The use of titanium in silversmithing and jewellery – a short history

Titanium is a truly 20th Century metal. Although the existence of this new element was established in the late 18th century, it was not isolated as a pure metal until the early 20th Century and not produced in significant volume until the 1950s. The lightweight, silver-grey metal has many uses and is a familiar material in the jewellery designer’s repertoire, although, today, it is less often used for its colour potential, which was the main reason for its early use nearly forty years ago.

This exhibition illustrates the introduction of this new metal to jewellers and traces the history of its use for decorative pieces. It is by no means a comprehensive survey of all the users of titanium but explores, with selective examples, how the creativity of key jewellers was stimulated by a novel and unusual metal. The exhibition concentrates on the UK because this is where titanium was first used in designed jewellery.

For thousands of years jewellers used a range of metals with limited colours of yellow, red and white. Other materials and methods, namely vitreous enamels and gemstones, were needed to expand the palette to colours such as blue, purple and green. Titanium offered the possibility of a coloured metal surface without painting or enamelling and it was this property that most attracted the designers and makers of jewellery. Interference colours are observed when a thin oxide layer is formed on the surface of titanium by heating or anodising.

The promotion of the use of titanium for decorative purposes was initiated in 1964 by JB Cotton, a senior researcher in the metals division of ICI, Imperial Metal Industries(IMI). Based at the IMI laboratories in Witton, Cotton approached one of the tutors at the School of Jewellery in Birmingham, Gerald Whiles, with the idea that titanium would be a worthwhile new material for the students to explore.

The arrival of a new metal in a traditional craft area came at a period of radical change in design and making. Students, influenced by the International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery at Goldsmiths’ Hall in 1961, were embarking on new graduate programmes in jewellery where tutors from other creative disciplines were employed to encourage a cross-fertilisation of ideas. The school at Birmingham was part of the expansion across the UK of courses where students were encouraged to think about and experiment with materials other than precious metals and gemstones. In 1965 titanium, was introduced into this highly energised and creative environment.

The Birmingham silversmithing students were given samples of different forms of titanium to experiment with. The technical staff at IMI advised on methods for anodising, suggesting an ammonium sulphate solution as a suitable electrolyte. All the metal forming techniques were tried including some, such as forging, that the technicians at IMI thought would be difficult or dangerous. Titanium at high temperatures can self-ignite and titanium dust can be explosive. Some work survives from this time but the makers have yet to be identified.

Aluminium body with anodised titanium rods ca 1965, (collection P. Hayfield.
Welded thick titanium plates,
heat-coloured, ca 1965.
(collection P. Hayfield)

The exciting results being achieved in the Silversmithing School, encouraged the jewellers to ask to be included in the project and this is when titanium was first used for designed jewellery. The earliest identifiable piece of designed titanium jewellery is the belt buckle, machined from thick sheet and anodised, made in 1967 by Ann Marie Shillito. She continued her experimental use of titanium while at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and through out her career, developing the use of integral pins and earwires and casting with silver.

Another artist of note in the early decorative use of titanium was Pietro Pedeferri. Although a University researcher in the field of electrochemistry at the Politecnico in Milan, he was inspired by the colour possibilities of the metal to produce wonderful compositions on titanium.

IMI continued to develop different decorative techniques with titanium including finishes with faceted effects, which on subsequent anodising produced multicoloured surfaces and ‘painting’ by using a brush anodising technique.

The use of titanium spread through the ‘close-knit’ jewellery school network in the late 1960s as tutors and students saw pieces incorporating the new metal in degree shows. Eric Spiller recalls using it at Central in 1968 and Alan Wright notes that samples of titanium from IMI were brought into class at Central in 1969. David Poston first used titanium at Hornsey in 1969 but did not work with it seriously until 1983 when he began hot forging the metal to produce a range of elegant and sensuous pieces.
By the early 1970s titanium had become a regular product used in Jewellery courses. Some jewellers found titanium an interesting challenge and worth the effort for the creative possibilities given by the colouring of the surface. Many however just used pieces of coloured titanium in a similar way to gemstones or enamelled plaques with a silver frame. The first Loot exhibition in 1975, organised at Goldsmiths’ Hall, included several such titanium pieces. Perhaps because they are the easiest colours to produce, many jewellers coloured titanium various shades of blue, making it a natural sky backdrop to scenic pieces.

