Monday, 20 August 2012

Chainmail Jewelry

When you are a creative person, you tend to find it runs in the family, but as far as I know I am the first in my line to make jewelry. My ancestry contains all sorts of tradesmen, but nothing so frou-frou. But my grandmother was an excellent seamstress and knitter, and she taught me both skills when I was very young. I sat on the floor beside her, and watched her work, and asked to learn. I actually learned at her knee, and I'm sure that's how the phrase began.

I then taught my children, in turn, even the boys. It came as no surprise to me then, when my eldest son became interested in chainmail. He has since become an expert, and it wasn't long before his sister followed in his footsteps. Naturally I offered her the chance to sell her creations in my store on eBay, and soon we will have our own website.

I took an interest in their work, of course, but it wasn't until recently that I studied the origins of this craft in any great depth. We all know that chainmail was used as armour many centuries ago. What I was surprised to find, pleasantly surprised I might add, was that it was also used to make jewelry. Examples exist from medieval times of the weaves still in use today. Foolishly, I had assumed this was a modern idea.

For some reason, I like it better knowing it is an old idea. Don't ask me why. I have long admired the work my kids do, but now I see it differently, not just beautiful, but solidly historical, not a fleeting trend.

This weave dates back at least 500 years, for example:

But its name is Byzantine, so it could be older!

The weave used in these earrings is called Romanov, and I can see why. When used with a gemstone it has a distinctly regal look. I can picture these on a lady wearing a tiara and sash, dancing a waltz, can't you? Exquisite.

OK. So I may get a little bit over-excited about my daughter's work, and I do think she's a creative genius. But I confess to being in love with the whole craft, the sumptuous colours....

The simple delicacy of some of the weaves

The flexible nature of the craft

Making virtually anything possible. The only limit is one's imagination, and clearly hers is limitless.

If you would like to see more of her work, you can find it here:

The site we are working on will be ready in time for Christmas:

Friday, 11 May 2012

Beads Galore

Whether you collect beads in order to make them into jewellery, or just because you love beads, one thing is for sure, as a collection it could continue for a lifetime, there is so much out there!

It is generally accepted by archaeologists that the first beads were made from seashells, but very early examples of carved bone, seeds and small nuts have also been found. Humans adorned themselves with bead jewelry long before recorded history, and by the time writing was developed it had become a relatively refined craft. Many of the styles, materials, and techniques referred to in the earliest writings are still in use today, so this is not only ancient but current at the same time.

Seashell beads, especially, are still very much in demand, and a hot item in  summer fashions. The supply is virtually inexhaustible, broken shells are collected pre-polished by the waves, and dyed vivid colours whilst retaining their natural lustre. Bone, coral and wooden beads also remain as popular as ever, but of course the chief natural material is the wide variety of minerals available.

The really huge item right now, however, is traditional, yet man-made, and that is decorative glass. Glass-making itself dates back over 5000 years and glass beads date back almost as far. By the 9th century CE in Europe skills and demand had reached such a level that in places such as Murano in Italy 50% of the residents were making decorative glass, and much of this was for jewelry. Fashions go in cycles and this style of bead reached peaks of popularity in Art Nouveau times and again now.

The fashion for longer, dangly earrings has led to the use of more beads of all types. Glass crystal beads of the style made famous by Swarovski are currently very popular, including pavĂ© styles and teardrops. Tiny seed beads are woven into wire designs to create sparkle without the need for cutting stones.

Improvements in the plastics industry have brought us synthetic beads that don't look "cheap" and some of the acrylic rhinestones on the market today flash fire almost as well as a cut gemstones. Resin beads imitate many gemstones extremely well, and often allow uniformity in design, although they are not necessarily any cheaper than the real thing.

The biggest growth area in recent years has been in decorative metal beads. When I first started making bead jewellery the variety was quite limited, and quality was often poor. There are now thousands of designs, well-made for a sensible price, in a number of different materials, finishes, and colours.

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Thursday, 10 May 2012

Purity of Precious Metals

Silver, gold, and platinum are what we think of when we think of "valuable" metals. In jewellery we don't see these in their pure forms (in fact pure gold is virtually impossible), they are always alloyed with another metal for strength and durability. The quantities vary so here are some details for you to bear in mind when shopping.


Silver is worth currently only about $30US an ounce (but prices do fluctuate, so when you read this blog check the current price), and an ounce is quite a lot of silver, about 10 average rings, more or less. Most of the cost therefore, when you buy silver jewellery is in workmanship and mark-up. 

Pure silver is incredibly soft and would be quite useless as jewellery, other than for plating, so it is always alloyed with other metals. Even at 95% purity it is far too malleable, so the usual silver on the market is sterling silver, which is 92.5% silver, and (usually) 7.5% copper and it is often marked .925. Other alloys exist, however, and change the colour slightly. Other purities also exist such as .900 silver, and in Britain it is possible to buy .958 (Britannia silver) although it is not often used for jewelry. 


Gold is extremely malleable, and 24 karat gold, the purest form generally available (99% pure) is normally only used as a plating. By weight, 22 karat gold is 91.6% pure, 18 karat gold is 75% pure, and 10 karat gold is 41.7% pure, with the remainder being half copper and half silver. Coloured golds use different alloys, and white gold may have a higher silver percentage, or may use other metals, in place of part or all of the copper. Unfortunately cheap white gold often contains a high nickel content, causing allergies in some people*. For this reason those with allergies might actually be better with silver - it is possible to buy white gold plated with rhodium to prevent allergies, but this plating wears off over time. 

