The Meaning of Metals

The Meaning of Metals The Meaning of Metals The Meaning of Metals
by Barbara van Look, Marketing Content Development Group

The materials in a piece of jewelry carry a message with them: socially, culturally and metaphysically. 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. Gold components above 18Kt are frequently, albeit not always, hypoallergenic.

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. Metaphysically, gold is believed to symbolize spiritual purity, combat depression, bolster emotional stability and reduce feelings of inferiority. Gold is used to open and activate the crown and third-eye chakras. It is affiliated with the Zodiac sign of Leo.

Karat Measure Chart
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.

Metaphysically, silver is believed to improve speaking skills, ease pain in the reproductive system, provide insight without judgment (especially self-insight) and mirror energies back to their sources. Silver is used in the crown chakra. It is affiliated with the Zodiac signs of Cancer and Aquarius, as well as any sign under the influence of the moon.

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. (Quick tips for telling the difference between fine silver and sterling silver.)

Sterling silver-filled items are an alternative to fine and sterling silver components, with selections including beads, pendants, jumprings, earwires and more. These pieces are manufactured with an outer layer of sterling silver (.925/20) over a copper-alloy core. The findings have additional silver plating for uniformity. Sterling silver-filled items are also usually finished with an anti-tarnish coating.

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," "Alpaca 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. This metal offers the look of silver without the price while being easy to solder and resistant to corrosion and tarnish. Nickel-plated items are also available. Note that metal-sensitive jewelry wearers should avoid this material.

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

Aluminum (or aluminium) is a soft and lightweight metal, one of the first "modern" metals. Like gold, silver and copper, aluminum is a pure element. First identified in 1782, it was a luxury metal until 1889, when the Hall-Héroult electrolytic process made refining and alloying the metal far more affordable. Household and industrial use of aluminum has revealed its benefits: it is much lighter than equivalent metal of the same size. Aluminum can be dyed, coated and anodized (an electrical current is run through it, which makes the metal "self-coat" in a variety of colors, depending on level of current). This ability to be anodized into a range of colors has lifted aluminum's cachet and made it an appealing material for chainmaille and other metal-focused jewelry design work. It can be worked without tools. Practitioners of energy work believe aluminum is ideal for protection from attacks and negative energies.
Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc that is popular for its durability. This bright metal, golden in color, offers the look of gold without the price and is often used as a base for gold-filled, gold-plated and gold-washed items. Alloys with higher percentages of copper have been called "red brass" or "red bronze" in the metals trade.

Culturally and stylistically, brass with a patina has taken on a recent connotation for jewelry makers: it is one of the three metals of Victoriana and, most importantly, steampunk. (The others are iron and copper.) Brass is believed to combine the metaphysical abilities of copper and zinc, making it useful for boosting the immune system and clearing out old spiritual debris.
Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin used for tools and armor during the Bronze Age. It was highly popular in classical Greece and Rome for statuary, a tradition revived in the Italian Renaissance and still active today. Over 160 bronze statues stand in the city of Washington, D.C., such as the statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Memorial. Using BRONZclay™ results in true bronze figures and components. Metaphysically, bronze is believed to enhance courage, increase practicality and improve focus.
Copper was the first metal to be worked by human hands. Soft and very malleable, it is an element in and of itself (Cu), much like gold and silver. Copper is commonly used in alloys such as brass, bronze, sterling silver, rose gold and more. The metal displays a range of patinas, sometimes determined by the nature of the other metals in its alloy. Copper is believed to promote energy, stimulate initiative and conduct body energy around the body. It is assigned to the base and sacral chakras and affiliated with the Zodiac signs of Taurus and Sagittarius.
Jeweler's Bronze was designed by jewelers to look like high karat gold, without the price tag. This alloy (also called Tombac) is predominately copper with a low amount of zinc--which means it's actually a form of brass. Jeweler's bronze is easy to work; it easily cuts with shears and can be embossed by hand or via machine. Metaphysically, jeweler's bronze is a brass.
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 any 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 components tend to retain their shapes. There are different grades of stainless steel, defined by the properties of the alloy mixed in-- especially the nickel content:
  • Steel that is 304 and 304L grade has a nickel content around 8 to 12% and is the same grade used in the food industry.
  • Steel that is 316 and 316L is made with more resistance to corrosion.
    These grades have a nickel content of about 8 to 10.5% and are the same grade often used for temporary medical implants and medical tools.
    The 316L version of stainless steel has less carbon than 316 to provide even higher resistance to corrosion.
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 anodized colors, without using dyes, which makes it great for jewelry designers.

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: Additional Resources ...

**Please note that all metaphysical or healing properties listed are collected from various sources. This information is offered as a service and not meant to treat medical conditions. Fire Mountain Gems and Beads® does not guarantee the validity of any of these statements.



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