In the catalogue for the second Loot exhibition in 1976, Graham Hughes, the Art Director at Goldsmiths’ Hall, noted the use of ‘a new metal and new colour’ in the pieces exhibited. Eleven of the three hundred and thirty exhibitors showed work incorporating titanium. One of these was Scilla Speet who had started working with titanium as a student at Birmingham in 1968 and produced pieces that involved setting titanium rod into silver while at the RCA (1970-3). The Loot exhibition in Minneapolis in 1978 featured a significant number of titanium pieces and subsequent workshops given in the USA by UK jewellers carried the use of titanium across the Atlantic.

The first exhibition to be devoted entirely to titanium was held at the Electrum Gallery in October 1976, and featured three students from the RCA, Ed de Large, Kevin Coates and James Brent Ward. De Large developed his own painstaking heat and anodising techniques to produce exquisite cloudscape brooches while for Kevin Coates titanium was just one of many materials chosen for visual impact. Brent Ward, with sponsorship from the Goldsmiths’ Company, published a report in 1979 that became the standard guide for jewellers on working with refractory metals.

18ct and titanium brooch, Kevin Coates, 1974.
18ct gold bowl with turned and anodised titanium base.Ed de
titanium and stainless steel chainmail necklace, Lexi Dick,1974.
Three images above courtesy of the Royal College of Art. Any use of these images other than on this website is not permitted

While a second year student at the RCA in 1974, Lexi Dick used titanium in combination with stainless steel to produce a chain-mail neckpiece but this was to be her only use of the metal.  It was Mike Pinder, as a tutor at Manchester with the encouragement of
Ann Marie Shillito, who explored and developed the use of titanium wire for chain mail.
Brian Podschies another Birmingham student from 1973-77 became interested in the challenging metal and after using the standard colouring techniques became ‘bored with just colour’. After graduation he started to use hot-forging as a way to achieve more visually ‘organic’ surfaces.

For the first decade of its use, up to the mid 1970s, titanium was regarded as a special material used principally by designer/makers to produce one-off or limited edition pieces. In the second half of the 1970s and the early 1980s simple, inexpensive pieces began to appear in the High Street Jewellers. Companies such as Simbol, Prism and Dust changed the perception of titanium by producing multi-coloured jewellery for the mass-market.

Artist/craftsmen who found the problems of using titanium too frustrating, both technically and commercially, but liked the colour possibilities moved on to niobium and tantalum, other refractory metals (so-called because of their high melting temperatures). Both were introduced to jewellers in the UK by Peter Gainsbury, Technical Director with the Goldsmiths’ Company and his wife Pauline Gainsbury.

Niobium has the advantage of being more workable than titanium and a specific gravity at 8.57 closer to the 10.5 of silver. It can however only be coloured by anodising and not by heat. Many jewellers, including Peter’s wife, Pauline, took to niobium with enthusiasm. The combination of titanium and niobium allows the production of multi-coloured patterns of greater complexity as different colours are produced on the two metals when anodised at the same voltage.

In a parallel development Ingeborg Bratman, via contacts in UK industry, also started working with tantalum. Tantalum has a specific gravity of 16.6, close to that of gold (19.3) and a very attractive blue/grey colour. A bangle and earrings made of tantalum are on display in the Science Museum.

In the early 1980s Debbie Moxon, inspired by the images created by Ed de Large, developed her own particular method of heat-colouring titanium, using precise geometric scoring and a fine flame. She is still experimenting and developing her techniques for the heat-colouring of titanium.

Heat is also used by Susan Beale to colour the turned titanium stems of her champagne flutes.
The light weight of titanium, so important in industry, has been seen as a disadvantage in a jewellery market where, for historic reasons, related to the use of precious metals, value has been connected with weight. Writing in the Financial Times in 2002, Vivienne Becker disparages ‘tinny titanium’. The possibilities offered for larger scale wearable pieces, which have to some extent been realised with aluminium have not been exploited for titanium. The benefit of the lightness of titanium has been successfully used in maces; in 1972 for the Open University (designed by Eric Clements and made by Hamish Bowie) and in 1988 for the Birmingham Polytechnic (designed and made by Terry Hunt).

In recent years the strength and lightness of pale grey titanium have been exploited in sports equipment, spectacle frames, mass-production jewellery, where the ‘industrial’ image of the metal is being successfully marketed to men, and the iconic Apple-Mac Titanium Power Book.

There are however a few early signs of a renewed interest in the colouring of titanium. Recently, Joel Degen, who appreciated uncoloured titanium as it was ’in tune with the machine aesthetic’ of his work, has started to reintroduce colour.
Recent experimental effort has concentrated on the use of lasers to create colour and pattern on titanium. Ann-Marie Carey at the Innovation Centre at Birmingham and Sarah O’Hana at Manchester University are both involved in research in this area.

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