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 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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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 (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!