Jewelry Making Metals

Understanding Various Metals Used in Jewelry Making may be daunting to some. There can be much confusion over various types of metals used in Jewelry Making today and we hope this information will help you understand it better. Aside from a variety of Precious Metals, there are also a number of terms associated with various other metals that may be misunderstood as well. With the 'metal markets gone wild', many newer creative options are showing up in the marketplace to offset the cost of Gold and Silver. The newest being 'Silver Filled' based on the concept of 'Gold Filled' and this introduction raised an eyebrow for me with regards to unscrupulous dealers. 

Gold

The term 'karat' is used to express the proportion or quality of gold in an alloy. Fine gold (pure) is 24 karat (24K). Typically in North America the Karat grade is used to identify the fineness of Gold. The numbers below will show the Karat grade identifier = the 'Parts Gold to Alloy' = the percentage of gold to total weight = the fineness number of Gold (the 3-digit Fineness number can be the identifier used in some countries).

  • 10K = 10/24 = 41.67% = 417
  • 14K = 14/24 = 58.33% = 583
  • 18K = 18/24 = 75.00% = 750
  • 22K = 22/24 = 91.66% = 917 

Gold-Filled (perfect explanation compliments of Wikipedia)

Gold-filled jewelry, also known as "rolled gold" or "rolled gold plate" is composed of a solid layer of gold bonded with heat and pressure to a base metal such as brass. Some high quality gold-filled pieces have the same appearance as 14 karat (58%) gold. In the USA the quality of gold filled is defined by the Federal Trade Commission. If the gold layer is 10 kt fineness the minimum layer of karat gold in an item stamped GF must equal at least 1/10 the weight of the total item. If the gold layer is 12 kt or higher the minimum layer of karat gold in an item stamped GF must equal at least 1/20 the weight of the total item. The most common stamps found on gold-filled jewelry are 1/20 12kt GF and 1/20 14kt GF. Also common is 1/10 10kt. Some products are made using sterling silver as the base, although this more expensive version is not common today.

"Double clad" gold-filled sheet is produced with 1/2 the thickness of gold on each side. 1/20 14Kt double clad gold-filled has a layer on each side of 1/40th 14Kt making the total content of gold 1/20. The thinner layer on each side does not wear as well as single clad gold-filled.

The Federal Trade Commission allows the use of "Rolled Gold Plate" or "R.G.P". on items with lower thicknesses of gold than are required for "gold-filled." A 12 kt gold layer that is 1/60 the weight of the total item is designated as 1/60 12kt RGP. This lower quality does not wear as well as gold-filled items. 

Gold-Filled versus Gold-Plating

Gold-filled items, even with daily wear, can last five to 30 years but will eventually wear through. The gold layer on gold-plated jewelry varies greatly depending on manufacturer, so there is no single, simple comparison. Gold-filled items are 50 to 100,000 times thicker than regular gold plating, and 17 to 25,000 times thicker than heavy gold electroplate (sometimes stamped HGE or HGP—usually found on flashy cubic zirconia "cocktail rings"). 

Gold Vermeil

A product that is made from a base of sterling silver that is coated or plated on its surfaces with gold of at least 10K finess and at least 2.5 microns thick (100/1,000,000 inch). In years gone by before the spike in precious metals, Gold Vermeil was typically a finess of 18K and mostly 22K which offered designers the rich color tone of pure Gold at a similar price of Sterling Silver.

The term Vermeil cannot be used if the sterling is covered with a base metal before being coated with gold unless the presence of the base metal is disclosed. (This concept makes no sense as, in my humble opinion, the purpose of Gold Vermeil is to offer the rich color of high end Gold in a total precious metal...otherwise, doesn't it just become a very expensive 'plated product'?)

My personal experience with Vermeil is limited as I have enjoyed it as a quality design object mostly for the color not necessarily as an alternative metal due to price. 

Silver

Silver has been used to make jewelry since ancient times, but the exploration of continents in the western hemisphere uncovered productive silver mines that greatly increased the supply of this precious metal. The result -- more silver has been mined and used since the late 1700's than in all prior centuries combined. 

Sterling Silver

Pure silver is too soft to create durable jewelry, so it's mixed with other metals (an alloy) to enhance performance. One popular silver mixture is known as Sterling Silver.

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stipulates that jewelry sold in the United States cannot bear silver markings or be described as silver, solid silver, sterling silver, sterling, or with the abbreviation 'Ster.' unless it contains at least 92.5 percent pure silver.

The minimum silver content can also be stated as 925 parts per thousand of pure silver, so you might see the figures 925 or 92.5 used to designate silver content.

Copper is the metal most commonly used to make up the remaining 7.5 percent content of a Sterling Silver mix but other metals such as Zinc or Tin is also used.. Copper makes the silver harder, but gives it a tendency to tarnish, a darkening that occurs when Sterling Silver reacts with gases in the air or with other substances that it comes in contact with. Although Copper is most commonly used. 

Silver-Filled

The newest being 'Silver Filled' based on the concept of 'Gold Filled' and this introduction raises an eyebrow for me with regards to unscrupulous dealers. 

Silver-Plating

Much like gold-plating, the layer on Silver-Plated jewelry varies greatly depending on manufacturer, so there is no single, simple comparison. I have tried various products and definitely find the inconsistency true. I have been fortunate to find several Silver-Plated jewelry components that have performed (stayed cleaner) than many sterling components.

For components that do not touch the skin (like headpins and small accent beads, the base metals may not be of great importance. When it comes to components such as ear wires, clasps and chains, I feel it is very important to choose base metals such steel or surgical steel. The likelihood of allergies to such metals are typically limited, although some people do have allergies to these metals and it is very important to disclose this information. 

Tibetan Silver

So much confusion of 'Tibetan Silver' as the term has roots in an Ancient Culture and Art invoking beautiful images of Old World Ornate Silver-smithing. Here is the description provided by Wikipedia which I think helps clarify in our contemporary environment:

"Tibetan silver is used primarily in jewelry components, and is similar to pewter - an alloy of copper, and sometimes tin or nickel, with a small percentage of pure silver. Its overall appearance is of aged silver, but it can be polished to provide highlights on complex castings. Today, the nickel content is reduced or absent, due to common allergies to this metal.

The related term 'Nepalese silver', however, seems to have held on to the higher silver content and association with quality metalsmithing.

Currently, jewelry, beads and castings described as 'Tibetan Silver' tend to be a base iron 'cheese metal' casting, overlaid with this pewter and silver plating. Dependent on source, these can be either thick and robust, or attractive but easily broken due to a loose, fragile inner casting. The latter productions are therefore only suitable for small castings up to around 12 mm, or transient 'fashion' jewelry with a short lifespan."

With the mass production of 'Tibetan Silver' (often Jewelry Making and Beading Supplies) it can sometimes be very confusing and often misunderstood. Sterling Silver Jewelry from Nepal is often referred to as 'Tibetan Nepal Silver' which I find particularly interesting considering the Sino-Nepalese War (1788-1792) began as a dispute over coins struck by Nepal for Tibet using inferior alloy materials. 

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