This is Part 4 of All About Jewelry Wire. Last week, we talked about wire gauges, wire hardness, and different jewelry wire shapes, and today we’re going to dive right in to the topic of jewelry wire materials.
Jewelry wire, along with jewelry findings and other notions, are offered in a wide variety of materials. From precious metals like gold and silver to inexpensive base metals and plated options – the range is dizzying. We are just going to cover a few of the basics, which I feel are the most often used materials in jewelry making. This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, but I know you’ll find it helpful!
First, it’s important to remember that not all metals behave the same way – some are much softer than others and therefore will not hold up for certain applications. (See All About Jewelry Wire Part 2: Wire Hardness for more information.) Also, remember from our discussion about gauge measuring systems that not all materials are sized according to the same gauge system.
Jewelry Wire Materials
Sterling Silver is an alloy consisting of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper. Pure silver is very soft, so it is mixed with other metals to create a stronger material. (Mixing metals like this produces what is called an ‘alloy’.)
Pure silver is a non-reactive material, so generally when someone has an allergy to sterling silver it is due to the copper content of the metal. The copper is also the reason sterling silver tends to tarnish – over time, copper reacts with oxygen and releases oxidation on the surface of the material, which is also known as patina. Storing your sterling silver (and copper) in ziploc bags or other containers will slow down the oxidation process and preserve the shininess of your metals.
Fine Silver is 99.9% pure silver. This is actually the purest form of silver available, due to the trace impurities which occur naturally in the silver molecules. Fine silver is more expensive than sterling silver, and it is also much softer. Remember, pure silver is non-reactive, which means it is less likely to cause an allergic reaction for sensitive individuals, and that it also doesn’t tarnish!
Silver Filled and Gold Filled materials are made by bonding a layer of sterling silver or 14K gold onto a base metal core, which is usually a brass alloy. Silver or gold filled metal is much more valuable than plated material, because the layer of precious metal is much much thicker than the microscopic film on plated metals. There is 100 times more gold or silver in gold- or silver- filled jewelry than the plated varieties of each.
Working with silver filled and gold filled wire is mostly the same as working with sterling silver or karat gold wire, except that the filled material cannot be sanded too much or hammered too thinly or the layer of brass will be exposed. Simply working with your pliers or gently polishing the metal won’t cause the gold or silver to come off, as is often the case with silver plated wire.
For silver filled: the thickness of the layer of silver is denoted with a fraction, either 1/20 or 1/10, referring to the ratio of silver to brass by weight, which is 5% or 10%. So, 1/10 silver filled has a thicker layer of silver than the 1/20 variety. For gold filled: the ratio of gold to brass is 5% by weight but is denoted as 14/20 or 12/20 to denote the karat value of the gold (either 14k or 12k, respectively.)
Silver Filled is relatively new on the scene for jewelry making, so your options may not be as diverse as far as gauge sizes, wire shapes, and findings as for gold filled, which has been around much longer.
Karat Gold wire is offered in several karat values: 12K, 14K, 18K, etc and is quite expensive. 24K gold is the purest gold and is too soft for wire working. However, some of the lower Karat gold alloy wire is apparently harder to manipulate than gold filled wire and can be somewhat brittle to work with, meaning it will break more easily. Working with karat gold wire is probably best left to the experts (or the very rich… I’ve never worked with it myself, but when the money tree blooms, I’ll give it a shot and come back and let you know! :)
Aluminum wire is strong, yet lightweight and still soft and easy to shape. It can be purchased in its natural silver color, or as colored wire or with an enamel coating in various colors. Aluminum jewelry wire is generally ‘dead soft’ so it certainly has some limitations, but it can be found in some places in ‘half-hard’ (I’ve seen it called ‘medium stiff’ as well). Be sure to check for the wire temper (or hardness) before purchasing aluminum wire. If it doesn’t specify, then it is probably dead soft.
Copper is a popular choice for making jewelry for many reasons. It is a beautiful color and has many possibilities for lovely patinas, is easy to work with, and it is relatively inexpensive to purchase. Most jewelry suppliers should have a wide variety of copper wire sizes, shapes, and tempers to choose from. Copper is slightly softer than sterling silver, but for the most part is still comparable. Copper is often recommended as a great material for beginners who would like to practice working with wire before graduating to the more expensive sterling silver option.
Brass is also relatively inexpensive and makes a great alternative for gold-colored metals. It is somewhat harder to manipulate than copper, but it still makes a good wire for beginners to practice with. “Jeweler’s Brass,” also known as “red brass” is an alloy that is a wonderful color match to 14K yellow gold. It consists of 85% copper and 15% zinc. “Yellow brass,” or “cartridge brass” is a more yellow-green color and has a higher zinc content than red brass – 70% copper and 30% zinc. Brass jewelry wire should be offered in various hardnesses in most places as well.
Silver and Gold Plated materials have a microscopic layer or precious metal on top of a base metal core. The coating is very very thin and is not durable. The plating can wear off simply by using your jewelry pliers to shape and form the wire. Plated wire, while a very inexpensive alternative, is not very practical in most wire jewelry applications. I personally do not recommend working with plated wire.
Craft Wire is a copper based wire with a ‘permanent’ color coating which is enamel, coated with a layer of nylon. Craft wire is dead soft, so it is easy to work with, but it won’t hold its shape and can’t be easily work-hardened without damaging some of the outer coating. Craft wire cannot be hammered, sanded, or filed for the same reason, and once the wire is bent it should not be un-bent for the same reason. So while it is an inexpensive alternative, it is very limited in use for wire working purposes and might be quite frustrating for a beginner as it is not forgiving of mistakes at all.
Artistic Wire is simply a brand of craft wire, although the terms are often used interchangeably.
Stainless Steel wire is much harder to work with, even though it is available in different hardnesses. It is recommended that you have a separate set of jewelry making tools designated for working with stainless steel, as it can damage your tools. Stainless steel requires more heavy duty wire cutters than most other materials – DO NOT use your good flush cutters to cut stainless steel wire. Stainless steel wire doesn’t rust.
Memory Wire is made of stainless steel that is a very rigid temper. It comes in various size springs, intended for making rings, bracelets, anklets, and necklaces. Over-working the wire can cause it to stretch out a bit, though it will still maintain the coiled shape. If you need to stretch out your memory wire pieces, do so a little bit at a time, as it is very easy to stretch but difficult to ‘put back’. DO NOT use your good flush cutters to cut memory wire. Use some heavy duty wire cutters or some memory wire shears to do the job! Memory wire is too stiff to use for wire wrapping or other wire working – it should only be used if you want to maintain the spring or round shape and general that it comes in.
Be sure to check out the other posts in this series if you want to learn more about jewelry wire:
What are your favorite materials to work with? I’d love to hear from you!