Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Metal in Jewellery

I promised yesterday that I'd go into a bit more detail. This won't be too advanced, so don't worry, but I do ask you to just have a quick look at this, a chart you may remember from school.

You can click on it for a better look, but briefly, all the orange and light blue squares are metals, as are some of the others. There are a LOT of metals, in fact most elements that occur naturally are metals.

But for the sake of this article we don't need to worry about many of them. They simply are not used in the jewellery industry, or so rarely that you are unlikely to come across them.

When people think of jewellery they usually think of two groups. The first is precious metals (silver, gold, platinum, rhodium, and palladium). They are precious because they are rare, and consequently expensive. Wars have been fought over silver and gold, and many lives lost.

Gold stays shiny and bright without tarnish for centuries (forever, pretty much), and it was this property that first attracted us to it. Silver, on the other hand, tarnishes quickly and is less valuable but still extremely important and desirable.

Beginning way back, jewellery has also been made from other metals often known as base metals; this is our second group. These include copper, iron, and tin. The term "base metal" is a bit of a misnomer as it properly only refers to metals that react with hydrochloric acid, but it's used informally to describe the common metals that are not precious.

Early in human history we discovered that two or more metals can be mixed together to create alloys that have the best properties of each. You may have heard of the Bronze Age......

Bronze was initially made from copper and arsenic, and subsequently copper and tin, and was a revolution, being harder than either of them and incredibly useful for just about everything. Weapons, jewellery, and some of the earliest construction hardware were made from bronze, and when it was discovered that it stood up to saltwater, it was guaranteed a place in our seafaring world long after iron and steel had replaced it for other uses.

Today bronze often includes silicon or aluminum, and other mixtures such as copper and zinc have been used for a long time. Indeed many other metals, sometimes more than one, have been added to copper to create bronze. It's therefore not a strict recipe. This is important to understand, because questions such as "What is bronze made from" really have no single answer.

Which brings me to today's costume jewellery alloys. The debate still rages over these, despite many reassurances from manufacturers that toxic metals are not included and I've dealt with that separately in an earlier blog. Some of the fuss is pure snobbery. Silversmiths look down their noses at costume jewellery, especially if it's mass produced. I believe if you like a thing, you like it, and everything has its place.

The simple fact is, the superiority of a metal is relative to its purpose. For an heirloom piece it makes sense to use a precious metal. For everyday fashion jewellery it does not. Many of the modern alloys retain their looks without cleaning, and busy people do not want to be forever attending to the oxidization of their jewellery. If you want a valuable item, that you can resell later if need be, then certainly, buy gold. But if you just want something you can discard at whim as the fashion changes or you bore of it, it makes absolutely no sense to spend large amounts.

A greater concern, surely, is allergies. It is the inclusion of nickel that is the usual problem. While it is still widely used, public demand seems to be affecting that quite powerfully. Some countries even restrict the use of nickel. Manufacturers in the Far East really have no choice but to follow this demand if they are to stay in business, so increasingly nickel is found less and less in jewellery, restricted to the cheapest end of the market.

So what is your costume or fashion jewellery made from?

There are several types. Very light jewllery is often made from aluminum, or an aluminum alloy (with silicon, etc). Although there is talk of world shortage, and consequently it's not as cheap as it once was, there is plenty of it on the market. Aluminum is very easy to colour by anodizing and it doesn't tarnish. We have tested anodized aluminum inadvertantly by losing it under a pile of snow for months. It didn't change at all. If you want a real carefree material, this is your first choice.

However, this light weight can put some people off. The look and feel of the heavier alloys is desirable and this is the reason that plated metals are so popular.

It surprises many people that many components of plated costume jewellery are often iron, with a reasonably thick plating of a more resiliant alloy, or a light plating of silver, or sometimes even gold. It's not hard to discover which pieces have iron at the centre as they are magnetic. If the plating is good, these are perfectly serviceable for some time, and vintage pieces are easily found on the market dating back many decades.

Slightly upscale the central core could be brass. I've had many people tell me their bass based components are finer as they are not magnetic, as if iron is somehow a "poor" metal to use, but just as the rust can break through the best plating if an item is allowed to get damp, green corrosion can occur on brass based items under damp conditions just as quickly. The answer is to keep it dry.

