Alloys and Metals Used in Making Jewelry
There are as many different designs and combinations of alloys and metals used in making jewelry as there are jewelry designers in the world. Here we will provide you with the information you need about different categories that will help you make informed decisions when buying jewelry. With this information you will know what to questions to ask about:
- Elements & Alloys
- Base Metals
- Precious Metals
- Ethical & Green Metals
- Gold Plate vs. Gold Fill
- Allergies & Hypoallergenic Metals
- Patinas & Oxidizers
Alloys and Metals Used in Making Jewelry – Elements and Alloys
In the world of metallurgy, metals can be elements or alloys. Elements are the basic building blocks of chemistry. Oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, iron (Fe), and copper (Cu) are all examples of elements.
Traditionally popular as an ingredient in alloys, Lead (Pb) is an element that is often used due to its properties in making metals softer; this helps them melt at lower temperatures. However, not much lead is used anymore; it has been determined to lead to certain health problems and allowable amounts of lead in jewelry components are now regulated.
Alloys are mixtures of various elements. Alloys can be a “base” metal, such as brass, or “precious” metal, like sterling silver or karat gold. People create alloys to change certain properties such as the color, melting temperature, and/or strength of elements. For example, solid gold is too soft for most applications so it is alloyed with other elements to improve its strength.
Alloys and Metals Used in Making Jewelry – Base Metals
The catch-all term,” Base metal” is used in costume jewelry. In metalworking, the base metal is any metal that is not one of the precious metals. Costume jewelry base metals are often plated with a very thin layer of silver, gold, rhodium, nickel, or other metal on the surface of the bead or another component.
Common Base Metals
Brass is an alloy of copper, zinc and sometimes other metals. It is typically 70% copper and 30% zinc. Red brass wire is 90% copper, and 10% zinc, giving it a slightly warmer color. Non-plated brass components are usually the same color as plated findings, although they will vary in color and may also work with gold plate. Their surfaces may be imperfect and their finish may change with age.
One proprietary alloy, tarnish-resistant brass, resembles the color of 14kt gold.
an element that’s bright reddish-orange in color. Over time, it will darken and gain a greenish patina. Copper can also discolor the skin, turning a ring finger, wrist or neck green. Since copper is a soft metal, it’s great for wire wrapping. Solid copper components are less durable than copper-plated beads and findings.
sometimes also called German silver. It is a base-metal alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc. While nickel is silver in color, it does not contain any sterling silver. Nickel silver wire is 65% copper, 18% nickel, and 17% zinc. The relatively inexpensive cost of nickel silver compared with sterling makes it an attractive option for jewelry components. Some people are allergic to nickel.
highly resistant to corrosion and other reactions and is used in medical implants. Niobium jewelry findings come in several anodized colors. Anodizing is a way to color metal by dipping it into an electrically charged “bath” that creates bright colors without plating or painting the surface. The colors don’t flake or chip like plated or painted surfaces. The main drawback of anodized niobium is that it doesn’t match basic silver and gold colors. On the upside, niobium is an inert element, with no nickel, lead, or other additives; most people with metal allergies can safely wear niobium.
includes any of the numerous silver-gray alloys of tin with various amounts of antimony and copper. Many pewter beads and jewelry findings have a plating of a different color over the pewter base. Other base-metal items marked “antiqued pewter” maybe brass or zinc with an antiqued pewter plating. In nearly all cases, these zinc or brass alloys meet lead-free criteria.
shaped when the metal is below its recrystallization temperature (usually room temperature). The metal is literally pressed between rollers in a mill to flatten and thin the steel. This cold processing method work hardens the metal and strengthens it up to 20% more than hot processing. It also creates a very smooth surface with a uniform finish. It allows for the creation of small products with great strength.
AFNOR XC45 steel
carbon steel with no nickel added. Jewelry findings made of AFNOR XC45 steel include superior-quality French barrette backs and shoe clips.
Stainless steel (a.k.a. corrosion-resistant steel) is a generic name for any steel alloy with chromium. In all types of stainless steel, the chromium creates a very thin chromium-oxide layer on the surface of the metal which prevents it from rusting. Steel is a really useful metal, it can be easily cut and drilled to the correct shape and size.
