Which Metals Should You Use?

Design Idea E556 Earrings
by Barbara van Look, Content Development Group, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and Beads®

Which jewelry-making metal(s) would be best in your current project? It's not merely a case of "gold vs. silver." Which kind of gold? What fineness of silver? What about copper? Then there's issues of allergies and metal sensitivities--how about stainless steel, niobium or titanium? Choosing the right metal for your design involves balancing a number of factors, including artistic and financial.

Put on your thinking cap--it's time for some stylin' decision-making!

What to Consider

Jewelry designers have a range of issues to keep in mind when choosing which metal to use in their work--if, indeed, they choose to use any metal at all. Three of the most common topics are allergy awareness, artistic choices and financial considerations. These factors apply to all metals from the most precious (gold) to base metals such as pewter, brass, steel and more.

Allergy Awareness

If you're creating for commission or "on spec," metal sensitivities and other allergy issues need to be part of your conversation with the customer. The most common metal sensitivity is nickel, which tends to show up in a range of metal alloys as it can be relatively inexpensive. A helpful guideline for determining nickel content is to seek "nickel-free" or "European Union Nickel Directive Compliant" components.

Which Metals Should You Use?

Customer-Oriented Decisions
Precious gold and fine silver are popular alternative metal choices for sensitive customers, as are a number of hi-tech modern metals. Although there's no "one metal to rule them all" solution to metal allergies, some commonly recommended options include 14Kt gold, Argentium® sterling silver, titanium, niobium and some grades of steel.

Plated styles tend to include nickel and copper in the underlying metal alloys, so you might consider avoiding plated components entirely for these customers and jewelry lines. Other documented metal sensitivities can include tin (in bronze) and zinc (in brass and white gold). Jewelry designers can also offer to cover the inside of pieces with hypoallergenic coating Jewelry Shield™ to increase wearability for customers who are only mildly sensitive--or copper wearers who don't want a green mark on their skin.
Of course, there is a market for metal-free jewelry, too. Metal-free designs are ideal for customers with intense metal sensitivities or workers in certain industries--such as MRI technicians--who cannot wear any metal on the job. (If you sell your work near a hospital or medical center, consider offering some MRI-safe styles!)

Artistic Choices

Sometimes, you're designing for a particular look and metal choices are a rich part of your vision. Some jewelry makers opt out of metals entirely by using gemstone toggles or bone clasps while others design by hue and shade, choosing color-matched niobium ear wires, eye pins, jump rings and wire for a consistent look throughout a design.

Nobium Products

Design-Directed Choices
We have a number of clasp and finding styles which are available in a range of metals, finishes and surface treatments (polished vs. antiqued). In fact, we regularly go through our best-selling clasp styles and engineer alternative versions to offer more design options with the styles you've shown us you like best.

You'll often see the same style of clasp or finding in sterling silver, gold and silver finish, antiqued brass, gunmetal and other variations. See the options for slide lock clasps, filigree box clasps, toggle clasps, hook ear wires and leverback ear wires for an example of your breadth of choice.

Slide Lock Clasps

Financial Considerations

And here's the elephant in the room: maybe right now, you can't afford precious metal components. That's okay. You do what you can do. You can still make stylistic decisions from wherever you are financially and your jewelry will still be beautiful.

Affordable with Style
Of course, our All-Assortable Program helps, especially if you and a friend place orders together. Reach a count of 100 items and you're in our lowest cost-per-item bracket.

And once your account reaches $3,000 in a 12-month period, you're qualified for our Platinum Partners business-to-business sales program. Platinum Partners are business people who buy a lot of product--and we want to encourage the growth of their beading and jewelry-making businesses--so our Platinum Partners get additional discounts and exclusive access to specialized products.

Finally, don't forget buying in bulk. It's another great way to get your components at a low per-item price. Your bottom line goes down, which means your profitability can go up. It also means you can invest in higher grades of metals over time, expanding your market.

Which Metals Should You Use?

Jewelry Metals

However you make your jewelry metals choices, those decisions affect what happens "downstream" in your design. Everything from stringing material, finishing technique, other material choices--as well as pricing, if you're selling your work--is affected. Like gemstones, jewelry-making metals have a place on the Mohs hardness scale. That is included in each metal listing.

Almost all metals used in jewelry-making are alloys. An alloy is a blend of metals that brings together the benefits of each metal to create something with all its parents' advantages. Gold alloys (anything lower than 24Kt) use other metals (usually copper and silver) to make something stronger. Gold is a pure element and very, very soft and bendy. It becomes much more durable in an alloy.

