JEWELRY MAKING MATERIALS
Knowing What To Know
by Warren Feld
There are no perfect jewelry making materials for every project. Selecting materials is about making smart, strategic choices. This means relating your materials choices to your design and marketing goals. It also frequently means having to make tradeoffs and judgment calls between aesthetics and functionality. Materials differ in quality and value. They differ in their sensorial effects on people. They differ in how people perceive them. They differ in the associational and emotional connections which they evoke. They differ in their functional efficiency and effectiveness to lend pieces an ability to retain a shape, while at the same time, an ability to move, drape and flow. They differ in cost and durability. Last, materials may have different relationships with the designer, wearer or viewer depending on how they are intended to be used, and the situational or cultural contexts.
JEWELRY MAKING MATERIALS:
Knowing What To Know
The materials I use are alive
The world of jewelry design and the materials used can be complex, especially for jewelry designers just starting out in their careers. The novice, but also the more experienced designer, as well, often run up against some terms and properties of materials they have not dealt with before. Materials affect the appeal of the piece. They affect its structural
integrity. They affect the cost. They affect how people view, sense, desire and understand the piece.
You Would Be Very Aware Of…
If you want to gain an understanding of materials, you would be very aware of where they come from, how they are described, sold and marketed. You would be very aware of the Beads and jewelry findings and stringing materials and tools, their qualities, when they are useful and when they are not, and what happens to them when they age. You would be very aware of what country the material is made or found in, how the material is manufactured, synthesized or gotten at, if it is modified or changed in any way, and how it comes to market. You would be very aware if the product is sold at different levels of quality, even if this is not differentiated on the product’s label. It is also important to be very aware how any of these aspects of the material have changed over time, or might change over time in the future.
You would be very aware that there is no such thing as the perfect material. There are only better materials, given your situation and goals. There is no perfect bead for every situation. No perfect clasp. No perfect stringing material. Every choice you make as a jewelry designer will require some tradeoffs and judgment calls. The more you understand the quality of the materials in the pieces you are working with are made of, and the clearer you are about your design goals, and if you are selling things, your marketing goals, as well, the more prepared you will be to make these kinds of choices.
You would be very aware that materials have different values and life spans, and this must relate to your project goals. You would not want to use metalized plastic beads, for example, in a piece you call an heirloom bracelet. Metalized plastic beads are a metal shell around a milky white plastic bead. The shell will chip easily. On the other hand, when doing fashion jewelry, these very inexpensive beads, and which have a short life-span, would be perfect. Not only are they cheap, but because they are cheap, there are lots and lots of designs and shapes and textures.
If your goal is to create more investment quality pieces, then you would not want to buy lampwork beads which have not been appropriately annealed (that is, if not cooled down correctly, they will fracture and break easily). You would buy appropriately annealed ones, but which are considerably more expensive. This may affect the look of your pieces. For an inexpensive, fashion oriented piece, your necklace made up entirely of lampwork beads which have not been appropriately annealed might be very affordable. It would have that great handmade, artisan look. It might sell for only $60.00. With more investment quality lampwork beads, however, you might just use one, or perhaps three lampwork beads, and
have a lot of cord showing, or a lot of filler beads, to keep the piece
affordable. This would be a very different design look and style. If the
necklace was made up of all quality lampwork beads, — to have the same look and style as its inexpensive cousin — it might have to retail for $600-800.00.
Again, for an investment quality piece, you would want to use crystal beads manufactured in Austria or the Czech Republic, and not ones manufactured elsewhere. And you would not let yourself be fooled when the front of the package says “Austrian Crystal” when the back says “Made In China”. Crystal beads made in China are not as bright, there are more production issues and flaws in the beads, and the holes are often drilled off-center when compared to their “Made In Austria” counterparts. But crystal beads more appropriate for that investment quality piece might be overkill for a fashion piece where you want to add a pop of brightness without a lot of additional cost.
You would want to be very aware of the treatments of beads and metals. Some things are radiated, heated, reconstituted, partly synthesized, lacquered or dyed. Sometimes this is a good thing and these treatments enhance the quality of materials in appearance and durability. Othertimes this is a bad thing, negatively affecting the quality of materials.
