When it comes to handmade jewellery, silver is most usually a maker’s choice. So we asked Emanuela Balc, creator of Coloured Dreams – unique and whimsical wire wrapped silver jewellery here on ideyna to reveal the secrets of one of the oldest metals used in jewellery making. Read on as Emanuela tells us about the different kinds of silver, how to determine real silver, common terminology and more.
Silver – a jewellery maker’s point of view
The term silver seems to be widely used for a lot of things that look like or resemble silver. Many people advertise and buy jewellery made from Tibetan Silver or German Silver but have no clue what that really means. Many firmly believe that real silver does not tarnish and does not turn green. As a jewellery maker who uses silver in her everyday work, I’d like to shed some light on the mysteries of this wonderful metal.
Here are some of the terms used for jewellery pieces and what they actually are.
Tibetan silver is actually an alloy of copper, and sometimes tin or nickel, with a small percentage of pure silver. It looks like aged silver and can be polished. Today, however, the nickel content is reduced or absent, due to common allergies to this metal. It is used primarily in jewellery components. Currently, jewelry, beads and castings described as ‘Tibetan Silver’ tend to be an iron base overlaid with pewter and silver plating.
German silver, New silver, or Alpaca silver is a copper alloy with nickel and often zinc. It is usually made with 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc. Nickel silver gets its name from its silvery appearance, but it contains no elemental silver unless plated. The name “German silver” refers to its development by 19th-century German metalworkers.
Here are the types of ‘real’ silver.
Fine silver is made from at least 99.9% pure silver and is generally only used in international trade or for reserve stockpiles in the form of bullion bars.
Sterling silver consists of 925 parts silver and 75 parts metal alloy, most of the times the metal being copper. Sterling silver with have a 925 stamp on it.
Britannia silver is a grade higher than Sterling and contains 958 parts silver and only 42 parts alloy. This is often denoted on silver with ‘958’ or a stamp of Britannia
Argentium Sterling silver or Argentium Silver is a modern sterling silver alloy which replaces the 7.5% copper alloy with the metalloid germanium. As it retains the 92.5% silver content of the traditional alloy, it is still referred to as sterling silver.
Testing for Silver – A quick tip
A quick tip to test silver is the magnet test. Silver is not magnetic. If you place a strong, rare-earth magnet called a Neodymium on a piece of silver jewellery, it should not stick to it.
It’s not a bad idea to test silver jewellery with a strong regular magnet too. If they are attracted to the magnet they aren’t pure silver (note the clasp on the end of a silver chain is often magnetic so you can ignore this part). Note that this method isn’t always 100% accurate and is ONLY good to determine if a piece is NOT silver (or gold or platinum – precious metals are not magnetic), being non-magnetic doesn’t mean it is silver.
Another more reliable method is acid testing. However, acids are caustic and should be used with caution. And you cannot use just any type of acid and keep in mind that acid will leave a mark even on your most precious silver.
Sterling silver or .925 silver– My choice for silver handmade jewellery
Sterling silver is overwhelmingly the most popular option for making silver jewelry. As jewellery, sterling silver has many advantages over fine silver. It retains silver’s brilliance and workability, but it is considerably more durable, stronger and sturdier than pure silver. Fine silver would be too soft for my wrapped pieces.
I source my sterling silver in wire form per either foot or meter in different degrees of thickness depending on the project I am working on. My silver wires are not 925 stamped because I don’t know how much silver wire I will need and where I will cut it before I use it in my piece. You will see the 925 mark on the already-produced parts that I use such as ear hooks, clasps or chains.
Saving Silver (from tarnish)
A common myth is that real silver or sterling silver not tarnish. This is untrue, silver does tarnish over time due to reactions with the body and the surrounding air (unless it is rhodium plated). But that does not mean that your handmade silver jewellery is unrecoverable because of the effects of wear and tear.
Silver jewellery that’s looking a little worn down can be cleaned with lukewarm water and little soap or you can brush it with tooth paste and an old tooth brush.
Pieces that are more tarnished can undergo a ‘deep clean’. Use a bowl where you place a small piece of aluminium foil and then prepare a mix of water, baking soda and salt; mix them well until dissolved completely. Place your jewellery in the bowl, make sure it touches the aluminium foil and then cover it with the mix of water, salt and baking powder. Let it sit for a while and then rinse under warm water. The shine will come back.
ideyna and its audience are always up for learning something new, so thank you Emanuela for decoding silver and making us more aware of the intricacies of the metal. Have a question about silver? or jewellery in general? Ask us in the comments and we will get the expert to answer them for you.
All the beautiful jewellery photographs used in this post are crafted by Emanuela herself and you can find them on ideyna under the brand name Coloured Dreams right here