Metal: The Good, The Bad and The In-Between

As with many industries, the beading industry has tons of different terms that get thrown around daily, causing the average non-beader’s head to spin. Heck, there are times when even WE have a hard time keeping things straight! However, there is one subject in jewelry-making in which we feel it helps to be well-versed: the topic of metal. More specifically, metal beads and findings.

We have compiled this list of metals most commonly used for jewelry-making in the hopes that it will help you make more educated decisions when designing jewelry for yourself and others. Who knows? You may even learn to love a metal you have never worked with before, or at least enjoy mixing & matching more than you may have otherwise. After each metal, we have indicated in bold italics whether or not the metal is recommended for those with sensitive skin.

Fine Silver
Fine silver is 100% pure silver. It is significantly softer than sterling silver and has a much lower melting point, allowing it to be fused to itself without the need of a solder. It can be annealed to make it harder, but is more susceptible to scratches and dents. Unlike sterling, it will actually get shinier as it is worn – it is the copper in sterling silver that oxidizes with the air and makes it appear darker. OK for most sensitive skin.

Hill Tribe Silver from Northern Thailand

Although there are tribes in Thailand that do make beads and components out of 100% fine silver, most of the hand-crafted Hill Tribe silver pieces are 95% – 99% pure silver. Like fine silver, the higher silver content (compared to sterling silver, which is 92.5%) makes the pieces softer and easier to shape. Oxidation, hammer marks, and slight design variances are part of the appeal of Hill Tribe Silver pieces. OK for most sensitive skin.

Nickel
This is a silvery element that contains no silver and is a common alloy in other jewelry metals. Unfortunately, it is very common for people to be allergic to nickel; if you have ever experienced an itchy rash after wearing a piece of jewelry, it’s a pretty good bet the item has nickel in it. If you are allergic to nickel, avoid wearing jewelry purchased at costume-jewelry stores, such as Claire’s, unless the jewelry is marked as “nickel-free.” Not appropriate for sensitive skin.

Niobium
Niobium features many of the characteristics of precious metals. It is rare, difficult to refine, and highly resistant to chemical attack. It is also malleable and hypoallergenic – it is safe to wear for even those most sensitive to metal allergies. According to several reputable jewelry sources we consulted, there has not been a documented case of an allergic reaction to this metal due to its presence in pierced ears or contemporary body piercing.Another nifty quality niobium has is that manufacturers and designers can render a broad range of anodized colors on its surface! Ideal for sensitive skin.

Pewter:

Pewter is a mix of various base metals. Its darker color can be a nice alternative to adding a patina to sterling pieces, which can get expensive. Green Girl Studios makes gorgeous pewter beads, clasps, and pendants, and pewter is also the base metal used by Tierra Cast, who regularly test the metal they use in their manufacturing process to ensure it follows the California Health & Safety Code regarding lead content. Read here for more info. OK for most sensitive skin.

Rhodium:
Rhodium is a high-shine relative of the platinum family, and is very popular for plating jewelry. Very few people are sensitive to platinum, and are, therefore, very unlikely to be sensitive to rhodium. Excellent for sensitive skin.

Sterling Silver

This is the most common form of silver within the United States, consisting of 92.5% silver with the rest made up in base metals, usually copper in U.S. As the copper oxidizes, the sterling silver will tarnish, but can can be easily brought back to its full shine. The copper element of sterling silver also makes for a much stronger alloy than pure silver, and allows it to be soldered and patinaed. Sterling silver is great for jewelry-making as it is strong, yet malleable. One will typically find a mark of “.925” on sterling jewelry, which means the metal contains 92.5% by weight of silver, or 925 parts out of 1000. Usually OK for most sensitive skin, but some folks can have an allergic reaction (usually itching and redness) to the copper element.

Silver-Plated
Items that are silver-plated typically start out as pewter, brass, or nickel, and are then coated with a microscopic layer of sterling silver using electricity, a process known as electroplating. If the plated components have nickel as a base, people with sensitive skin will likely have an adverse reaction to plated components. However, there are companies that make nickel-free plated products, such as Tierra Cast, whom we proudly endorse. High-quality silver-plated items are still much less expensive than sterling silver options, and the coating of silver over the other metal is much thicker than their low-quality competitors.

