Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Myths about Metals – or “I only buy PURE gold or silver” Pt 2

I’m doing a series of blogs this week delving into the facts and myths about Gold, Silver, Copper, Nickel, and “other” metals. Yesterday, my post was about gold – today I will be tackling Silver and silver colored alloys.

The guidelines for differentiating silver purity is referred to as Silver Standards . I will be discussing the 5 common standards used in the United States .

Sterling Silver = pure silver? Think again. Just like gold, pure silver (called Fine Silver) is usually too soft and malleable to hold its shape well, making it slightly less suitable for use in most jewelry applications than a silver alloy. Fine silver is 999 parts silver per 1000. The next purest silver is Britannia silver, which has no less than 958.4 parts per 1000 of silver and no more than 41.6 parts per 1000 of copper. Surely, Sterling is next… Nope! The next purest form of silver is Mexican silver which is 95% pure silver and 5% other metal(s) – most often copper. Okay, now we get to Sterling Silver. At 92.5% silver, this alloy most often contains 7.5% copper. Keep in mind that in the US, only a sterling silver alloy or better can be marketed as “silver”. There is one more common US silver standard called Coin Silver which consists of 90% silver and 10% copper.

There are a number of other silver alloys used in jewelry making – I’ll touch on some of these here:

Argentium Sterling Silver – Sterling silver combined with germanium, rather than copper. This combination in jewelry applications produces a metal that resists tarnishing better than regular sterling silver. (YES, sterling silver will tarnish – actually, any silver will tarnish under certain circumstances!)
Platinum Sterling Silver – Refers to a trademarked silver of American Bullion, Inc. The exact composition of platinum sterling is not published, but according to the company’s patent application, this silver alloy contains sterling silver, platinum, copper, gallium, germanium, tin, zinc, and silicon. It is a cheaper alternative to white gold, being both hard wearing and not requiring rhodium plating. It also is more resistant to tarnishing than sterling silver.
Hill Tribe/Thai Silver – Silver jewelry components made by the Karen Hill Tribe of Northen Thailand. Silver content is typically 95-99%, which makes it a purer silver than sterling, with more luster and resistance to tarnish. The downside is that it is much softer and therefore not quite as amenable to daily wear.

Silver labeling:

Solid Silver –if an item is sterling silver or better, it can be called solid silver
Silver Filled - applies only to items composed of a layer of sterling silver pressed (not alloyed) onto a base metal (usually nickel , sometimes brass) where the weight of the sterling silver comprises at least 1/20th of the total weight of the item
Silver Plated – applies to items composed of a base metal (usually nickel or brass) which have had a thin layer of sterling silver deposited onto their surface thru chemical or electrochemical means.

There are numerous other metals and metal alloys that have the appearance and/or color of silver. The ones that are precious metals and will be discussed in a subsequent article are platinum, palladium, and rhodium.

Here are brief descriptions of the other silver (white) colored metals/metal alloys:

Stainless steel (Surgical Stainless Steel) A hypoallergenic alloy of iron and carbon with chromium, molybdenum and nickel. NICKEL????? And it’s hypoallergenic? Yes, because the nickel is bonded and held within the crystalline structure of the steel and the Chromium layer prevents any leaching of the Nickel. In studies done, out of 100 nickel sensitive subjects, not one showed an intolerance to surgical stainless steel.
Titanium – A hypoallergenic grey silver element, commercially pure (990 fine) which is extremely hard to process and fashion, but extremely durable.
Pewter – Until relatively recently Pewter contained between 85 and 99% tin and the balance was some mixture of copper, antimony, and lead. Due to concerns over the amount of lead leaching from the jewelry, a method was devised to create pewter with little or no lead. Keep in mind that when a piece of pewter is labeled “Lead Free”, it does not necessarily mean that it does not contain lead. It simply means that it complies with federal, state and international laws regarding how much lead is permissible in a product. (The current standard for the State of California which is the accepted standard is 600 ppm level of lead)
Nickel – Poor nickel… such an abundant element, and such an irritating one for 10 – 20% of jewelry wearers. This is the one component of metal alloys that causes the majority of skin irritations linked to jewelry wear. Have a pair of earrings that you love, but can’t wear because they contain nickel? Or there’s that piece of jewelry that you just love, but the metal content is questionable? Look for some remedies and suggestions later in the week that may allow you to wear those beloved pieces anyway!
German Silver – also known as Nickel Silver. This alloy consists of copper, nickel and zinc – it contains no silver
Aluminum – Silvery, extremely lightweight, extremely malleable metal which, for jewelry, must be anodized (given an oxide coating thru an electrochemical process). Most aluminum that is used in jewelry is dyed, but occasionally you might find aluminum chain or beads. Aluminum allergies are rare.
Alpaca – yellowish silver in color, this alloy consists of copper, zinc, nickel and 2% silver
Tungsten – specifically Tungsten Carbide. An alloy of tungsten and carbide, this alloy is virtually impossible to scratch and maintains its original shine virtually forever. This silvery alloy tends to be greyer than other silver toned metals.

Again, hopefully this article has made you a little more familiar (and comfortable) with what you’re actually getting when you see these terms… and if any of you have ever felt like you got gypped because your “sterling” tarnished or discolored your skin, keep in mind that even “pure” silver might tarnish. While fine silvers shouldn’t tarnish, there are things and situations that can cause even these fine metals to tarnish or cause discoloration. Any metal alloy that contains copper can account for that green mark on your skin, and any metal alloy that contains nickel can cause that annoying allergic skin problem.

Silvery jewelry, no matter what its composition, looks beautiful and goes with virtually all skin tones and wardrobe colors. Don’t deny yourself because of allergies or price – there are plenty of alternatives out there!

I hope you’ll take a moment to check out some of these beautiful silver or silver toned jewelry pieces from some wonderful Etsy artisans who allowed me the privilege of displaying their work here on my blog! Thank you to them and I hope the rest of you have a wonderful day!

3 comments:

Linder said...

Very interesting! I can only wear sterling silver earrings (no costume jewelry for me!) or else my ears complain- loudly! Thanks for all the facts!

Flight Fancy said...

Very good article! Im really enjoying the series.

Giftbearer said...

Great topic! I actually prefer working in fine silver rather than sterling whenever possible. If you work-harden it it holds up very well. It has a certain glow about it like nothing else and even feels different in your hand.

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