While the goal in jewelry design is to make a piece that’s appealing, original, and inspiring, there is always the pragmatic concern of quality versus cost. My goal is to make pieces that will last decades, but not cost an arm & a leg. So on what basis is quality determined? As a means to finding answers to this question, I decided to do some research on sterling silver, stainless steel, pewter, and zinc alloy aka Tibetan silver. I have used all of them at some point during the journey from “hey making jewelry might be fun” to jewelry designer.
So how to decide what is valuable in terms of metals used in jewelry-making? Which of these silvery metals can be used to insure jewelry that lasts, but isn’t exceedingly expensive? It seems to come down to three things.
1. How does it look? Is it pretty?
2. Is it durable?
3. What does it cost?
In the appearance department, polished silver is just SO SHINY! Among the silver colored metals, it is superb. And this is what makes it the most expensive of the silver colored metals – well that, and likely its history as currency. (It also has some industrial uses.)
Interestingly enough, silver used in jewelry is not pure. Pure silver is just too soft. Sterling is 92.5% silver with copper added to give it strength. As for durability, in jewelry it will last indefinitely, but not with out tarnishing. Tarnishing isn’t a huge deal though. You just need to clean your sterling every once in awhile.
We tend to think of stainless steel in reference to more industrial uses – stainless steel sinks and appliances for example. But it is also used in jewelry. While, not quite as shiny as sterling, and a bit more gray, it still makes an appealing metal for jewelry. It is very durable (hence its use in sinks, etc). Unlike sterling, it does not tarnish. And it costs less than sterling.
Pewter has a long history due to its attractive appearance. There are collections in museums dating back to the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Celts. Older pewter often contains lead as hardener, but now knowing lead’s dangers, other metals are used for that purpose. It’s been used for items like utensils, candlesticks, tableware, and of course jewelry. It can be polished to the point that it closely resembles sterling or it can be antiqued. It’s not only attractive, but versatile.
As for durability, considering that we have such ancient examples, it is obvious that pewter lasts. And like stainless steel it doesn’t tarnish. It is also less expensive than sterling.
ZINC ALLOY AKA TIBETAN SILVER
Zinc alloys are used in jewelry for their antique silver appearance, although they may be imbued with other metal colors. Tibetan silver is a misnomer. Once upon time there were zinc alloys that contained silver, but the current zinc alloys do not. I refuse to use the term Tibetan silver, because it can misleading, but it is still part of the lingo, so you may run into it.
So what is the scoop in regard to our three criteria? Zinc alloy is inexpensive. It can look nice enough, but it can tarnish pretty easily. And while the tarnish can be removed, if you don’t keep on top it, the discoloration can become permanent. Because of this, these jewelry pieces are unlikely to stay in good shape indefinitely. Does this mean jewelry made from zinc alloy should be avoided? Not necessarily. But you need to adjust your expectations. This type of jewelry could be purchased for fun and frivolity, but perhaps not as a long-enduring emblem.
So what does all of this mean for my jewelry design endeavors? Sterling, stainless, and pewter all meet the criteria for quality. They all look fabulous, function well in jewelry, and are exceedingly durable. In fact, I found the information that stainless and pewter do not tarnish, particularly intriguing – especially in metals that cost less than sterling.
As for zinc alloy, it was fine when I was just learning. Who wants to invest a lot of money on supplies for a new hobby that may not last? Ha! But I am long past that point. Unfortunately, I still have a lot of zinc alloy beads left. As I decrease my stock of these items to zero, they will appear on my site clearly marked as such and noticeably less expensive than those containing sterling, stainless, or pewter. They belong to a newly created line called FRIVOLITY.
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