Jewelry Making Silver
by Rena Klingenberg. © 2003-Present Rena Klingenberg. All Rights Reserved
Jewelry making silver is often alloyed with other metals. Pure silver is a lustrous, white precious metal. It’s soft and easily shaped, and is slightly harder than gold.
Be sure to save all your scraps of sterling silver and fine silver that are too small to use in your jewelry.
Some jewelry suppliers and metal mills accept scrap silver, which you can usually exchange for cash or credit toward future metal purchases.
Argentium Sterling Silver
Argentium (pronounced: ahr-JENT-ee-um) sterling silver contains 92.5% pure silver, plus some of the copper that makes up regular sterling silver. It also contains an important third element – germanium.
The addition of germanium gives this newer variety of jewelry making silver some desirable properties – especially tarnish resistance and firescale elimination.
Argentium sterling silver tends to cost a bit more than the traditional sterling, but many jewelry artists (and jewelry customers) feel the extra cost is worth it to have their their pieces stay tarnish-free for a longer time.
Bali sterling jewelry components are handmade by skilled silversmiths in Bali, Indonesia. This is a family handcraft, with artistic secrets passed down from one generation to the next.
Every part of the Bali silversmithing process is done meticulously by hand, and even the smallest pieces are often incredibly detailed. The finished beads, components, and jewelry are often oxidized to enhance the granulation and other design details.
When you’re buying jewelry supplies, be aware that “Bali style silver” components are not the same as authentic “Bali silver” or “Bali sterling silver”. The term “Bali style” means the items are inspired by Bali craftsmanship, but are made elsewhere – often by machine instead of by hand.
Fine silver is at least 99.9% pure silver. It’s softer and easier to shape than sterling silver, and slightly more costly. It’s also a whiter metal, since it’s pure and not alloyed with other metals.
Many people with metal allergies find they can comfortably wear fine silver.
Hill Tribe Silver
Hill Tribe silver components and jewelry are a handcraft of the tribal people in northern Thailand. The Karen Hill Tribe is the largest and best-known group of silversmiths in that area.
The Hill Tribe metalworking techniques require a soft, high grade of silver – usually close to 99% pure silver – which also makes their jewelry and components whiter and more tarnish resistant than Bali sterling.
Hill Tribe silver involves distinctive designs, and finished pieces may be oxidized to bring out the fine details. Their motifs are often geometric or inspired by nature (animals, fish, insects, and plants).
Nickel silver (sometimes also called German silver, new silver, or alpaca) actually doesn’t contain any silver at all. It’s a mixture of copper and nickel, and often also zinc.
The nickel content is what gives this metal its silvery appearance – but it can also cause skin reactions in metal-allergic people.
Oxidized Sterling Silver
Jewelry artists sometimes oxidize or “antique” their finished sterling silver pieces to blacken the recessed areas, and then rub the rest of the piece to a high white shine. Oxidizing can give a piece of jewelry wonderful depth or a rustic feel.
When cleaning oxidized sterling silver pieces, it’s best to use a polishing cloth to keep the unoxidized areas white. Avoid tarnish removal methods that involve putting the entire piece of jewelry into a cleaning solution – as they usually remove the artistic oxidation along with the rest of the tarnish.
Silver clay is a jewelry making silver material that combines tiny particles of pure silver with an organic binder and water. It can be worked and shaped like clay – but when fired, the binder burns away so the finished piece is fine silver (99.9% silver).
Silver filled metal is made by bonding a layer of sterling silver over a core of another metal (usually copper). It involves a much thicker layer of silver than is used in silver plated metals.
If you’re familiar with gold filled metal – this is the silver version of it.
This metal isn’t widely used as a jewelry making silver. I’ve seen it occasionally in jewelry wire, as a type of sterling silver wire that’s more affordable when metal prices skyrocket.
Keep in mind that its copper core looks very different from the silver outer layer, so any deep tool nicks or cut ends may show the copper when examined closely.
A microscopically thin film of silver is applied over the surface of a base metal to give it the shine and appearance of silver. However, silver-plated items rarely appear as white and shiny as sterling or fine silver.
Also, the super-thin plated layer of silver inevitably peels or wears off, revealing the blotchy or dull-looking base metal beneath. So if you’re creating jewelry to last for years, you may want to choose a different form of jewelry making silver.
Sterling silver is an alloy of 92.5% pure silver plus 7.5% copper. It’s harder and more durable than pure silver, but less white due to its copper content.
The copper also enables tarnish to develop on sterling silver, especially in an environment containing either ozone or hydrogen sulfide.
You can slow the rate of tarnish by keeping your sterling silver tightly sealed in a plastic bag. You may want to keep your finished pieces as well as your unused jewelry making silver wire, findings, etc. in plastic bags.
In manufactured jewelry, sterling silver is sometimes given a “flashing” (thin coating) of fine silver or rhodium for extra shine and whiteness.
Tibetan silver contains pure silver mixed with copper and sometimes tin. Nickel may also be added. The percentage of silver in this alloy is usually much lower than in sterling silver, giving Tibetan silver an antiqued look.
The term “Tibetan silver” may also refer to a base metal core that’s been plated with the Tibetan silver alloy.