You would be very aware that many of the materials you use are described in ways that do not provide you with sufficient information to make a choice. Take the material gold-filled. The definition of gold-filled is that the material is a measurable layer of real gold fused to brass, sometimes copper. But the legal definition does not tell you how thick the gold has to be over the brass for the material to be called gold-filled. So in the market, some gold-filled has very little gold and will lose its gold very quickly, and other gold-filled has a thicker layer and will keep its gold, its shine and its shape for decades.
Or sterling silver. Sterling silver is supposed to be 92.5% silver (marked .925). The alloy, that is the remaining 7.5%, is supposed to contain, by law, a lot of copper. However, many manufacturers substitute some nickel for the copper to keep the cost down. This makes the sterling silver less expensive, yes, but it also makes it more brittle. It is the difference between being able to open and close the loop on an ear wire, off of which to hang the dangle, many, many times or only two or three times before the wire loop breaks.
Lots of sterling silver items get marked .925. And in jewelry making, many of the pieces we use are so small, there is no .925 stamp on them. Besides a change of what is in the alloy affecting the usefulness and value, many other things happen in the marketplace, as well. Many sterling silver items have been cast. What frequently happens is that some of the silver is lost in the casting process, so it is no longer at 92.5%. Manufacturers are supposed to make note of this, but many just stamp .925 on these items. Some shops label items as sterling silver, but in reality, are selling you pieces that are nickel. And some places will sell you something silver plated, and put sterling silver .925 tag which is marked .925 on it off the clasp. The tag is sterling; the jewelry is not. I’ve seen some major craft stores and some major jewelry stores sell metalized plastic jewelry and jewelry components and label it .925.
Flexible, nylon coated cable wires are one of the primary types of stringing materials. The measure of cable wire strength is called tensile strength. This has to do with what the wires are made of, what the nylon sheathing is made of, and how thick that nylon sheathing is. What makes the wire strong is the nylon sheathing’s ability to maintain the twist in the wire. As soon as the integrity of the nylon sheathing is violated, the wire untwists and immediately breaks. You will not see tensile strength referenced on the labels of these products. The information that is referenced (number of strands, wire thickness) gives you some information needed to make a choice, but insufficient to make an actual choice. Even when they list the number of strands, this doesn’t give you enough factual information to depend on. One brand’s high-end, 7-strand is stronger and more supple than that same brand’s 49-strand middle range product. This same brand’s middle range 49-strand product is stronger and more supple than another brand’s high end 49-strand product.
You would also be very aware that you cannot assume that there is consistency and uniformity for any given product. There are many production issues that arise in the manufacture of glass beads, for example. Some beads are perfect. Some have flaws. These flaws might include some flat surfaces when everything should be rounded. The color not going all the way through. Holes drilled off-centered. Bead sizes and hole sizes inconsistent from bead to bead. Some bead holes that are especially sharp. Some beads which have coated coloration which is poorly applied and chips off quickly. In clothing, these beads with flaws would be labeled irregulars, but they are not so labeled in beads. Some companies specialize in selling you perfect manufactured glass beads; other companies specialize in selling you the irregulars. They don’t advertise that fact. Either quality looks the same when you buy it; they just don’t hold up the same in close examination or from wear.
You would be aware that fabricated and stamped metal pieces are more durable than cast metal pieces, but a lot more expensive, and with a smaller palette of designs for the artist. You would be aware that the measure of pound strength on any label is the weakest piece of information to grab onto. The law only defines how pound strength should be measured. Since most products are manufactured abroad, little care is taken to guarantee the validity of this information.
You would be aware that there are a lot of things to know about the materials used in jewelry design.
It Is All About Choices
Materials play a significant role in jewelry design. You need to relate and justify the choices you make about selecting and using materials to your design goals (and your marketing goals, as well). Sometimes your choices are preformulated and planned; othertimes, these choices are spontaneous and emerge within your process of design. But these are all choices to be made, with inevitable impacts and consequences.
It is through the characteristics and qualities of the materials that the designer comes to keenly and fully appreciate values, intents, desires, and understandings associated with any design.
It is also through the most effective presentation specific to the materials that the designer experiences the piece to its best advantage and potential. The effectiveness results from the designer’s ability to maximize the strengths of each material, while minimizing its weaknesses. This is called leveraging.
