Sterling silver, fine silver, argentium silver, copper, aluminum, bronze, brass.
I use all of these metals (and more!) when making my jewelry…and a recent conversation with one of my friends (a fellow Karate Mom) made me think that while the characteristics and properties of different types of metals may be second nature to me, my spouting off “.925 silver”, “.999 silver”, and “sterling versus fine” might closer to a foreign language to others!
I thought I’d start with a quick primer on silver, one of the materials I commonly use, along with answers to some of the most common questions I’m asked.
Silver is shiny, but it’s not all equal! Pure silver, like gold, is much too soft to use on it’s own for jewelry. Alloys are added to the silver to strengthen it, resulting in a “less than pure” state.
Sterling silver is comprised of 92.5 parts pure silver and 7.5 parts alloy, usually copper. Because of the relatively high copper content, sterling silver will naturally tarnish when exposed to oxygen and other elements, such as humidity. Sterling silver is usually stamped or marked with “.925” to identify it.
Fine silver contains less alloy than sterling (99.9 parts silver, .01 parts alloy), so it tarnishes much less quickly, but is a lot less durable than sterling.
I generally use fine silver only for components that don’t have much stress on them (headpins used to hang beads from earrings or dangles on necklaces or bracelets) or for links I know will be hardened by hammering. (Hammering is soooo therapeutic after a long week at the day job, it’s a wonder I don’t have ONLY hammered pieces!)
Argentium (pronounced AR--TEE-UM) silver is desirable because it combines the best of sterling and fine silver into one metal.
Approximately 1% of the copper alloy used in Argentium silver is germanium, which doesn’t oxidize as quickly as copper. Argentium silver still has 92.5 parts silver, so it’s strong like sterling, but tarnishes very slowly, like fine silver. Argentium is fairly new to the jewelry making world, and is more expensive than sterling silver, but does make very nice jewelry!
Some of your work is BLACK or really dark, but you’re telling me it’s real silver! What’s up with that? I use chemicals or natural oxidizing agents to artificially tarnish and antique some of my pieces. Complex wire wrapping especially looks great when it’s been oxidized – makes that wrapping pop! All my oxidized pieces are polished in my tumbler for at least 12 hours, then hand polished to finish them off to a perfect sheen.
ACK! My jewelry doesn’t look pretty and shiny any more! What do I do? Cleaning and care of your jewelry is something I’m frequently asked about. If (okay, WHEN) your silver jewelry starts looking a little dingy, or even (shudder) has a yellowish tinge, use jewelry cleaner, a polishing cloth (I like Sunshine cloths) or Lynn’s Super Secret Jewelry Cleaner* to get it sparkling again.
In extreme cases, you can even use Tarnex, but be VERY careful…it’s strong stuff, so use it sparingly! (Plus it smells horrible.)
You do need to be extra cautious about cleaning any jewelry that includes porous stones, such as dyed stones, turquoise, opals or pearls…liquids can potentially damage them! When in doubt, use a polishing cloth.
Okay, what’s the super secret recipe….
Shhhh…it’s a secret! But since you asked, here’s an easy and natural jewelry cleaner that you can make at home!
Combine 1c white vinegar and 1T salt. Stir (or shake, I’m not Bond, so it matters not to me) until the salt is dissolved, and drop in your jewelry. Swish it around for about 30 seconds, remove, and RINSE THOROUGHLY in clear, cool water. Dry (I use a ShamWOW!…they are great for drying jewelry!) and admire how shiny it is!
Hope this helps you to understand silver a little better.