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Thursday, May 27, 2010

But wait, there's more!

Yesterday I covered (briefly) the main kinds of silver you’ll see. Here’s more:

(And if you’re looking for pictures, I’ll have to disappoint you. That’s what imaginations are for, right?)

A Quick Review
Pure silver is soft (like pure gold). This is called Fine Silver. Beautiful, and doesn’t tarnish, but it’s too soft to stand up to daily wear, so it's alloyed (mixed) with other metals to make it durable enough.

Sterling silver is the result of mixing fine silver with the other metals. 92.5% silver is the minimum to be called sterling. You'll sometimes see this marked as .925 (stamped, very, very tiny).

So, why does sterling silver tarnish?
Pure silver doesn't tarnish, but it's too soft. Traditional Sterling Silver has copper, and it's copper that reacts with the air to form the tarnish (oxide). Think about copper pennies—they start out bright and shiny, but quickly age to a brown. That’s what the copper in sterling silver is doing.

If copper tarnishes, why do they use it?
Workability and appearance. Other metals might not tarnish, but, when mixed with silver, they don’t make a product that is as attractive or usable. Copper does. Until recently, it was the best option for people looking for an affordable, durable silver. Tarnishing was the price you had to pay, so to speak.

We live a fabulous modern age—is there something better?
Well, in the past 10 years, there have been some exciting developments. (Not exciting like the Saints winning the Super Bowl. Exciting if you're a metalsmith or love to wear silver, though). New metals have been added to the alloy along with the copper to create sterling silver with new properties.

The best of these new properties if you wear silver jewelry is TARNISH RESISTANCE. (Insert your favorite trumpet fanfare here. I like a basic dum, dah-dah DUMMM, but your preferences may vary.)
That's right. The new silvers tarnish far more slowly that traditional sterling.

You may have noticed the most popular (and affordable) of these: Argentium Sterling Silver. Tiffany’s is using it, along with some of the top silversmiths in the country, and it’s starting to become more available for us lowly folks, too. That's my preferred silver now—all the sterling silver I use is Argentium. It is a little bit more expensive that traditional sterling—5-10% higher--but the tarnish resistance (dum, dah-dah DUMMM) is worth it.

Now, not only is it tarnish resistant (trumpet fanfare) but it also has some properties that make it nice to work with.

One is fusing (heating it with a torch until it melts slightly so it can form bonds). Traditional Sterling Silver is joined using solder, which has it’s advantages, too, but I'll not go into those here.

Another feature of Argentium sterling is that it doesn't get firescale, which is not the disastrous after-effect of a dragon encounter you might think, but a darkening of the silver that can happen when you heat it in the presence of oxygen. Preventing firescale requires additional steps when soldering and removing firescale often involves a variety of tools including swearing, and is generally a pain in the bench.

Those good properties of Argentium are also properties of fine silver, too, so you get the benefits of fine silver (tarnish-resistance, workability) with the strength and durability of sterling silver.

Why doesn’t Argentium tarnish easily?
Argentium Sterling has some of the copper replaced with germanium, which reacts with the atmosphere differently. Instead of forming a dark layer, it forms a clear protective layer—think of it like a clearcoat on your car’s paint job.

Notice I say tarnish-resistant, not NON-tarnishing. Argentium silver will tarnish, just far more slowly than standard sterling. And, when it tarnishes, it turns a yellowish color rather than the dark gray/black of standard sterling. I’ve had pieces made from Argentium sterling out in the air for months on end with no noticeable tarnish. Can’t say the same thing for standard sterling.

In addition to Argentium, there are also sterling alloys with Palladium and Platinum. The pricier alloys used in these make them more expensive than standard sterling and Argentium. They’re thought to have the same tarnish-resistant (trumpet fanfare) properties as Argentium, but because they’re so new, the jury’s still out. For now, Argentium is the most affordable, not to mention available of the new alloys. I love it, and love working with it.

What about other kinds of silver?

I covered some of the basics yesterday: Silver Plate, Sterling Silver and Fine Silver. Here are a few more you might encounter while shopping.

Nickel Silver: an alloy of Copper, Nickel and Zinc. Notice that silver isn’t part of the alloy, just the name. While it’s silver-colored, it’s not silver, no matter the name. It is sometimes used as a base for plated silver. Many people are sensitive to the nickel and don’t tolerate wearing it as jewelry. It is a useful metal, though, and is used to make musical instruments (the French Horn I used to play was Nickel Silver) and a lot of very serviceable items, like zippers. And keys. Both important things in my life.

German Silver : See Nickel Silver.

Alpaca Silver: While it sounds like a traditional silver from South America carried from the mines on the backs of Llamas, it’s really the same as German Silver and Nickel Silver. Sometimes called New Silver. As in, all things old are new again, is my guess.

Bali Silver: These days, it’s more of as style of bead or charm than jewelry made in a particular location, but it used to mean sterling silver jewelry (beads, component or completed piece) made by Bali artisans in the Bali Style—often ornamented and oxidized (blackened in the recessed areas). Make sure any Bali Silver you buy is sterling, because some unscrupulous folks try to pass off cheap silver-plated replicas as the real thing, and shame on them.

Thai Silver/Hill Tribe Silver: Sterling Silver jewelry or components that are hand-crafted by the hill tribes of northern Thailand using traditional techniques. Often has a higher percentage of silver that sterling.

Remember, price is a good guide. If the price seems too good to be true, you’re probably not dealing with “real” silver—that is, Fine Silver or Sterling Silver. Nothing wrong with the other kinds, but they’re not silver. /Fine for fun jewelry, but they’re not something you’re likely to be handing down to the next generation.

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