What Are the Different Types of Metals Used in Jewelry?
So, you’re ready to jump into the world of being a lapidary—what’s the first step? Before you jump into buying all the essential tools you’ll need, you must understand metal. More specifically, you need to know the different types of metals used in jewelry. Check out this guide on the various materials used to make jewelry pieces.
Base vs. Precious Metals
First, it’s important to understand the differences between base and precious metals. A base metal gets mixed with multiple metals to create an affordable and durable material. Precious metals are purely one type of metal, such as gold or silver, and thus far more expensive and rarer. Different combinations of metals can create materials that appear precious but are, in fact, only partially precious, like gold-plated sterling silver. Understanding this distinction is essential for any aspiring lapidary because it can better guide you when purchasing metal materials for your jewelry and help you determine the best option.
The advantage of using base metals in your work is obvious—they’re readily available and allow you to add elements of luxury without totally breaking the bank. Plus, they’re known to be more durable and easier to work with, especially when wire wrapping. Gold and silver are traditionally softer metals that are more likely to show damage and may be too delicate to manipulate. However, precious metals are still valuable amongst those in the jewelry-making business. Precious metals don’t rust or lose luster as quickly as base metals like copper, nickel, and brass.
The Base Metal Examples
There is some debate over how many metals on the periodic table are considered base metals, but we’ll simply focus on the four most commonly used for jewel making: brass, copper, nickel, and bronze. You can create a wide range of jewelry with these four metals and alter their appearances by implementing precious metal platings.
Brass is a highly affordable material that looks similar to gold. It’s perhaps the most commonly used metal material by beginner lapidaries, but even professionals utilize it in their work. By nature, brass is highly ductile and is easily manipulated, making it the perfect choice for intricate designs and twists. It won’t maintain its gold-like luster for many years, but aged brass is a trendy style in itself.
Copper is another popular choice for many lapidaries, and like other base metals, it’s very easy to bend and manipulate. It’s commonly seen in jewelry pieces containing colored gemstones, especially those featuring reds and blues. Copper wire is a very affordable material that works great for all types of jewelry.
Surprisingly, nickel is most commonly found in 18 karat gold (more on karats later), as it helps increase the durability of precious metals. Another typical application of nickel is nickel silver, which consists of nickel, zinc, and copper. Ultimately, the white appearance of nickel combined with its durability makes it a very popular choice for lapidaries.
What makes bronze truly popular is its low melting point—it’s easy to melt down and shape with heat. Once bronze hardens, it’s highly durable and scratch resistant. One of the more versatile base metals, bronze, is commonly used for casting (similar to brass).
The Precious Metal Examples
There are four main types of precious metals that are most commonly used in jewelry making, though most blend with silver (a precious metal itself) or copper to create a more durable alloy. On their own, precious metals are valuable and desirable among jewelry makers and wearers alike. Note that you’ll probably never see a 100% pure precious metal piece of jewelry meant for daily wear and that, instead, the jewelry maker chose to include a base metal as an alloy.
While four precious metals are very common in lapidary work, there are, in fact, eight in total found on the periodic table. The four less common or unused metals include rhodium, ruthenium, iridium, and osmium. Let’s focus on the four precious materials you’ll most likely encounter during your jewelry-making endeavors.
Gold is the most well-known precious metal and has remained valuable to humanity since the earliest civilizations in history. Some key characteristics of gold that make it so desirable are its everlasting luster and ability to resist corrosion over long periods of time. Gold is one of the softest metals, and as such, it’s very malleable and prime for making rings, necklaces, and bracelets. However, pure gold is brittle and prone to bending—utilizing silver and copper makes it into a stronger alloy. We use “karats” to measure the percentage of pure gold found within this alloy. 24 karats are 100% pure gold, and in the jewelry world, the number drops from there to around 10 karats (41.7% pure gold).
Silver is one of those metals that looks great on everyone, making it the most versatile of the precious metals. Like gold, you must alloy pure silver with a base metal, like copper, to ensure durability and longevity. Silver purity is measured differently than gold, instead utilizing terms like “sterling,” “fine,” and “800.” An 800 silver consists of 80% silver and 20% other base metal. Sterling silver is at the very least 92.5% pure silver and only 7.6% other base metal. Lastly, fine silver is 99.9% pure silver—it’s typically a coating for sterling silver pieces due to its soft characteristics.
Platinum and Palladium
The last two of the four most common precious metals used for jewelry making are platinum and palladium. They’re both rarer than gold and silver and, as such, typically cost more. However, they’re both extremely strong, even in their purest forms.
People often reinforce platinum with other precious metals (like iridium) or base metals (like nickel).
Even so, it’s far harder than gold and silver and makes for stunning jewelry. Pure platinum has a PT1000 rating, but it’s also extremely rare compared to all other precious metals.
Palladium is not as rare or expensive as platinum, but it features more in industrial applications than jewel making. Even still, palladium jewelry is absolutely stunning and typically found in expensive wedding and engagement rings.
Now that you understand the different types of metals used in jewelry, you can begin stocking up on essential tools and materials. For additional help in your lapidary journey, check out our selection here at Cutting Edge Supply. We have all the necessary equipment to handle any type of metal, including a graphite crucible for melting gold and many others.