Brass itself is similar to bronze, but is usually a mixture of copper and zinc. There is a lot of overlap here though, and the distinction between bronze and brass can be arguable.

For that reason modern bronze jewellery is often "actually" brass, but with other additives to enrich the colour, so it's really strictly neither one nor the other. As I stated earlier there is a lot of variation in alloys, both in composition and ratio, and it's hard to pin definitions down.

The most popular alloys on the market today are the zinc based, antique silver coloured pieces known frequently as Tibetan silver or "silvertone". Once upon a time there was a silver alloy made in Tibet, and there still is, in very small amounts. The vast majority of Tibetan silver on the market today contains little or no actual silver (except sometimes as a plating) and the name is simply a convenient trade description.

Zinc and what then? This varies a lot. Like pewter, which is very similar, it can have a number of ingredients, and one of them was typically lead. Due to public demand this has been removed from the recipe by most manufacturers. Copper is less common these days as prices rise, although the weight of many pieces makes its presence felt, and increasingly nickel is being replaced by iron, to prevent allergic reaction. Therefore your magnet test may well pick these up. But there is no hard and fast rule, and most observers believe the metals used are at least partially decided by price and availibility.

The benefits of these modern alloys are obvious. They are both inexpensive and easy-care. So long as you don't store them in damp conditions they will last for decades, even long after you lose interest in them. If the design is timeless they can become favourites just as easily as expensive pieces. I have been making costume jewellery since 1991, and pieces my friends had at that time are still being enjoyed. This isn't throwaway jewellery.

There is a tremendous difference between the quality of mass produced fashion jewellery, and carefully hand-made costume jewellery. In fact, I may be accused of bias, but I would go so far as to say that the care and attention to detail in small scale production costume jewellery makes it superior than mass produced mall jeweller "fine" jewellery. Quite apart from anything else, the uniqueness of the piece beats "everybody has one" of the mall jewellers' sterling trinkets, hands down.

I'll just touch briefly on two other metals you may come across, titanium and niobium. These have become extremely popular in recent years for their zero allergy reputation, and the effect anodizing has on them. An electric current will change the surface colour depending on voltage. Titanium has spectacular, bright, almost garish colours, while niobium is more subtle. Neither will tarnish and consequently they are increasingly being thought of as an alternative to precious metals.

Stainless steel and surgical steel are often considered good choices, for appearance and durability, but they are very hard to cut, which is part of the reason for higher prices. Still, they have nice bright finish, which like the other alloys, requires little attention.

Finally, tungsten carbide (not an alloy, but a chemical compound, only the tungsten being metal) has taken the market by storm for it's hardness and durability, which surpasses that of gold. The downside being, if it is broken, it's not repairable.

When you choose a metal the important things to consider are:

How often will I wear this?
How much do I want to spend?
What "look" am I aiming for?

The three often have to be juggled a bit.

You know my mantra by now...jewellery is to be enjoyed. Its value is in its appearance. Although we have spot prices on gold these days, it is not truly worth anything unless people want it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That's you. Buy what you LIKE.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Giving Jewellery As A Gift

It's that time of year, and whether you were planning on buying from me, another small business, a cheapy import from the Far East, or an over-priced shop in the mall, or even making it yourself, the same question arises, what would she like?

Sometimes it's really hard. I've been making jewellery for over 20 years now, and I am no closer to reading minds than I was before I began. Tastes vary.

Not only that, people change. What was eagerly received ten years ago might not be now. Fashions change, obviously, but people are just at a different stage in their life. The student who loved hippy beads is now a businesswoman and would prefer something more classic.

So where do you start?

First things first. There are two fundamental things you need to know before anything else:

Is she allergic to any base metals? You may be able to tell simply because she never wears any. This doesn't mean you are restricted to silver and gold, read on.

Does she have pierced ears? If so are they regular piercings? There is no point buying standard 20 or 22 gauge wires if she has stretched holes.

If she has no piercings, don't just assume you can buy clip-on earrings as many women find them uncomfortable.

So far so good. Most women with no allergies and pierced ears like jewellery.

Let's consider a few guidelines here.