Here's the allergy, artistic and financial tips you might need to choose the right metal for your jewelry project. Listed in alphabetical order:

Aluminum

Aluminum is a soft and lightweight metal. Like carbon and helium, aluminum is an element on the periodic table (Aluminum/Aluminium or Al). It can be coated, dyed or anodized (an electrical current is run through it, which makes the metal "self-coat" in a variety of colors, depending on level of current).

Aluminum is a 2.5 to 3 Mohs hardness.

Allergy: Aluminum allergies are very rare, but have been proven.
Artistic: Anodization had moved aluminum from an industrial metal to an artistic one, especially for chainmaille designs. Its light weight increases wearability, even when used en masse.
Financial: Aluminum is a highly affordable metal.

Brasses and Bronzes

Brass is a golden-colored alloy of copper and zinc. This bright, durable metal is often used as a base for affordable plated jewelry components, as well as costume jewelry. Reducing exposure to humidity and moisture, as well as regular cleaning, will keep brass components from oxidizing.

Brass is a 3 Mohs hardness.

"Red brass" or "red bronze" is form of brass with a higher percentage of copper in its alloy. It often includes a transparent coating to prevent tarnishing or verdigris.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin used for tools, armor, coins and statues.

Bronze is a 3 Mohs hardness.

Jeweler's Bronze (also called Tombac) was designed to replicate the look of high karat gold, at a significantly lower price tag. This is another form of brass, predominately copper with a low amount of zinc.

Allergy: These metals contain copper, zinc and tin as part of their alloys and can affect metal-sensitive customers.
Artistic: Antiqued or patinaed brass and bronze (as well as iron and copper) are popular in distressed Victoriana, romantic vintage and steampunk styles.
Financial: Brass, "red bronze," bronze and jeweler's bronze are highly affordable and long-wearing metals. Plating durability depends on thickness of metal and wear-and-tear on component.

Copper

Copper, like aluminum, is a pure element (Cuprum or Cu on the periodic table). The purer copper is, the softer it is. It is also the metal most often used in alloys with other metals, appearing in sterling silver, rose gold, brass, bronze and more. Reducing exposure to humidity and moisture, as well as regular cleaning, will keep copper components from oxidizing.

Copper is a 3 Mohs hardness.

Allergy: Copper commonly creates reactions on human skin, turning it green, and can be an allergen. Offer to coat the inside of copper pieces with Jewelry Shield to increase wearability.
Artistic: This metal is extremely flexible, transfers heat and electricity extremely well, and highly chemical reactive--even to human perspiration. Copper's reactivity also lets it react with a range of acids and heat treatments, creating colorful patinas using Liver of Sulpher or other processes (see Lillypilly copper sheets).
Financial: Copper's prices have risen due to its use in construction, electronics manufacturing and décor. Plated items are a popular cost saver for production lines.

Gold

The value of gold isn't the other thing that changes with its karat--its color changes, too! Higher karats of yellow gold have a darker, richer color--more like golden topaz. Lower karats of yellow gold are more pale--like jonquil. Gold is also an element and shows up on the periodic table in its purest state as Aurum or Au. 24Kt gold is a 2.5 to 3 Mohs hardness.

Then there's colored golds, like white gold, rose gold and green gold (made popular by goldwork from the Black Hills communities). White gold can contain zinc, tin or other white metals. Rose gold gets its coloring from additional copper.

Gold-filled items are gold "sandwiches," with very thick gold sheet attached to either side of a base metal (usually brass). Gold-filled components are much more durable than karat gold and significantly lower in price.

"Vermeil" components are gold plating over sterling silver. The precious metal underneath the gold plating is what gives them these pieces comparative value. Vermeil and "vermeil" are different regulatory categories, based on the thickness of the plating.

Plating thickness regulations also apply to silver plating definitions.

Allergy: White gold can contain zinc, tin or other white metals. Rose gold gets its coloring from additional copper. Gold-filled items contain copper.
Artistic: Yellow and rose gold are warm colors; white gold is neutral to cool, depending on its alloy. Gold will turn paler in color the lower the karat is.
Financial: Gold is the most costly of the precious metals we offer. Its price rises with its karat number (18Kt costing more than 14Kt). Gold-filled is an affordable alternative. Plated items are a popular cost saver for production lines.

Gunmetal

Gunmetal, used as a metal finish in the jewelry-making world, takes its name from a particular alloy of copper, bronze and zinc historically used in gun making. The original finish naturally occurred as "red bronze" patinaed over time to a near-black shade of grey. Currently, the word is used to define any metal finish that has a neutral grey background with bluish or purplish tinges. (Sometimes this coloration is referred to as "black chrome.")

