Monday, June 21, 2010

Fine Silver FAQs

Fine silver pendant with a blue topaz.

If you've looked at any of my jewelry descriptions you've noticed that I make most of my jewelry out of fine silver. Yes, it really is "fine" in the fact that it looks good and will look good on you when you wear it, but that's not the only reason it's fine. I decided to do this post to explain the difference between "Fine" silver and "Sterling" silver because I get this question over and over. Most folks that aren't in the jewelry business don't know (or care). But, you should care because when you buy fine silver you're buying a higher quality precious metal than sterling silver.

What the heck is fine silver? Simply, fine silver is 99.9% silver, about as close to pure silver as you can get and the hallmark (quality stamp) you'll see on the back of your jewelry is ".999" or "FS" or, or "Fine" or a combination of them. The balance is trace amounts of impurities. Sterling silver, on the other hand, is an alloy of 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals, usually copper, and it's hallmarked as ".925" or "Sterling". The word Sterling, therefore, is a standard, and means that it can't contain more than 7.5% other metals. There are many other kinds of silver alloys and you can find descriptions of them here, if you're interested. But, fine silver is as good as it gets for the highest quality precious metal.

So, why do so many jewelry artists choose to work with sterling silver? Many reasons, but my belief is that it's similar to whether you like to use a PC or a Mac. It's all about what you get used to, how you were taught and what you happen to like.  In the economy we're currently experiencing sterling is a less expensive material to buy. It's a little harder metal than fine silver, which may be better for certain applications such as tableware and mint julep cups. Most people who work with sterling use sheet metal, which has to be drilled, sawn, filed, hammered and soldered to create the desired shape. And mild acids are used to remove fire scale (a residue left on the surface of the metal after heating because of the copper content). Fine silver is also available in sheets but, because the fabrication methods mentioned above are the same except for the acid, it makes more sense financially to work with sterling.

Why do you work with fine silver? My jewelry is fine silver because of the raw material I choose to work with. It's called "metal clay", even though there's no ceramic material in it. It's an unfortunate name because it implies that the finished product is like pottery, which it certainly is not. It consists of microscopic particles of pure silver mixed with a binder that makes it feel and work like clay or putty. I suppose that the name "clay" was chosen because when it's fresh from the package it's worked in the same ways a potter would work with ceramic clay. It gets rolled out in slabs, texturized with imprintable objects and molds, and then gets fired in a kiln. When it's in the kiln (at 1650 degrees) the binder burns up, it shrinks a little, and only the pure (fine) silver remains. At this point it is absolutely no different than fine silver sheet metal. All of the fabrication methods mentioned above can be applied.

Silver pieces in the hot kiln.

As I said before, fine silver is a little softer than sterling silver. But after metal clay is fully fired it's a remarkably strong metal. One advantage of fine silver is that it does not tarnish like sterling silver does. Tarnish is a product of oxidation and copper oxidizes more than silver does. It's the copper in the sterling that makes it turn black. Your fine silver jewelry will not turn black, but it might become a little dull over time. All you have to do is rub it with a soft cloth and the beautiful shine will return.

So, if it doesn't tarnish, how come your work is dark in some places? That's because I intentionally blacken the recessed portions of the pieces to show off the remarkable textures that can be achieved with metal clay. Actually, I dunk the whole piece in a solution of Liver of Sulphur (VERY stinky!) which turns the whole piece black. Then I polish the high spots back to silvery lovliness and the dark patina remains in the low spots.

Why did you decide to work with Metal Clay? I prefer the natural, organic look I can get with metal clay, that would be very hard to achieve with sheet metal. And, I like the fact that it really is pure, hard metal and I can still pound on it, drill it and solder it if I need or want to.

A side note: Metal clay is also available in gold (too expensive for me to purchase the raw materials!), copper and bronze. I've tried working with the copper clay (see previous post) but it will take some practice and experimentation before I'm successful with it. It's a whole different animal than silver clay. I haven't tried the bronze clay yet. But, since both metals are fairly inexpensive, I can see that there would be a market for copper and bronze jewelry. You'll definitely see some of my work in copper before too long.

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