It is a useful exercise, as well, to attempt to simplify the materials and reflect upon whether the piece feels more satisfying and successful, or less so. One key goal of any designer is to reach a point of parsimony where enough is enough.
Appreciation of materials, their selection, use and arrangement lead the designer to see, feel, think and listen to the visual poetry laid out before them. Jewelry is more than functional adornment. It resonates. Materials contribute to this. This appreciation allows the artist to share inspiration and intent with other audiences, the wearer and viewer included. The materials influence the artist in discovery, expression, invention, re-invention, and originality. They become part of the human experience in jewelry design.
For example, you might be in a situation having decide whether to purchase an $80.00 strand of 6mm round garnet beads, or a $28.00 strand of these same beads.
In that $80.00 strand, all the beads actually measure 6mm. They are all perfectly round. The holes are drilled well, and drilled through the center. There are no chips at the hole. There is good coloration, and the coloration from bead to bead is very consistent.
In that $28.00 strand, none of the beads measure 6mm. They are a bit smaller, perhaps 5.5mm. The beads from bead to bead on the strand are not consistent. Sizes are approximate, not exact. Several beads on the strand are not perfectly round. Some have flat surfaces on them. There are many chips at the hole, suggesting that they are not drilled well. Some are drilled off-center. The coloration is good from afar, but a close exam reveals that some beads are less desirable than others.
This situation doesn’t present an easy choice, however. If you are making fashion jewelry, the less expensive strand might be the best choice. Fashion jewelry is not worn for a long time. It is not an investment. It is a look. These beads are less expensive. In this context, the flaws, in this case, may not be so much as a flaw, as more a variation. The variations might enhance the fashion piece, adding a sense of fun, surprise and funkiness. The poorly drilled holes might mean that these beads will crack and break from wear, but given that fashion jewelry is not worn for a long time, this is a non-issue.
If you are making a more investment quality piece, the more expensive garnet beads might be the better choice. They have more value, resulting from the higher quality. The consistency in quality results in a more classic, timeless look. These beads will last a long time. Here, the inconsistencies in the less expensive strand of beads definitely would be viewed as flaws, not variations.
Types of Materials
One of the most fundamental and practical aspects of jewelry design is the importance of the materials. The choices jewelry designers make when selecting materials influence the form, content and movement of their pieces. Every material brings something special to the creative process and the finished jewelry pieces. The material influences, not only the designer, but the wearer and viewer themselves, how they perceive it, the values they place on it, and the extent they desire it.
The types of materials jewelry designers might choose are only limited by the imagination of the designer, and that designer’s budget. I have compiled a short listing of the more prevalent materials used in jewelry design. I distinguish those materials called
– Stringing Materials –
which are used to form the canvas of our jewelry,
from those materials called
– Aesthetic Materials –
which form the primary visual vocabulary and expressiveness of the piece, but also may contribute some functionality,
from those materials called
– Functional Materials –
which solely or primarily have practical value, but only sometimes, most likely inadvertently, add to the aesthetic expression of the piece.
The canvas is the part of the piece of jewelry onto which things are placed. The canvas is usually some kind of stringing material, and the things placed on it typically are beads and charms. The canvas supports the piece, its shaping and its silhouette. It may or may not be visible in the piece. But the canvas can be anything, including fabric and ribbon, wire mesh, chains, and the like. It can be like a string, or it can be like a flat sheet.
The designer selects the canvas or stringing material based on a vision of the structure of the piece, including both its supportive requirements as well as its appearance-related qualities. The particular selection will also impact the durability of the structure. Sometimes the selection of canvas takes on a symbolic meaning, such as using hemp in friendship bracelets or antiwar jewelry, or using leather in biker jewelry.
( (1)Beading thread: Typically shaped like a typewriter ribbon, made from bonded nylon. It is something we wax before using it. Materials are strung onto thread using a beading needle. The thread is attached to the clasp assembly by tying knots. Glue should never be applied to these knots. If the beading thread is twisted, rather than bonded, it will break very easily.
Structure: Piece is very supple and moves, drapes and flows very easily. Provides little resistance to the weight of materials placed on it
Durability: Very durable when waxed, unless the holes of beads are very sharp
(2) Cable thread: This is a material where threads are braided together and encased in a nylon sheathing. Used similarly as beading thread. You use a needle. Waxing is optional, but strongly suggested. You tie knots to the clasp assembly. Glue should never be applied to these knots. Cable thread sold in bead stores is non-biodegradable. That sold in fishing stores or fishing departments is biodegradable.
