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Beading Resources > EncycloBEADia > The Meaning of Metals

by Barbara van Look, Marketing Content Development Group

The materials in a piece of jewelry carry a message with them. Does your jewelry say what it means, and mean what it says?

The Warm Gleam of Gold

Metals such as platinum or palladium may be worth more on the investment markets, but for jewelry, nothing speaks to the human heart more than the warm gleam of gold.

The value of gold is set by its fineness--the proportion of pure gold to other metals added for strength or durability. 24Kt is pure gold, 18Kt gold is 18 parts pure gold, 14Kt gold is 14 parts pure gold, etc. 10Kt is traditionally used for men's jewelry in the United States, and 14Kt for women's jewelry. In Europe, the gold standard for both men's and women's jewelry is 18Kt, which has a darker color with a deeper yellow tone.

Colored golds are also available. Popularized by jewelry from the Great Plains (and commonly called ''Black Hills Gold''), colors include rose gold (a blend of yellow gold and copper) and white gold (a blend of yellow gold and a white metal such as platinum, palladium or nickel). However, if you see some jewelry made from Black Hills Gold, you can be sure that it was made in the Black Hills of South Dakota, USA. (That's regulated by law!)

In addition, Art Clay® gold clay is created from 22Kt gold powder. Mold it, shape it and fire it in a kiln to create precious gold jewelry.

Wearing gold jewelry conveys a message of classic style, luxury and tradition. Gold adds a warmth and richness to your jewelry and an heirloom quality to pieces made with it.

Karat Measure
Gold/Alloy Content
24Kt
100% pure gold
18Kt
75% pure gold - 750
14Kt
58% pure gold - 580
10Kt
42% pure gold - 420
9Kt
37.5% gold - 375


Gold-filled items are basically gold ''sandwiches.'' Imagine covering a slab of base metal (usually brass) with a gold-alloy spread. Then that ''sandwich'' is either rolled up or squeezed sideways through an opening to create an item of the desired thickness and shape. Gold-filled items are very durable and most people don't have allergic reactions to them. It's a way to gain the glories of gold at a lower price.

Gold-plated and gold-finished items are simply products of a base metal wearing a coating of gold--the thickness of the gold coating determines what it legally can be called. Any item called ''gold-plated'' has to be covered with a layer of gold that is .15 to .25 mils of gold. Gold-finished items are electroplated with a layer of gold that has no standards at all. The thickness of the gold plating on an item can either let the base metal show through or conceal the color of the base metal entirely--like the difference between a bridal veil and a trench coat.

Vermeil beads and findings are also gold-plated but, instead of being made of a base metal such as brass, they're formed out of sterling silver. Plating richness varies on vermeil items--they can be heavily electroplated with 18Kt to 22Kt yellow gold.

The Cool Glimmer of Silver

The cool glimmer of silver has, in the western world, traditionally been linked to the moon and, thus, to women. It carries with it a sense of mystery, of hand-crafted and ethnic styles. Because of its easy availability and lower cost, silver has more often been chosen as the leading metal in jewelry fashion--allowing silversmiths the freedom to experiment with new and innovative designs or to revive ancient skills.

Fine silver is the highest and most pure type of silver available: 99.9% silver. This pure form of silver is used by the Hill Tribes of Thailand to create beads, chains and findings. In addition, Art Clay® is created from the fine silver particles reclaimed from recycled film, and can be used to create jewelry of fine silver.

Sterling silver items are made of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper or some other metal (or metals). Those proportions are set by law--change the proportions and those beads aren't sterling silver. A clue that you've got sterling silver beads? Over time, sterling silver will take on an antiqued look (called a ''patina''). Most of the precious silver you'll see in the beading world is sterling silver.

Argentium™ silver is a form of sterling silver where some of the copper alloy is replaced by germanium. This creates tarnish resistance in the silver, without lowering the purity of the metal.

Nickel silver (sometimes called ''German silver'' or ''Mexican silver'') is made of a blend of metals--mostly nickel--and looks much like sterling silver. Side-by-side comparisons show that nickel silver has a slightly greyer color tone. Nickel-plated items are also available.

Common Types of Silver
Fine silver
99.9% silver, .1% other metals
Britannia silver
95.84% silver, 4.16% other metals (usually copper)
Sterling silver
92.5% silver, 7.5% other metals (usually copper)
Argentium™ silver
92.5% silver, 6.4% other metals (usually copper), 1.1% germanium
Coin silver
90% silver, 10% other metals
Nickel silver
0% silver, 100% other metals (usually nickel, zinc and copper)

The Meanings of Other Metals

Rhodium plating can sometimes appear in jewelry and in jewelry components as a whiteness protectant or as an anti-tarnish coating. Some jewelry wearers are sensitive to this metal. Rhodium-plating draws on the imagery of silver--of coolness and sleekness--and gives a high-end glossiness to economy pieces.

Pewter is one of the oldest alloys in the history of metal working and has a long and noble history, from ancient Rome to the modern Academy Awards, where the world famous Oscar® statuette is cast from lead-free pewter. Pewter holds tiny details well, and can be used to create themed jewelry at an affordable price.

High-Tech Metal

These days, advances in technology and manufacturing have expanded your choices of metals for jewelry: stainless steel, niobium and titanium.

Stainless steel is a generic word for steel that contains more than 10% chromium (it can also have other metals in it like nickel, niobium or titanium). It resists rust and is easy to keep looking fresh and new.

Stainless steel comes in a multitude of finishes: sleek and gleaming, to brushed and satiny to rough and textured. However, stainless steel still gives an idea of modernism, technology, futuristic design and lets your jewelry look up-to-the-minute. Interestingly, stainless steel jewelry supplies work great for creating or repairing retro '50s and '60s fashions!


Niobium is one of the benefits of advances in chemistry. Since niobium metal is stable and hypoallergenic, it's used in all sorts of industrial and medical uses. You can find niobium components in jet engines, particle accelerators and space rockets, as well as pacemakers and jewelry!

Niobium comes in a multitude of colors, without using dyes, which makes it great for jewelry designers. Niobium is anodized (an electrical current is run through it) which makes the metal ''self-coat'' in a variety of colors. What color appears depends on how much electrical current runs through the piece.

Niobium adds great color unity to jewelry. You can make jewelry that is completely purple. Or blue. Or green. And not have to worry about using lightweight plastic pieces for color.


Titanium is the ultra high-tech, newest of the new metals. It is a super-strong and corrosion resistant metal: pure titanium is as strong as the same amount of steel, but is 45% lighter! Plus, it is almost as resistant to corrosion as pure platinum. While most titanium ends up as a white colorant (used in paint, paper and plastic), it's also used in gemstones, horseshoes and replacement joints.

Because of its durability and light weight, naturally grey titanium has grown into a popular metal for designer jewelry. Like niobium, titanium can be anodized into colors. While titanium is not considered hypoallergenic, most people with metal sensitivities can wear it safely.

When you design jewelry, you're not only creating beauty, you're creating a message. That message is a mix of the design, the colors, the techniques--and the materials.

What do your jewelry designs say?

Shop for your jewelry-making metal preference in the following categories:View the featured design idea 88UD here.
View the featured design idea 88M6 here.


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children 14 years of age or younger should use these products with adult direction.

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