Stainless Steel vs. Plated Steel
The advantage of stainless steels over plated steels is that, if scratched or damaged, the stainless steel ‘self-repairs’ as a new chromium-oxide layer is formed. In plated steels, scratches in the plating can lead to corrosion of the steel underneath. In general, the higher the percentage of chromium, the stronger the corrosion resistance of the steel. Other metals are added to the alloy to give the steel other properties, such as strength and malleability. Nickel is added to strengthen the protective oxide layer.
findings are slightly more gray than white findings, but the difference is barely noticeable, especially on finished jewelry.
304 stainless steel
the most popular grade of stainless steel. It is 18-20% chromium, 8-10.5% nickel, 0.08% carbon, plus iron and other trace elements listed above. It is commonly used in the food industry (sinks, coffee urns, dairy storage, and hauling, beer/brewing, citrus and fruit juice handling, etc.) The same corrosion and stain resistance that make it great for food handling, also make it popular for jewelry.
Surgical stainless steel
a specific type of stainless steel which, while wearable by the majority of the population, does contain a small amount of nickel, usually 8% in jewelry. Some surgical stainless steels contain 2-3% molybdenum for even greater resistance to harsh corrosives and are frequently used for stainless steel watches and marine applications. Like most other stainless steel, it contains 8-10.5% nickel, making it unsuitable for people with nickel allergies.
a very strong metal that’s resistant to corrosion. It is12 frequently used in medical implants, and it’s an excellent choice for people with nickel allergies. Titanium is often used to create ear wires and earring posts.
“White metal” and “pot metal” are terms for tin-based alloys used in the low-temperature casting of base-metal jewelry components. The white metal is the “silver” color that you most often see on costume jewelry and base-metal findings. White metal castings are usually three-dimensional rather than flat and are often plated. The exact composition of the white metal varies because each casting foundry and shop uses its own proprietary formula.
The term precious metal refers to rare metals of high economic value. The term usually includes platinum, gold, and silver. Metal can be considered a “noble” metal (meaning it is highly resistant to corrosion) without being a “precious” metal. Gold, silver, and platinum are generally considered to be both noble metals and precious metals.
sometimes stamped .925, is an alloy of at least 92.5% silver, and (usually) copper. It is a soft, easy to work with metal, which can be antiqued to a dark black or polished to a bright shine.
Argentium® sterling silver
a tarnish-resistant variety of sterling that consists of 1.2% germanium, 6.3% copper and 92.5% silver. Argentium’s main attraction is its tarnish-resistance which requires much less maintenance than traditional sterling silvers.
Argentium is environmentally friendlier than traditional sterling. Argentium can be made nearly twice as hard as standard annealed sterling silver by simple heat treatment, and it can be welded by laser. These properties allow for expanded design possibilities.
sometimes stamped .999, is at least 99.9% pure silver, which means it is softer and more malleable than sterling. It also tends to take longer to tarnish. Some of the best fine silver beads & jewelry findings are handcrafted in remote villages using traditional silversmith techniques.
made by using heat and pressure to apply a layer of .925 sterling or .999 finer silver to a base of less costly metal. This produces a surface of sterling silver or fine silver that is hundreds of times thicker than a silver plating.
pronounced “Vehr-MAY,” is a plating of karat gold over sterling silver.
Pure gold is 24kt, meaning 24 out of 24 parts are gold. 24kt is too soft to be functional, so it is alloyed with other metals for durability, cost, and color. 14kt is 14 parts gold out of 24, and the remaining 10 parts are other metals. Depending on the color of gold (which can be yellow, rose, green or white), the other parts may be copper, silver, nickel, zinc, tin, palladium and/or manganese. Today, palladium used to make a white gold alloy that is less likely to react to people with allergies to nickel.
(also called gold overlay) is made by using heat and pressure to apply a layer of karat gold to a base of less costly metal. This produces a surface with karat gold that is used in making gold-filled beads, wire, and jewelry findings.
1/10 10kt GF: 1/10 of the total weight must be 10kt gold.
1/20 12kt GF: 1/20 of the total weight must be 12kt gold.
Ethical & Green Metal
The terms “ethical metals” and “green metals” describe metals made from reclaimed materials; that are refined and reused; as opposed to metals that have been newly mined. Some silver and gold have always been reclaimed (recycled) from scrap jewelry, electronics, industrial scrap, photo processing, and other sources. In this sense, precious metals have always been green. The historical precedent of recycling precious metals, combined with high prices in metal markets, means it’s safe to assume that at least some of today’s precious metal beads and jewelry findings are also made with so-called ethical metals.
a thin deposit of metal that electro-chemically or otherwise applied to the surface of a different metal base. Many plated items plated with copper first, then the final color.