Is she conservative in her overall look?

If so, you will not go far wrong with a string of semi-precious gemstone beads, not too large.

Oval beads around 15mm in length, alone or in combination with other, smaller beads, are extremely useful as well as attractive, and will work for business clothing as well as more casual.

Is she a very girly girl?

Then buy crystals, and stick to pastel colours.

Is she artistic herself?

Don't be afraid to choose for her, in fact she'll probably value funky choices even more than the average person. And she'll definitely prefer handmade.

Is her appearance important in her job?

Then buy a matching set rather than random items, to help her with her "put together" look.

Is she very fashion conscious, keeping up with all trends - and you are not?

Don't worry. Sellers do keep up with trends. If you buy from anyone's most prominent position, it will be a popular item.

Does she already have a lot of jewellery?

That means she likes it.

Does she work with her hands?

In general avoid bracelets and rings.

Does she work with children or animals?

In general avoid very long necklaces, or very dangly earrings.

What about older people?

Even old ladies in nursing homes still like to look pretty. Get her something with an easy clasp for old hands.

What about colours?

When in doubt buy for the season. Sparkly cheers up Winter and works for holiday parties etc. Once Spring comes around people are looking for fresh, natural colours. Come Summer they want a bit more colour, possibly even tropical colours if their personality is fairly extrovert. As summer ends, earthy and Fall colours appeal.

Should I choose her birthstone?

It usually goes down well, but she may already have enough. Try that colour in other materials or the same stone in less obvious ways, such as rough tumbled beads on a bracelet, rather than the usual cut stone.

I know her favourite colour, that's safe isn't it?

Fairly but not certain. There are many shades of blue, for example and a lover of turquoise may not necessarly be into cobalt. Unless the favourite shade is known, that's an easy rabbit hole to fall down. Consider style first.

What do you mean by style?

Let's consider several girls.

Susan wears jeans and t-shirts a lot, works with horses, like to cycle, and usually keeps her hair tied back. You know she likes jewellery, but she seems to be quite understated with it, to avoid fuss.

She will probably be thrilled to bits with a simple necklace, a gemstone or other pendant, on a light chain, which can just dress her up without a lot of effort. Go for unusual and interesting without being outrageous.

Karla works in an office and has a very busy life. She doesn't have time to mess around with matching things.
Buy her neutrals, pearl beads, or clear crystals, fairly classic and simple, and make sure the clasps are easy to do.

Helen has a hectic social life and is out several nights a week. Bit of a party girl. Buy her bright, bold colours that make a statement. Watch what celebrities are wearing, but don't copy it slavishly.

Linda is a redhead. Buy her denim blue or sage green jewellery.

Gina has been having hard times for a while. She can't afford to dress up or go out. A pretty bracelet will make her day, and she can enjoy it anywhere. Any woman who is short on jewellery will value it, but she may be afraid to wear expensive looking items as it will highlight old/worn/cheap clothing. Stick to casual, fun styles.

Your sister. She's a pain to chose anything for. She's very fussy and seems to change her mind a lot. Buy her the classic "two round gemstone beads on a wire" earrings. They look good on anyone, in any situation, and often become favourites. Make a note of the colours of clothes she wears.

If she likes blue, buy lapis, blue goldstone or turquoise.
If she like pink buy rose quartz.
If she likes purple buy amethyst.
If she likes neutrals buy tiger's eye or jasper.

If in doubt buy black onyx.

Your mother. She already has boxes of jewellery she never wears.

Go with personal. Find something with her initial on it, or something which will trigger happy memories. If you once had a fantastic holiday at the sea together, buy her seashell earrings and remind her of those days.

Your daughter. Impossible. She buys new things and tires of them quickly.

Buy something of medium value (sterling silver, gemstones) and include a sincere note. She'll wear it forever.

Your best friend. You know her tastes, but what would be different? Try chainmail. It comes in all colours and there really is something for anything there.

I mentioned earlier about metals. In my next blog I'm going to go into great detail about this, but meantime I just want to remind everyone to think outside the box. Jewellery can be metal free. Consider leather, hemp, silk, and cotton. They need a bit of care not to get dirty, but these are perfectly acceptable as jewellery.