Structure: Piece is very supple and moves, drapes and flows easily, but
not as easily as with beading thread.
Durability: Very durable, but the nylon sheathing can be compromised easily from body oils, perfume oils, and cosmetics. Waxing will protect the nylon sheathing.
(3) Bead cord, hemp, knotting cord: This is a material where threads or
fibers are braided or twisted together so that they look pretty. This cord
is used when you want the stringing material to show, such as putting knots
between beads, or where you have a cluster of beads, then the cord showing, another cluster of beads, the cord showing, and so forth. You use this material to macramé, knot, braid, knit, and crochet. You do not wax this material. That would make it look ugly. The primary purpose is to make your piece look attractive when the stringing material is to show. Bead cord may be nylon or silk. You use silk with real pearls, but, I suggest using the nylon with other materials. You will need a needle, usually a collapsible eye or big eye needle. You tie knots to secure the cord to a clasp assembly. You minimize the use of glue applied to knots, but you usually need to apply glue to the final knot.
Structure: Piece is a little stiffer than with bead thread or cable
thread, but still feels supple. Will drape well, but respond imperfectly to
the movement of the body.
Durability: Silk naturally deteriorates in 3-5 years; nylon does not. Bead cord made from other natural materials will also deteriorate over a relatively short period of time.
(4) Cable Wires: This flexible stringing material consists of wires braided together and encased in nylon. The strength comes from the ability of the nylon sheathing to keep the twist in the wires. If the nylon sheathing is compromised in any way, the wires will immediately untwist and the cable will break at that point. The wire is stiff enough to be its own needle. You use crimp beads to secure the cable wire to a clasp assembly because it is more difficult to tie a secure knot with the cable wire. A crushed crimp adds a more pleasing appearance than tying a knot, but it adds risk. A crushed crimp is like razor blade, always trying to saw right through the cable when the jewelry is worn.
Structure: Piece will be stiff, and never take the shape of the body. Piece will typically rotate in the opposite direction from the movement of the body or arm it rests on.
Durability: Very durable. The nylon sheathing can be compromised easily from body oils, perfume oils, and cosmetics. Usually crimp beads are used to secure the clasp, and these increase the risk the cable will break at the crimp, when compared to the durability of tying a knot.
(5) Stretchy Cords, like elastic string,
gossamer floss, elastic cord: These materials are not particularly durable and lose their elasticity over time. People like these because they hate clasps, and you don’t use clasps with these. You secure these by tying knots, and putting glue (any glue except superglue) on the knots. Be sure
to coat the bottom of the knot, as well as the top of the knot. Elastic
cord is fabric covered around an elastic thong or floss.
Structure: Piece will stretch and return back to its original shape and size.
Durability: Material deteriorates and loses both its integrity as well as its memory over time, especially if left exposed to the air, or worn frequently. The round elastic string is the most durable among the stretchy cords. The floss is the least durable.
(6) Thicker cords like leather, waxed
cotton, ultra suede lace, rubber thong, and rat tail (satin cord): These cords are stiff enough to be their own needle. You usually need special jewelry findings, such as crimp ends, end caps, or cones with larger interior openings, to prepare the ends of the thicker cord, so that you can attach a clasp assembly. Some are glued on; some crimped.
Structure: Similar to bead cord, but little stiffer.
Durability: Some cords, like leather, dry out over time and crack. Other cords, like waxed cotton and ultra suede, last a very long time. The rat tail tends to shred.
(7) Hard Wire: Hard wire is not a stringing wire, per se. You can use it to make a chain or bead-chain. You can use it to make shapes, like clasps and ear wires. You can bundle it so that it might be stiff enough to retain the shape of a bracelet or cuff. You can weave it or knit it to create patterns and textures. You create loops and rings to attach hard wire to a clasp assembly.
Structure: Wire stiffness comes as dead soft, half hard and hard. You determine, given how much manipulation of the wire you plan on doing, how stiff you want the wire to be when you begin your project, so that it will hold and retain its shape. Each time you manipulate the wire, it becomes stiffer and stiffer and stiffer, until it becomes brittle and breaks.