Allergy: Many alloys use the designation "gunmetal," so metal contents must be evaluated on a component-by-component basis.
Artistic: Gunmetal alloy is resistant to corrosion from steam and salt water, making it a welcome variation for stainless steel designs. Gunmetal is also a popular finish in some gothic and steampunk designs.
Financial: Applied to brass, "pewter," steel and other base metals. This finish does not affect the price of the components it is applied to.

Nickel and Nickel Silver

Nickel is an element (Ni on the periodic table), like aluminum is. Elemental nickel is a silvery-white metal with a faint golden tinge. Nickel is often used as a base for affordable plated jewelry components, as well as costume jewelry. Nickel is a 4 Mohs hardness.

Nickel silver--sometimes called "German silver," "Alpaca silver" or "Mexican silver"--is a nickel-based alloy which looks much like sterling silver.

Allergy: Metal-sensitive jewelry wearers should avoid these materials, as nickel is the most common metal allergen. Nickel silver alloy usually contains nickel, zinc and copper.
Artistic: Side-by-side comparisons show that nickel silver has a slightly greyer color tone than sterling silver.
Financial: Nickel is affordable, easy to solder and resistant to corrosion and tarnish.

Niobium

Niobium is a pure element (Nb on the periodic table) originally used in the aerospace industry. It is strong and flexible, making it ideal for use as wire and a range of findings. Like aluminum, niobium can be its natural grey or anodized to give it colors. Niobium is a 6 Mohs hardness.

Allergy: Niobium is commonly considered hypoallergenic.
Artistic: Anodization had moved niobium from an industrial metal to an artistic one, especially for chainmaille designs. It is lightweight, but far stronger than comparable pieces in aluminum. It is resistant to acids, corrosion, oxidization and brittleness caused by low temperatures.
Financial: This hi-tech metal is ideal for investment jewelry for customers who cannot wear other metals. It is comparable in cost to sterling silver.

Pewter (Tin-Based Alloy) and "Pewter" (Zinc-Based Alloy)

Pewter is a historical metal, dating back to ancient Rome. It is an alloy of tin and another metal, frequently bismuth, copper, antimony and (historically) lead. Pewter has an approximate 3 Mohs hardness, depending on alloy.

"Pewter" is a modern zinc-based alloy developed to recreate the advantages of historical pewter without the addition of lead. They are comparatively soft metals. "Pewter" has an approximate 3 Mohs hardness, depending on alloy.

Allergy: Pewter contains tin and "pewter" contains zinc--and both may contain metals such as copper in their alloys.
Artistic: Pewter and "pewter" both hold tiny details well, and are frequently used to create cast beads, findings and other components. Silver-grey in color, they are frequently plated or finished with silver, copper or gold. These metals are often used as a base for affordable plated jewelry components, as well as costume jewelry. TierraCast® items are made of "pewter," as are other products.
Financial: Pewter and "pewter" items are highly affordable and long-wearing metals.

Plating

Plated is a legal definition. Any item considered plated has to be covered with a layer of precious metal that is .15 to .25 mils of thick. Washed, toned, clad, finished and similar terms refer to thinner layers of precious metal than required by regulation. Electroplating is the technique used to apply the precious metal to the base metal.

Plating wears off over time. Careful cleaning and limiting friction contact can prolong the life of any coating, whether plated, finished or levels. Plating is often used in costume jewelry.

Allergy: Plating occurs over other metals. While customers may not be sensitive to the plating, it wears off and the underlying material may contain an allergen.
Artistic: Plated components are attractive and detailed. They are a well-appreciated option for jewelry designers.
Financial: Plated items are highly affordable.

Rhodium Plating (and Imitation Rhodium Plating)

Rhodium, like aluminum, is a pure element (Rh on the periodic table). Elemental rhodium--part of the platinum family--is considered a precious metal. Elemental rhodium does not tarnish. Elemental rhodium is a 6 Mohs hardness.

Imitation rhodium is an alloy that can include copper, tin, zinc and nickel. The copper element of the alloy can lead to the formation of tarnish, verdigris and patina. Imitation rhodium has an approximate 3 Mohs hardness, depending on alloy.

Allergy: Some jewelry wearers are sensitive to the element rhodium. Imitation rhodium--containing copper, tin and nickel--may also be allergenic.
Artistic: Rhodium and imitation rhodium are both used as a whiteness protectant, anti-tarnish coating (over sterling silver and white gold) and durability enhancement. Both leave a high-gloss finish.
Financial: Elemental rhodium and imitation rhodium are both used as a plating in jewelry components, with elemental rhodium having the higher cost.