Beware of cheap plated components! Super-bright silver-plated pieces run the risk of the silver rubbing off over time, revealing the base metal underneath, which is often the dreaded nickel! Silver-plated over pewter pieces should be OK for most sensitive skin, but avoid nickel-based plated pieces. NOTE: approximately 1 person in 20 has a metal allergy to nickel, so shop wisely!

Silver-Filled
We feel this little diagram from Rio Grande explains silver-filled quite well:


The process used for creating silver-filled pieces is much more reliable and results in a higher percentage of actual silver than with silver plating. Although it is possible for people to be sensitive to the base metal element of silver-filled pieces, silver-filled pieces should be OK for most sensitive skin.

Turkish Silver
This is still technically a type of silver, alloyed with cadmium, which is lighter weight than copper (the alloy found in sterling silver) and slightly more tarnish-resistant.

2017 Update: Thanks very much to one of our readers, Lynn, who pointed out the fact that — although cadmium is often praised for being both lightweight and strong — cadmium can be toxic, and when heated can produce dangerous fumes. Consumers should avoid wearing or handling jewelry made from cadmium. Not appropriate for sensitive skin — or anyone’s skin, actually. Read more about the dangers of cadmium on OSHA’s website.

Surgical Steel
As its name implies, this type of steel works well for surgical equipment and implants. Because of the large quantity of chromium in surgical steel, jewelry and findings made from it are corrosion resistant and scratch resistant. It will not easily lose its shape or deteriorate, and it is quite easy to sterilize and clean, making it ideal for new ear piercings or those whose existing piercings are easily irritated by other metals. Ideal for sensitive skin.

Solid Gold

Solid gold, which is 24 karat, is so soft and malleable that it does not hold its shape very well, which does not make it an ideal metal for making jewelry. Gold that is commonly used for making jewelry is alloyed (mixed) with other metals, and can usually be found in 18 karat (75% gold), 16 karat (66.6% gold), 14 karat (53% gold), and 10 karat (41.6% gold.) This is the lowest karat gold that can still be sold as “gold” in the US. Different percentages of alloys make slightly different colors of gold, and while most manufacturers use similar formulas, they are not all the same. Usually, the purer the gold, the brighter the color, and — naturally — the more expensive it is. Excellent for sensitive skin.

Gold-Plated
The plating process for gold-plated items is the same as for silver-plated pieces (see above). The layer of gold used in the plating process is usually a high karat, but there is no regulation on how thick the layer of plating must be, so beware of inexpensive gold-plated pieces — chances are, the price is too good to be true. Gold-plated over pewter pieces should be OK for most sensitive skin, but avoid nickel-based plated pieces.

Gold-Filled
Like silver-filled components, gold-filled pieces are also composed of a base metal  covered in a layer of gold. Gold-filled differs from gold-plated in that a gold-filled piece must, by definition, contain 1/20 of its weight in gold. Because of the higher gold content, the layer of gold on a gold-filled piece is much thicker, meaning it is less likely to tarnish or wear off with normal wear (i.e. no exposure to chlorine, salt, harsh soaps, etc.) Also, a thicker layer of gold means gold-filled items should be OK for most sensitive skin.

Gold Vermeil

Gold vermeil (pronounced ver-MAY) is a type of plating, but unlike regular gold-plated items, gold vermeil i,pieces are made of gold plated over sterling silver and nothing else. The plating standards of gold vermeil are much more stringent, and the gold used in the plating process must be at least 10 karats, and is much thicker than regular gold-plated pieces. One should keep in mind, however, that gold vermeil items will darken with time. As the sterling silver tarnishes underneath the layer of gold, the piece will change from a bright gold to an antique patina. This can often be a desirable trait, since the “vintage look” is very popular. Since there is no base metal used in gold vermeil, it should be OK for most sensitive skin.

Photos courtesy of http://www.elena-adams.com, Green Girl Studios, Foreign Source Ltd., and Pegasus Imports.
We would like to recognize the following sites for all of their helpful information!
http://www.riogrande.com
http://www.raregoldjewelry.com
http://www.ganoskin.com

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19 thoughts on “Metal: The Good, The Bad and The In-Between

  1. Thank you this wonderful post. I can across it while looking for information on certain metals and allergies.

    There is a bit more information I think that you might find interesting. I just found out that I am seriously allergic to Gold Sodium Thiosulfate, which is a form of gold plating used by many companies. You can sometimes also find it in the alloy mixture of some “fine” gold jewelry. The later depends more on the source of the gold.