Terms like the white, yellow, silver plate and gold plate can be somewhat ambiguous when you’re trying to determine whether or not the clasps in your hand will match the jewelry chain, jump rings, ear wires, etc. listed in a catalog. Here are fairly standard jewelry industry plating definitions:
the “silver” color most often see on costume jewelry and base-metal findings. White-plated components are generally grayer, but also more durable, than silver-plated components. They generally do not tarnish. The plating typically imitation rhodium made of copper, tin, zinc, and/or nickel.
Many white-plated components have a plating of real rhodium over a nickel undercoating. This nickel undercoating may leach. Rhodium is brighter and more silvery than other white platings.
a thin surface layer of actual silver. It nicely matches the color of sterling silver; it doesn’t quite match white findings. Like sterling silver, the silver plate can tarnish. For this reason, it’s frequently lacquered to prevent tarnish (until the lacquer wears off).
Antiqued silver plate
a thin surface layer of silver that darkened to provide a “distressed” (oxidized) appearance.
The antiqued pewter plate
a pewter-colored plating that darkened to provide a “distressed” (oxidized) appearance. Some antiqued pewter beads and findings are matte, while others are shiny.
The yellow plate
a gold-colored plating that is slightly brassier than gold plate and is sometimes longer lasting. Yellow finishes go best with raw brass.
a very thin deposit of actual gold (about 1 mil). The color matches 14kt gold. Heavy gold electroplate might be 2 or 3 mils. Learn the difference between the gold plate and gold fill. Many gold-plated items have a white nickel plate under the final gold plate.
Warning: hand lotion will accelerate tarnish on gold plated components, and can result in a black color within days of handling.
a very thin finish of gold color that is not actual gold.
Antiqued gold plate
a very thin surface layer of actual gold (about mil) that darkened to provide a “distressed” (oxidized) appearance.
Warning: hand lotion will accelerate tarnish on gold plated components, and can result in a black color within days of handling.
Antiqued brass components
typically have a brass or zinc base with a brass plating. The crevices of antiqued brass beads, charms and findings darkened to give them a “distressed” (oxidized) appearance.
a bright, shiny copper plating. Because the metal underneath the plating usually a harder metal than copper; copper-plated components tend to be more durable than solid copper parts.
An antiqued copper plate
a copper plating that darkened to provide a “distressed” (oxidized) appearance.
varies in color from gun blue to matte dark gray to shiny black metal. It often consists of black nickel-plated over brass. It’s also possible to find gunmetal coated Czech glass beads.
Gold Plate vs. Fill
Gold fill is 50 to 100,000 times thicker than regular gold plating, and about 17 to 25,000 times thicker than heavy gold electroplate. Similarly, the silver fill is 100’s of times thicker than a silver plating.
An allergic reaction to nickel is one of the most common metal allergies that you may experience. People with slight nickel allergies can usually wear surgical stainless steel for a few hours, or possibly all day. But some people are so sensitive that they cannot even wear watches, or have the buttons on their Levi’s touch their skin. For nickel-allergic people, we suggest sterling silver earring findings, karat gold, niobium, titanium earring findings, and nonmetal earring findings.
“Nickel free” can be a misleading term since items marked nickel free are allowed to contain a minute amount of nickel. There is not yet a US standard for limiting the amount of nickel allowed in jewelry components. The European Union’s standard typically called the EU Nickel Directive; limits the amount of nickel that may be released onto the skin from jewelry and other products.
Hypoallergenic is a popular marketing term but has no legal definition. If you desire hypoallergenic jewelry, opt for the nickel-free options instead.
Patinas and Oxidizers
A patina is a corrosion or oxidation that takes place on a metal surface. Rust on iron is one example; tarnish on silver is another. Patinas often form naturally by a long exposure, but can also be created artificially for an antiqued (a.k.a. distressed) look.
Antiquing solutions (a.k.a. oxidizers) frequently used by jewelry makers; to add a patina to metal beads, charms, and findings. Each used on a variety of metals. Before using an antiquing solution; be sure to read the directions and safety precautions, and follow them carefully!