The only metal I work with in my jewelry is silver—from sterling (92.5%) to fine (100%).
Silver is an element with atomic number 47. Its chemical symbol is Ag from the Latin argentum. Along with gold and platinum, silver is a precious metal. It is malleable enough to shape easily and takes a high polish, which is why it is used extensively in jewelry making.
Tarnish is formed when silver reacts with sulfur to form the black compound silver sulfide (Ag2S). A little bit of sulfur is present in the air in the form of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide. Keeping your silver jewelry clean and dry and stored in a zippered plastic bag will drastically slow down the rate of tarnishing. If your jewelry becomes tarnished, use a polishing cloth to gently remove the tarnish. Some gemstones are soft and can be scratched by abrasives. Liquid tarnish remover is too harsh for jewelry.
Some jewelry is intentionally darkened to bring out the detail. Calling it “oxidized” is a misnomer. Silver does not react with oxygen, only sulfur.
Human beings discovered silver before recorded history. It was used both ornamentally and as money. Used as tableware, serving dishes, boxes, vases, frames, and all manner of decorative items, you have certainly seen much silver in museums. Not all of what you see is solid silver however—a lot is silver plated.
Silver is also used in the black-and-white photography process, in medical devices because of its antibacterial properties, and as a backing on glass for mirrors. You’ll also find silver in semiconductors and solar panels.
Silver is associated with the moon, femininity and the goddess Artemis who used silver-tipped arrows.
A “silver bullet” in folklore was the only weapon that could kill a werewolf.
“Thirty pieces of silver” is the bribe paid to Judas Iscariot for the betrayal of Jesus, and has come to symbolize the price of any sort of betrayal.
Sterling Silver, Bali Silver, Thai Silver
Because pure silver is soft, it is usually alloyed with copper. When the silver content is 92.5% (and the copper 7.5%) the resulting alloy is called “sterling.” Sterling silver will usually be stamped .925.
Bali silver is sterling. The designs are usually ornate and made by hand. I use Bali silver beads in my jewelry.
Thai silver is 97%–99% silver. (Photo at right.) Thai silver is made by the hill tribes of northern Thailand using ancient traditions. I use Thai silver beads in my jewelry.
Most of the low-priced jewelry you see is made from base metals—common and inexpensive metals such as copper, nickel, zinc, aluminum, etc. and their alloys. Base metals and alloys such as brass and bronze tend to oxidize and discolor easily. They can also cause allergic reactions.
Tibetan silver is mostly base metals, and might contain no silver at all.
Silver Metal Clay
Invented in 1990 by a Japanese metallurgist, silver metal clay contains tiny particles of silver in a binder of organic material and water. It can be shaped like any other clay. When fired in a kiln, the organic material burns away and what is left is fine silver. (Two of my handmade beads, right.)
The price of silver is quoted per Troy ounce, equal to about 31 grams. Throughout recorded history, silver has always had value along with widespread use as a currency. Before the fifteenth century B.C., silver was more valuable than gold. Today (March 2018) silver is priced at about $17 per ounce, and gold at about $1320 per ounce.