Silver

Silver's value is measured, not by karat, but by "fineness." The highest purity of silver is fine silver, which is as close as a commercial material can get to maximum purity. Like aluminum, silver is an element in and of itself. On the periodic table in its purest state, silver appears as Argentum or Ag. Like gold, the purest form of silver is a soft metal. It, too, is often blended with other materials to make a stronger version. The most common of these is the alloy called sterling silver. Fine silver is a 2.5 to 3 Mohs hardness.

Fine silver is the purest type of silver commercially available: 99.9% silver. Silver at this fineness does not tarnish as easily as other versions of silver.

Sterling silver is, like other metal alloys, regulated by law: 92.5% of the alloy must be silver. The balance is usually copper.

Argentium™ silver is a form of sterling silver. In Argentium, some of the copper in the alloy is replaced with the element germanium, creating tarnish resistance without lowering the purity of the metal.

Sterling silver-filled items are a sterling silver version of gold-filled; they may include an anti-tarnish coating. Sterling silver-filled items are frequently non-allergic, although people with copper sensitivities (such as Wilson's disease) may be affected.

Allergy: Fine silver, due to its metal purity, is rarely an allergen. Sterling silver can affect individuals with metal sensitivities, due to its copper content. This also applies to sterling silver-filled products.
Artistic: Silver is a cool metal, not only in color tone, but also in its ability to transfer heat and remain cool to the touch. It accepts a variety of surface treatments, including patinas.
Financial: Silver is the second-most costly precious metal we offer. Fine silver costs the most, due to its purity. Sterling is next, with affordable sterling silver-filled after. Plated items are a popular cost saver for production lines.

Steel

Steel is a blanket term for a wide variety of iron-based alloys. These alloys are tough, hard and durable. Steel has an approximate 4 to 4.5 Mohs hardness, depending on type and alloy.

Carbon steel must have a carbon content up to 2.1% by weight. It may also contain a variety of other elements (besides iron and carbon). Carbon steel grows harder (and more brittle) when exposed to high levels of heat.

Stainless steel is the term for grades of steel that contain more than 11.5% chromium. It resists corrosion, retains strength at high temperatures and is easily maintained. Two common grades are seen in jewelry-making components are Type 304 and Type 316.
  • Type 304 and 304L - The grade of stainless steel used in the food industry.
  • Type 316 and 316L - The grade of stainless steel used in the medical industry.
Allergy: Carbon steel may contain other elements in its alloy. 304 and 304L stainless contains 8-12% nickel; 316 and 316L stainless contains 8-10.5% nickel. They are frequently hypoallergenic, depending on the wearer's sensitivity. Some steels have a tin coating, to prevent corrosion.
Artistic: Forms of steel are frequently used in unisex and men's jewelry. It is a popular metal for a range of mid-century American styles with a polished or brushed surface. Patinaed or distressed surfaces commonly appear in Victoriana and steampunk styles.
Financial: Steel items are highly affordable and long-wearing metals. Stainless steel frequently costs more than carbon steel of the same mass.

Titanium and Nickel Titanium

Titanium, like aluminum, is a pure element (Ti on the periodic table). Elemental titanium is uncommon--it is frequently mixed into compounds or alloys. The most common compound is titanium dioxide, used as a white pigment in everything from paint to toothpaste. In metal alloys, titanium's most useful properties are its powerful corrosion resistance and high strength-to-density ratio. Elemental titanium is as strong as many steels, but staggeringly less dense. It is non-magnetic and does not conduct heat or electricity well. Elemental titanium is a 6 Mohs hardness; individual alloys will have different hardnesses.

Nickel Titanium is an alloy of 55% nickel and 45% titanium used in our exclusive line of Accu-Flex® professional-quality beading wire. The natural oxide layer gives it a blackened or gunmetal appearance. All Accu-Flex wire is coated in nylon, preventing metal-to-skin contact.

Allergy: Elemental titanium is considered hypoallergenic. It is frequently used for medical implants.
Artistic: Like niobium, titanium can be anodized to create a range of colors. The pound-for-pound difference in strength is one of its most successful properties. Ideal for customers who cannot bear weighty pieces or for high-stress joins.
Financial: Elemental titanium is ideal for investment jewelry for customers who cannot wear other metals. Its durability and corrosion resistance makes it ideal for use wherever stainless steel would be. It is comparable in cost to sterling silver.

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