Metals can be elements or alloys. Elements are the basic building blocks of chemistry. Oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, iron (Fe), copper (Cu) and niobium (Nb) are all examples of elements.
Lead (Pb) is an element that was traditionally popular as an ingredient in alloys because it makes metals softer and helps them melt at lower temperatures. Lead is now known to be related to certain health problems (especially in children), and governments have begun to regulate allowable amounts of lead in jewelry components. Jewelry components containing lead are generally considered safe for adults to handle and wear externally. More about lead in jewelry components.
Alloys are mixtures of various elements. Alloys can be a "base" (less costly) metal, like brass, or a "precious" (more costly) metal, like sterling silver or karat gold.
What are Base Metals?
Base metal is a catch-all term in the jewelry industry for metals used in costume jewelry. In metal working, base metal is any metal that is not one the noble or precious metals. In costume jewelry, base metals are often plated with a very thin layer of gold, silver, nickel, rhodium or other metal on the surface of the bead or other component.
Common base metals include:
Brass is an alloy of copper, zinc and sometimes other metals. It is typically 70% copper and 30% zinc. Our red brass wire is 90% copper, and 10% zinc, which gives it a slightly warmer color. Raw (unplated) brass components are usually the same color as yellow (plated) findings, although they will vary in color and may also work with gold plate. Their surfaces may be imperfect and their finish may change with age.
Copper is an element that's bright reddish-orange in color. Over time, it will darken and gain a patina, sometimes with a greenish hue. Copper can also discolor skin, most commonly when it is worn snugly like a finger ring or tight-fitting bracelet. Copper is a soft metal, which makes it great for wire wrapping. Because of copper's softness, solid copper components are less durable than copper-plated beads and findings.
Nickel silver is sometimes also called German silver. It is a base-metal alloy of nickel, copper and zinc. While nickel is silver in color, it does not contain any sterling silver. Our nickel silver wire is 65% copper, 18% nickel, and 17% zinc. The relatively inexpensive cost of nickel silver compared with sterling makes it an attractive option for jewelry components. Just be aware that some people are allergic to nickel.
Pewter includes any of the numerous silver-gray alloys of tin with various amounts of antimony and copper. TierraCast™ products are made with a lead-free pewter called Britannia pewter. Most TierraCast Britannia pewter beads and jewelry findings have a surface finish (plating) of a different color over the pewter base. Other base-metal items marked "antiqued pewter" or "antiqued brass" may be brass or zinc with an antiqued pewter or antiqued brass plating. In nearly all cases, these zinc or brass alloys meet lead-free criteria.
Stainless steels (a.k.a. corrosion-resistant steels) include a broad range of iron-based alloys. The name is generic for any steel alloy with a minimum of 11.5 wt% chromium. Common types or grades include 440, 304L, 316L and 904A. In all types, the chromium creates a very thin chromium-oxide layer on the surface of the steel which prevents it from rusting.
The advantage of stainless steels over plated steels is that, if scratched or damaged, the stainless steel 'self-repairs' as a new chromium-oxide layer is formed. In plated steels, scratches in the plating can lead to corrosion of the steel underneath. In general, the higher percentage of chromium, the stronger the corrosion resistance of the steel. Other metals are added to the alloy to give the steel other properties, such as strength and malleability. Nickel is added to strengthen the protective oxide layer.
Stainless steel findings are slightly more gray than white findings, but the difference is barely noticeable, especially on finished jewelry. Stainless steels do not match sterling or silver plate well.
Surgical stainless steel is a specific type of stainless steel which, while wearable by the majority of the population, does contain a small amount of nickel (to which some people are allergic), usually 8% in jewelry.
"White metal" and "pot metal" are terms for tin-based alloys used in low temperature casting of base-metal jewelry components. White metal is the "silver" color that you most often see on costume jewelry and base-metal findings. White metal castings are usually three-dimensional rather than flat and are often plated. The exact composition of white metal varies, because each casting foundry and shop uses its own proprietary formula.
See platings for more information on colors of base-metal components.
What are Precious Metals?
The term precious metals usually means platinum, gold or silver. Some years, market "spot" prices of precious metals like gold and silver fluctuate greatly. An immediate effect will be noticed in sterling, gold filled and 14kt gold wire, sheet, beads and findings. If prices remain particularly high (or low), there will be a similar (but smaller) effect in the prices of silver-plated and gold-plated (base metal) items. More info on metal markets and our prices.
Precious metals at Rings & Things include:
Sterling silver, sometimes stamped .925, is an alloy of at least 92.5% silver,
and (usually) copper. It is a soft, easy to work with metal, which can be antiqued to a dark black or polished to a bright shine. More information about sterling silver.
Silver fill is made by using heat and pressure to apply a layer of .925 sterling or .999 finer silver to a base of less costly metal. This produces a surface of sterling silver or fine silver that is hundreds of times thicker than a silver plating. There are no industry standards yet for silver fill, but the silver-filled components Rings & Things carries are at least 1/20th silver by weight. More info.
Karat (kt) gold: Pure gold is 24kt, meaning 24 out of 24 parts are gold. 24kt is too soft to be functional, so it is alloyed with other metals for durability, cost and color. 14kt is 14 parts gold out of 24, and the remaining 10 parts are other metals. Depending on the color of gold (which can be yellow, rose, green or white), the other parts may be copper, silver, nickel, zinc, tin, palladium and/or manganese. People with nickel allergies should be aware that, until recently, most white gold contained nickel. Today, palladium is used to make a white gold alloy that is less likely to react to the wearer's skin. All of the karat gold we carry is yellow gold.