Durability: Very durable. Wire 18 gauge or thicker has little risk of losing its shape, distorting, breaking, opening up or pulling apart. As you get thinner, the risk increases dramatically. Dead soft wire requires a lot more manipulation until it can hold its shape, than half hard or hard hard wire.
(8) Chain:Wire is bent into links of various shapes and sizes, and
these are interlinked together into a chain. Sometimes the links are soldered closed. Usually they are not. You can string things onto the chain. You can use the chain as part of the clasp assembly, often to make the size adjustable. You can use the chain as a design element throughout your piece.
Structure: Thinner chains will be less able to keep their shape.
Durability: Chains can be very durable, particularly ones that have soldered links, wider links, and/or links created from thicker gauge wires.
(9) Ribbon, fabric:These wider cords are sometimes used as a stringing
material. They are secured at each end with ribbon or bar clamps, which then form either side of your clasp assembly.
Structure: Usually, these don’t by themselves support a shape.
Durability: More aesthetic than functional
(10) Lacy’s Stiff Stuff, Stiff Felt, Ultra suede sheet, Paper, Card Board, Poster Board, Rolled Out Polymer or Metal Clay, Brass Cuff Blank:The canvas or stringing material does not have to be a narrow cord. It can be a wide, flat surface, off of which to bead, glue, stitch, embroider, carve, or sculpt. This type of canvas needs to have some amount of stiffness to hold a shape, but not too much that the jewelry made with it feels uncomfortable, or does not move naturally with the person.
Structure: If you were creating a pendant, you might want your
canvas o be a little stiffer than if you were creating a bracelet.
Durability: Average durability
(11) Fused Glass:Sometimes the flat canvas is a piece of
glass. Other pieces of glass are fused onto this, using a kiln, in order to create a pattern or image.
Structure: Rigid shape.
Durability: Same as any other piece of glass.
(12) Metal Sheet and Wire:Sometimes we fabricate a piece of
jewelry, either using soldering, stamping, molding, casting, 3-D printing, or cold connections. Part of the sheet and/or wire becomes our canvas or stringing material.
Structure: These are very reliable materials for creating and maintaining
Durability: Soldered and stamped pieces are much more durable than molded or cast ones. 3-D printed materials would be used with casting. Cold connections could be used with any technique.
The canvas either passes through various aesthetic materials, or these are applied to the canvas or attached off the canvas in some way. These aesthetic materials are used for the yoke, the clasp assembly, the frame, the focal point, the center piece, the strap, and the bail.
Aesthetic Materials are expressive. They are part of the visual vocabulary and grammar of the jewelry. While some play functional roles, as well, they are usually selected for their expressive powers. Some materials evoke sensory or symbolic responses, as well. A touch, a feel, a color sense, sometimes a smell, which extends beyond its factual elements.
Any type of material can be selected to use as an aesthetic material. It can be something very specific, or a found object, or some kind of combobulation of things.
Aesthetic Materials we see often include,
Glass, Fused glass, lampwork glass, blown glass
Metals and Plated Metals
Natural (gemstones, wood, bone, horn)
Polymer and Precious Metal Clay
Ceramic, Porcelain, Clay, Raku
Paper, lacquered paper
Oxidizers, Patinas, Paints, Fabric Dyes and Paints, Stains, Metal Paints and Rouges
These aesthetic materials can be selected for their qualities of
(c) Sensations or symbolism extending beyond the physical and decorative bases underlying these materials
Aesthetic Materials: Appeal
The idea of appeal is a broad concept. It is sometimes universal. But often subjective.
There are many variables underlying the ideas of appeal and beauty. These include things like,
Clarity, translucence, opacity
–Hardness, brittleness, softness, suppleness
–Luminescence, brightness, reflectiveness, refraction
–Color, color combinations, intensity, value
–Weight, lightness, heaviness, volume, density
–Perceived value, worth, rarity
–Cut, faceting, smoothness, carving, sculpting
–Direction, pointer, focal points, markings, striations, inclusions
Aesthetic Materials: Functionality
Some materials function better than others in certain situations. For example, sterling silver is very malleable, nickel is more brittle. Bending, shaping, coiling, weaving sterling silver requires much less effort, and with this, can lead to more artistic and design success, than using nickel or other wire material that is stiffer and harder than sterling.
