alloy preference. A determining factor in selecting the material to be machined should be predicated by the aesthetic and functionality of the end result desired.

In almost every case, coolant should be used when machining titanium. For best results tools must be kept sharp and run at high or slow speeds.

There are a variety of finishing processes employed in finishing titanium. Chemical, mass, hand, and combinations of the three offer a broad scope of alternative finishes. Alloys again play a role in achieving the optimum desired result.

Many other options exist in production methodology. These range from hot and cold forging (in open and closed dies) and die striking to hot forming, and spinning. Each of these processes requires an understanding of the material, and involves a reasonably high capital investment in startup equipment, tooling, and fixturing.

Cautionary measures:
As previously noted, working with titanium requires a clear understanding of the chemistry and nature of the material itself, the collateral materials, and the precautionary steps required for working with the volatile materials involved in each process. Titanium dust and shavings are extremely flammable and should be handled as such. Etching and many related processing chemicals must be handled with extreme care.

In conclusion, this article was not designed to discourage the manufacture of titanium products, but rather explain the commitment necessary before disembarkation. Though I must admit, on rare occasion the frustration of pioneering titanium has made me question my chosen commitment, I have never stopped believing "the end does justify the means". Titanium has unquestionably proven its viability and even superiority as a credible jewelry material. It is not an industry for the impatient or faint of heart. Its potential is limitless.

In 1999 the World Titanium Council was created as a organization solely dedicated to the development of aesthetic titanium consumer products. The WTC will serve a variety of industries as an information and technology forum for individuals, designers and corporations interested in pursuing titanium product development in all categories.

Few elements offer the depth and breadth of titanium. Its natural resemblance to platinum and the expansive spectrum of anodized colors and finishes offer an unsurpassed diversity. Coupled with the virtues inherent in the material, titanium has repeatedly proven its superiority in product and industry. Titanium is the only element offering this unique combination of beauty, strength, reduced weight, and bio-compatibility.

We are at the threshold of a milestone in history. One that may potentially rival the impact and magnitude of the industrial and electronic revolutions of the 20th century. Titanium has positively and diversely impacted mankind more than any single element in history. It has significantly elevated our capabilities in medicine, industry, and science. It has taken us to the depths of the ocean and the far reaches of space. Yet, it is only within the last 2 decades we have begun to explore the artistic and personal benefits of this miraculous new element.

As we entered the new Millennium, the multitude of endorsements from notable personalities and industries escalated demand for product and technological advancement. I expect we will continue to meet consumer expectancy for titanium products in the future.

For further information please contact us at www.Spectore.com or www.Titanium.org

Browse the amazing titanium jewelry created by Edward Rosenberg's designer brand Edward Mirell.