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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Silver Jewellery

The Craft of Silver Jewellery Making

The Craft of Silver Jewellery Making

Silver Jewellery Introduction

Silver has a unique luster which has made it an obvious choice for craftsmen over the centuries. Simple jewellery, made from silver wire and sheets, cut and shaped into elegant forms, is a good starting point for the amateur silversmith.

Origins of Silversmithing

The ancient civilisation of Egypt and Greece both regarded gold and silver jewellery as a symbol of wealth. Examples can be seen in many museums around the world. The Romans produced huge quantities of silverware and although many families ate from silver dishes, the owning of large amounts of silver still denoted status.  

Very few examples of silverware from the Middle Ages still remain. As it was frequently used as a form of currency, silver objects were often melted down in times of financial crisis. Some of the best examples of period silverware were made in the 18th century. At the beginning of this century, there was a revival of interest in crafts (including silversmithing) with the Arts and Crafts movement.

Basic techniques of Silver Smithing

Silver – The silver content of metals is expressed in terms of its ‘fineness’ or parts of silver per 1000 parts of total metal.
Sterling Silver
- is 925 per 1000, the rest being copper. As pure silver is very soft, the copper enhances its strength and durability. Sterling silver is mostly used for tableware, jewellery and decorative objects.  
Britannia Silver
– is 950 parts per 1000. It is softer and used in pieces where durability is less important than malleability and ease of working.  

Indian and ethnic jewellery owes its appearance to being about 800 parts per 1000. This is regarded as sub-quality silver by European standards and is not available for silversmithing. If you wish to make this type of jewellery you need to buy sterling silver and paint the finished object with an oxidizing solution (ammonium sulphate) to achieve the distinctive blackened look.

Silver is available from specialist suppliers in sheet or wire form. The thickness of each sheet is measured in millimetres or gauges. Gauge 8, for example, is 0.55mm, gauge 10 is 0.7mm and gauge 15 is 1.1mm thick. Silver wire ranges from 0.3mm to 3 or 4mm thick and is available in either round or square cross sections.

Sawing and Filing – By simply sawing and filing small pieces of silver you can produce very basic, yet attractive pieces of jewellery. All it takes is a few essential pieces of equipment and patience and care. The silver is held flat on a bench peg and cut with a piercing saw or fine saw blade – almost as thin as a hair – and needle files are then used to smooth and shape the silver.  

Working with heat – Metals tend to harden when bent or hit into shapes, so most silver is softened (known as annealing) to increase its malleability, before it is worked on. This is done with a blow torch. The silver is heated until it turns cherry red and then cooled. When cool enough to handle it will be more workable, so it can be bent to shape or patterned. It is reheated if it becomes hard again. After working and polishing it will return to its original hard, springy state.  

Soldering – This is used to join pieces of silver, for example to make a ring or to join elements of the piece together. The surface of the silver is first painted with a medium known as flux (borax). This prevents the silver from oxidizing and keeps the surface clean when heated, so that the solder flows and adheres to the area. Small pieces of silver solder are applied and the whole piece heated with a blowtorch until the solder runs and joins the surfaces.  

Finishing the work – Before polishing, the work must be cleaned, particularly if it has been soldered. This is done using a special pickle (such as alum) or an acid.  

There are various methods of producing the final finish. Burnishing is done by rubbing the surface with a smooth piece of steel. Polishing is done in two stages, first with carborundum based emery paper, and then with a special rotary polisher and polishes called Tripoli and rouge.  

Hallmarks – Before silver items can be sold, if they are over a certain weight, they have to have a hallmark stamped on them as a form of quality control and identification.  

The quality of sterling in Britain has been regulated and assured in this way since 1327. A hallmark today reveals the name of the maker (initials), the standard of the silver (either 925 or 950 ((lion/ leopard symbol))), the assay mark  (town of origin – Lion represents London, Anchor represents Birmingham and a Castle represents Edinburgh, Wreath like symbol represents Sheffield) and the date. The date is indicated by a single initial, the style of lettering changing to indicate the age of the item.  

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