Another example: Using needle and thread as your stringing material is very time consuming. It is awkward using needle and thread. You have to wax it. You want to pass through each bead a minimum of three times. Using a cable wire, instead, lets you go much faster. The cable wire is a self needle. You don’t wax it. You only have to go through each bead once. If you are selling your pieces, it is virtually impossible to get your labor out of a needle and thread project. You almost have to use a cable wire, if you don’t want to commit yourself to a life of slave labor.
Aesthetic Materials: Sensations and Symbolism
Materials have sensory and symbolic powers which extend beyond the materials themselves. Obviously, this can be very subjective. It might have psychological roots, sociological roots and/or cultural roots.
Things may feel warm, cold, soft, rough, oily, weighty. Things may represent romance, power, membership, religiosity, status.
Vanderbilt University’s colors are gold and black, so using those colors in the Nashville, TN area might evoke a different emotional response than when used elsewhere. And here’s that very-difficult-to-design-with University of Tennessee orange, again, in the Nashville area will evoke a very different response than elsewhere.
Materials like amber and bone and crystal are things people like to touch, not just look at. The sensation extends beyond the visual grammar.
These materials are used in practical terms. They help things hold together. They help pieces stay in place. They help make pieces adjustable in size. They help polish, finish things off, assist materials through stages in their processing and development. They may be used to prevent or retard a change in color, such as a lacquer finish or rhodium plating over sterling to prevent tarnishing. They help capture a form or shape. They are not a part of the visual and expressive vocabulary and grammar of the piece. Nor are they any kind of canvas.
Functional Materials which are more prominent include,
·Fixatives (like Krylon, lacquering, special platings, waxes, other things which create a protective barrier over something else).
It is especially important to know a lot about adhesives. Many people reach for a tube of Superglue for everything. Superglue has few uses in jewelry design. This glue dries like glass, so the bond is like a piece of glass. When the jewelry moves, the bond shatters like glass, and the bond looks like a broken piece of glass. All jewelry moves when worn, so not a good choice.
Another glue many people reach for is hot glue. This glue melts at body temperature, so not a wise choice for necklaces, bracelets and pendants.
The best glue to use is jeweler’s glue. Two brands are E6000 and Beacon 527. Basically the same glue, but the former is thick and the latter is runny. These glues take 10 minutes to set, so you can move things around for 10 minutes. At about 20 minutes, the consistency is like rubber cement and you can use your finger or a tweezers to take off any excess glue. Both glues take 24 hours to dry hard. They dry clear and remain clear over time. The bond does not expand.
If using fabric, particularly silk (ribbon, bead cord, thread), you want to use a cement, rather than a glue. Glues work by forming a collar around an object, then tighten up as the water or other solvent evaporates. Cements work by adhering to each individual fiber. Glue on fabric, as opposed to cement, will lose its grip, so to speak. With silk, I suggest either G-S Hypo Fabric Cement, or any fabric glue.
Before using a glue, you want to know the characteristics of the bond, once dried. These include things like,
– whether dries clear, or yellows
– whether yellows with age
– whether it expands or not when it dries
– what materials it is most useful for
– whether you have to prepare the material’s surface before using
– how long it takes to fully set
– how easy it is to wipe away and remove any excess glue
– whether where-ever you purchase the particular brand of glue, such as at a craft store or discount store or bead store, that this brand of glue is the same quality product
– how long the glue will last in its container before hardening or drying out
Besides the importance of knowing the types of materials, it is also important to know the properties of materials. These include (a) mechanical properties, (b) physical properties, and (c) chemical properties.
Mechanical properties describe how a material reacts to an applied force. These include,
Strength: It’s ability not to break under stress or strain
Hardness: How easily it can be scratched, faceted, carved, sculpted, cut, sand blasted
Elasticity: The ability to regain its shape after a stress has been applied to it
Plasticity and Malleability: How much force it takes to make a material permanently deform without breaking
Stiffness and Brittleness: At some point, these materials will be so brittle, they will not bend, and will just break in response to force. Wire materials, for example, get stiffer and more brittle, the more they are worked, such as from twisting, pulling, hammering, coiling and the like. Crystal is