Gold fill (also called gold overlay) is made by using heat and pressure to apply a layer of karat gold to a base of less costly metal. This produces a surface with karat gold. The minimum layer of karat gold must equal at least 1/20 of the total weight of the item. Gold-filled beads, wire, and jewelry findings we carry.
Gold-filled tubing and wire are usually seamless, so only gold touches the body. Gold-filled sheets of base metal, used to make other findings, can be either single clad (gold on visible side only) or double clad (gold on both sides and sometimes the edge). Seamless and double clad gold-filled items are less likely to discolor, since the base metal is sealed inside the gold. However, the layer of gold on a single clad 1/20 gold-filled item is as thick (and the same total weight) as the two layers of gold on a double clad 1/20 gold-filled item. Use care when buffing gold-filled items, to avoid removing the gold layer.
The surface layer of karat gold on gold-filled items is usually 10kt, 12kt or 14kt (see illustration for more info). To know the thickness of the layer, look for a fraction, such as 1/10 or 1/20. It will be 1/20 unless otherwise stamped. Examples:
1/10 10kt GF: 1/10 of the total weight must be 10kt gold.
1/20 12kt GF: 1/20 of the total weight must be 12kt gold.
What are Platings?
A plating is a thin deposit of metal that is electro-chemically or otherwise applied to the surface of a different metal base. Other materials, like plastic, can also be plated. Many plated items are plated with copper first, then the final color.
Terms like white, yellow, silver plate, and gold plate can be somewhat ambiguous when you're trying to determine whether or not the clasps in your hand will match the jewelry chain, jump rings, ear wires, etc. listed in a catalog. Here are our plating definitions, which are fairly standard throughout the jewelry industry:
White plate is the "silver" color most often see on costume jewelry and base-metal findings. White-plated components are generally a bit grayer, but also more durable, than silver-plated components. White-plated TierraCast® items are plated with rhodium, which is brighter and more silvery than other white-plated items.
Silver plate is a thin surface layer of actual silver. It nicely matches the color of sterling silver; it doesn't quite match our white findings. Like sterling silver, silver plate can tarnish. For this reason, it's frequently lacquered to prevent tarnish (until the lacquer wears off).
Antiqued silver plate is a thin surface layer of silver that has been darkened to provide a "distressed" (oxidized) appearance.
Antiqued pewter plate is a pewter-colored plating that has been darkened to provide a "distressed" (oxidized) appearance. Some antiqued pewter beads and findings are matte, while others are shiny.
Yellow plate is a gold-colored plating that is slightly brassier, but longer lasting, than gold plate. Yellow finishes go best with raw brass.
Gold plate is a very thin deposit of actual gold (about 1/1,000 - 1/1,000,000 of an inch). The color matches 14kt gold. Heavy gold electroplate might be 2 or 3/1000s of an inch thick (this can also be written as 2 or 3 mils). Learn the difference between gold plate and gold fill. Many gold-plated items have a white nickel plate under the final gold plate. Warning: hand lotion will accelerate tarnish on gold plated components, and can result in a black color within days of handling.
Gilt is a very thin finish of gold color that is not actual gold.
Vermeil, pronounced "vehr-MAY," is a plating of karat gold over sterling silver (see Precious Metals for more info).
Antiqued gold plate is a very thin surface layer of actual gold (about 1/1,000 - 1/1,000,000 of an inch) that has been darkened to provide a "distressed" (oxidized) appearance. Warning: hand lotion will accelerate tarnish on gold plated components, and can result in a black color within days of handling.
Antiqued brass components typically have a brass or zinc base with a brass plating. The crevices of antiqued brass beads, charms and findings are darkened to give them a "distressed" (oxidized) appearance.
Copper plate is a bright, shiny copper plating. Because the metal underneath the plating is usually a harder metal than copper, copper-plated components tend to be more durable than solid copper parts.
Antiqued copper plate is a copper plating that has been darkened to provide a "distressed" (oxidized) appearance.
An allergic reaction to nickel is one of the more common metal allergies that your customers may experience. People with slight nickel allergies can usually wear surgical stainless steel for a few hours, or possibly all day. But some people are so sensitive that they cannot even wear watches, or have the buttons on their Levi's touch their skin. For nickel-allergic people, we suggest sterling silver earring findings, karat gold, niobium, nickel-free findings and plastic earring findings.
The term "nickel free" can be confusing, because items marked nickel free are allowed to contain a very small amount of nickel. There is not yet a U.S. standard. The European standard dictates that items labeled nickel free may not contain more than .05% nickel. In other words, there can't be more than 1 part in 2,000 that is nickel. The UK standard is .01% nickel. More nickel-free info.
Hypoallergenic is a popular marketing term, but has no legal definition. When your customers request hypoallergenic jewelry, direct them to nickel-free findings instead.
Patinas & Oxidizers
A patina is a corrosion or oxidation that takes place on a metal surface. Rust on iron is one example; tarnish on silver is another. Patinas often form naturally by long exposure, but can also be created artificially for an antiqued (a.k.a. distessed) look.
Antiquing solutions (a.k.a. oxidizers) are frequently used by jewelry makers to add a patina to metal beads, charms and findings. Rings & Things carries solutions that give a deep black patina or a brown-black patina. Each can be used on a variety of metals. Before using an antiquing solution, be sure to read the directions and safety precautions, and follow them carefully!
If you like to experiment with your own patinas and decorative metal finishes, we recommend these books: