In the jewellery workshop: Using argentium silver
Argentium silver may be something the silversmiths among you have heard of but have you given it a try? We know former LJS student Karen Young uses argentium silver so we interviewed her to find out more about why she likes it.
Karen. Tell us a little about yourself. When did you start jewellery making? What type of jewellery do you make?
I have been making jewellery in one shape or form since I was a child. I got my ears pierced when I was 13 and couldn’t find earrings I liked that I could afford with my pocket money so I taught myself how to make my own. The day I found out I was pregnant with my son Jack I did a short silversmithing course locally to learn how to make my own silver ring and was bitten by the silversmithing bug. I took a couple of the taster courses at the London Jewellery School when Jack was 6 months old and then moved on to the beginners and intermediate courses and just keep progressing and learning from there.
When my second son was born I took the decision to take a break from my corporate job to spend more time with my boys whilst they are small and used the opportunity to set up my own jewellery business in mid-2015 which I run around my family.
I make primarily silver and gold jewellery set with gemstones and pearls and love working with people to create unique pieces to commemorate special occasions!
What is argentium silver?
Argentium silver is a relatively new alloy of silver that was developed originally in the UK in 2006 (although it is currently more popular in the USA) that contains 93.5% silver which is purer than traditional sterling silver (92.5%). With argentium, the copper alloy (which causes the silver to tarnish over time) that is added to silver to make the silver harder has been replaced with germanium. It comes in two qualities – 935 and 960. Argentium 935 can be hallmarked as Sterling Silver (although it is now possible to get an argentium mark here in the UK with the flying unicorn) and 960 can be hallmarked with the UK Britannia hallmark.
Why do you like using it? What are the pros and cons compared with sterling silver?
I love working with argentium for many different reasons and regularly choose use it in my jewellery over sterling silver. I find it brighter and whiter in appearance than sterling silver, and it behaves more like gold that regular sterling silver. For example unlike sterling silver you don’t need to heat the entire piece to the same temperature when soldering and it fuses very well.
One of the key benefits of argentium is that it is more tarnish resistant than sterling silver so is perfect for people (like me) who find that silver tarnishes more quickly than on others, or for pieces that cannot be easily cleaned using silver dip or an ultrasonic machine. It is also more hypoallergenic than sterling silver so if you find you are allergic to sterling silver it is worth giving Argentium a try to see if you can tolerate this purer metal.
One of my favourite aspects of this metal is that it fuses beautifully so doesn’t always require soldering and creates beautifully smooth balls so I always use it for my balled ear wires, jump rings and chainmail.
Argentium is also more resistant to firescale which can be a real pain for silversmiths to remove requiring significant sanding or even plating to cover. One of the best properties of Argentium is that it can be heat hardened (you literally bake finished pieces in the oven). This hardens the metal by about 2.5 times compared to sterling silver so is perfect to use in engagement rings or pieces that you want to make more durable or that are likely to get a lot of wear.
Finally, Argentium is 100% recycled so from an ethical point of view is a great choice if you want your jewellery to have minimal impact on the environment.
The downside is that is a little more expensive to buy than sterling silver and it is a little harder to find argentium in the UK.
Cooksongold sell argentium sheet and wire as well as argentium solder and flux, and Allied Gold Ltd sell argentium chains and earpins and scrolls etc. For other findings such as cufflink backs and tubing I have to import these from RioGrande in the USA.
Any tips on using argentium effectively?
Although Argentium has many benefits there are a couple of things you have to be careful of when using it. It has a slightly lower melting point than sterling silver and glows paler red when annealing. I tend to put a small dot with a sharpie on my metal and when the dot fades and disappears I know it is at temperature.
Argentium also retains the head longer than standard sterling and can be more fragile when hot and so it is important not to move or quench the piece until the red glow has disappeared or you risk the metal cracking. I tend to leave mine to cool for about 20 seconds before moving and then I cool on a steel block rather than quenching. Also make sure your pieces are well supported during soldering to prevent the metal from sagging during soldering. I tend to use a special argentium solder which flows at a lower temperature and solder or fuse on a charcoal block.
Finally use a clear flux when fusing or soldering. I find Auroflux or special Argentium Flux sold by Cooksons to be the best.
Where can we find out more about you?
Finally, why would you recommend the London Jewellery School to potential students? Which courses have you attended?
I credit the London Jewellery School for reigniting my love of making jewellery after my sons were born and have taken most of their silver jewellery courses. I started with the beginners and intermediate silver jewellery evening courses and then progressed onto their stone setting courses, chain making and various master classes as well as some of the business courses. This year I plan on taking some of their advanced stone setting courses, technical drawing and wax carving courses. That’s the great thing about the school – you can learn at your own pace around other commitments and the teachers are just fantasti.!
I’d like to thank Karen for sharing her own experiences and advice on using argentium silver.