    It is a metal allergy that can actually mess with your autoimmune system if serious enough, in addition to dermatologic effects. This is not the most common of allergies, but one sufferers must take seriously. I can no longer work with any gold plated materials and must also replace my wedding rings.

    The best way to diagnose a metal allergy is to have what is called a “Patch Test”. You can find out more information by searching Google and checking with an allergist. The test is worth the expense.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kathryn! I’m glad you enjoyed our post, and thank you for sharing the information about Gold Sodium Thiosulfate. You have inspired us to do some more research on the matter to keep our customers from having to endure any metal-allergy unpleasantness.

      • With the allergy to gold sodium thiosulfate, what kind of jewelry is ok to wear for ear piercings? We are looking for earrings to wear while the ear is healing from a piercing .

      • Thanks for your question, Margaret! Regarding fresh ear piercings, we recommend either contacting your doctor or a licensed piercing parlor/tattoo parlor that specializes in body piercing to find out which metal is best. We’re pretty sure they will recommend either surgical steel or titanium, but it never hurts to ask them. Hope that helps!

  2. Interesting info. My chemicals tend to “eat off” gold plating. And, gold-filled usually turns green. So, I was wondering if the silver-filled would also.

    • Unfortunately, it is hard to say for sure how an individual will react to a certain type of metal without them having at least some physical contact with it. There are folks we have met who say that solid gold is the only type of gold metal they can wear — you may fall into this category. We recommend consulting a doctor or allergist because they may recommend that you take a patch test, as Kathryn above mentioned. We hope you are able to find a gold metal that works for you!

  3. This was so helpful.
    I am going to go with surgical steel for the earrings I am making instead of sterling silver which has the possibility of tarnishing. Thanks for posting!

  4. This is so great! I’m just getting back into making jewelry again and I’ve been so confused by all the metal choices and how they might interact with my very sensitive skin. What’s your take on the clay silver (Art Clay)?

    • Thanks Ava! Art Clay and Precious Metal Clay (PMC) should be OK for sensitive folks to wear; once the clay has been fired, the clay binder burns off and what is left is fine silver (97%-99% pure silver). So, if you are able to wear sterling silver, you can definitely wear pieces made of Art Clay or PMC. If sterling bothers you, you may actually have BETTER luck with Art Clay/PMC pieces. Welcome back to making jewelry! 🙂

  5. I wonder if Argentium or Reflections silver would work better for sensitive skin than sterling as neither alloys contain copper and use germanium instead. I have no idea about germanium can cause sensitivity – the alloys are marketed as being brighter and more tarnish/firescale free due to the lack of copper.

    I may try some out myself soon as I make sterling silver jewellery, and have started to wonder if I’m slightly allergic to the copper content lately as I have had slight itching on my neck when wearing sterling necklaces whereas a fine silver chain I made seems more comfortable. I have sensitive skin with lots of triggers anyway – sometimes the cause is hard to determine!

    • Hi Lora! We here at Blue Door Beads don’t have any experience with either types of the silver you mentioned, but you’ve inspired us to do some more research! Thanks for the push to educate ourselves further. 🙂

  6. I’ve been using inexpensive silver/gold-plated findings and components. Are there any products available to stop the oxidation process? Thank you, Lisa

    • Thanks for your question, Lisa!

      Usually, when beaders/jewelry-makers mention the oxidation process, they are referring to the darkening of metal that can occur with findings that are copper or that have a copper element, like sterling silver. These types of findings can be polished, but to our knowledge, there’s nothing that can stop the oxidation process completely. Minimizing your pieces’ exposure to moisture & salt (if you live by a body of water) can help keep oxidation at bay — we recommend storing jewelry in a jewelry box. If you store pieces in a jewelry box with silica packets (the kind you get with a new pair of shoes that say DO NOT EAT on them!), that will keep them from tarnishing even more.

      Attempting to seal the findings with something like clear nail polish will probably not work. We have heard from customers who have tried this, and eventually the nail polish just flakes off, resulting in tarnished AND flakey-looking jewelry. Not good.

      Since you mention the findings that you’ve been using are inexpensive, I fear that what may be happening is the plating is wearing off of your findings, exposing the base metal underneath. This can happen just from normal wear & tear — sweat and skin oils can be powerful substances when combined with friction. If this is the case, there is not much you can do, other than to start using higher-quality findings from now on.

      Hope that helps, and thanks again for your question!

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