Gold price at time of writing is about $1600US an ounce, and no matter how low it goes, it's still an expensive metal, which is the main reason people are willing to call 10 karat gold "gold", despite it being little more than 40% gold. Even 9 karat gold is acceptable in Europe, at just 37.5%. One reason for the high price is the waste involved in production. Only a tiny fraction of gold is retrieved from the ore (at best 1/10 of an ounce PER TON!!!) and a tremendous amount of power is needed to extract it. Also then, it is a very "environmentally unfriendly" product, and the waste ore is full of seriously hazardous materials. 


Incredibly rare (but currently actually slightly cheaper than gold) platinum is the most highly prized of the commonly used precious metals. It is extremely easy to extract and is often simply a by-product of other mining processes. It is usually used at 90% purity, alloyed with iridium, although 95% is also used, and indeed popular, but is not very hard wearing, and is actually ill-advised for jewelry. 

Even at 90% purity however, a platinum ring bought as an alternative to a 10 karat white gold ring is obviously far "purer" if purity is what is sought after, and is this purity that gives it its prestige. 

(*For more details on metal allergies, please read my son's excellent article:

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Monday, 7 May 2012

Alloy Metals From China

I often find myself answering questions about this for customers, and it's been in the news again recently. There have been some very alarmist reports about lead found in costume jewelry. Some of the stories are many years old, but let's get to the bottom of it. 

China is the manufacturing base for almost all of the world's metal costume jewelry components. There are a few beads made in Europe and South America, but almost all cast metal comes from China. This applies whether it was purchased in a dollar store or in a jeweller's. Buying findings from an American supplier changes nothing. He bought them from factories in China.

Around 2005 there were problems with other manufactured items from China containing lead (children's toys etc) and it threw open the whole question of what else it was being used in. Tibetan silver, for example, one of the main alloys used in costume jewelry is a very varied recipe, goes back hundreds of years, and being similar to pewter it certainly did used to contain lead. The quantity, however, was very small, for the simple reason that too much makes the metal soft. That simply doesn't work on jewelry items - they would break.

No legislation was ever put into place in China to actually ban the use of lead, which scared many people in the west. What they forgot however was that China is a market-driven economy - which seems ironic considering its government - because if it doesn't offer what the western importers want, they simply won't buy it. So, wise manufacturers clued in and stopped using lead voluntarily, along with allergens such as nickel, as a sound business decision. As time went by those businesses thrived and many of those still using the "unwanted" metals have simply gone out of business.

The exceptions are those eking out a very precarious living selling ultra-cheap, very poor quality items in bulk to wholesalers and mass retailers. It is therefore actually quite easy to use quality as a guide. If it looks tacky, if it breaks easily, that's the stuff most likely to have been made from toxic metals. 

Recent reports of children's jewelry found containing lead and other toxins, notably in Wal-Mart, have again raised the issue, because children may indeed put jewelry in their mouths. Realistically, the danger of choking on a small item is many, many times greater than the risk of toxicity, which is why many items of jewelry simply aren't suitable for young children, and it all becomes a buyer beware issue. 

All that said, the fear of lead has been overblown in the media, media being there primarily to entertain rather than really inform. Most of us do not eat our jewelry. Until the 1970s we had lead plumbing in our homes, and came to no harm, and prior to 2005 we were all wearing toxic costume jewelry. In actual fact the risk from the lead content was slim to none. I have been working with this stuff for 20 years, 7 days a week. If it was harmful, I think I would show signs by now!

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Sunday, 29 April 2012


Beginning an alphabetical series on all the best known semi-precious minerals.


Agate has to be one of the most frequently mis-labeled minerals out there. There are so many varieties, and many have several names, yet they all have enough in common to be considered agate. The correct definition is a microcrystalline (crystals so small they cannot be seen with the naked eye), fibrous, variegated chalcedony, often banded. In other words, all agate is chalcedony, but not all chalcedony is agate. In general use, if it is more or less "plain" it is known simply as chalcedony, unless it has a special name for its colour, such as carnelian for the pale orange through deep red range. 

In turn, chalcedony is a quartz, and agate is therefore a silicon mineral. Chemically, agate is simply SiO2, or silicon dioxide, as all types of quartz are, but differences in the way layers of the mineral have formed over time, as well as inclusions of other minerals, allow for an endless variety of patterns and colours. 

A specific type of agate, and commonly confused with it is onyx, in which the bands are parallel and fairly regular, and the crystals are even smaller, known as cryptocrystalline. Because onyx is highly valued, it is not unusual for banded agates to be labelled as onyx, and indeed even unrelated minerals to be passed off as onyx.

The other mineral commonly confused with agate is its close cousin jasper. This is another microcrystalline chalcedony, the key difference being that jasper is opaque. While larger pieces of agate frequently appear to be opaque, at a crystal level they are in fact translucent. However these terms are not always strictly adhered to, and there is some, well, let's say wiggle room with nomenclature, even among experts. 

Agate is relatively porous, and for this reason is often dyed, sometimes in lurid neon colours. Large decorative coloured pieces are quite reasonably priced and popular in Feng Shui. In the jewelry trade agates are commonly enhanced with dye to make an endless variety of patterned beads, as well as being used in their natural state, depending on individual tastes. It is a very economical stone to use, being plentiful, as well as being strong yet easily shaped, and is therefore incredibly popular. 

Some of the better known named varieties such as Botswana agate (grey/brown bands), moss and tree agates (green clouds or branches) and crazy lace agate (multi-coloured, often with bright brick red, and sometimes dyed to create blues) can fetch a high price for good quality specimens. Petrified or fossil wood is also an agate, all the organics having been replaced by quartz. 

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