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Differences between sterling silver, fine silver, silver plated and silver filled

A lot of people when they start making jewellery, struggle with the issue of what wire to use. I started with copper, then moved onto coloured craft wire until I decided I liked the colour of silver best of all.

Since then I’ve made pieces in both sterling silver wire – round and square – and in silver plated copper wire. I’ve recently purchased silver filled to give it a try and I find it a good compromise between the two, especially for wire wrapping.

I still use copper and brass, because I like mixing colour metals and I can solder and work them in many ways, but stopped using craft wire because the coating comes off too easily.

I will stick to silver in this article, because that’s the material I use most, but the same principles apply to gold wire.

I started with silver plated wire but silver plated is considered amateurish and doesn’t last very long because the silver coating is very thin and can wear away after some use. It’s the cheapest option but it’s also limited in terms of what techniques you can use – you can’t solder it, melt the ends or polish it properly without removing the silver coating. Hammering is also an issue at times.

Unfortunately this option it’s more of a necessity than a choice in some cases. When the economy is bad, people can’t spend much on non-essencial items. A lot of clients want pieces to wear for a season or two and they care more about how the piece looks than what it is made of or how long it will last. If you have this kind of target audience, silver plated may be a good option for you, just know what the limitations are and you should be fine. Items such as earrings or pins last longer because they don’t rub against fabric or bump into things as often as pendants, rings or bracelets.

On the opposite side of the spectrum there’s sterling and fine silver. When I first started out I was afraid to use it, and even now I still sometimes make a first version of some pieces in copper before breaking out the silver, but after years training as a metalsmith and knowing how to reuse the scrap metal, I don’t have a problem with working in silver any more. The bar has now gone up and it’s gold I can’t seem to justify the cost of unless it’s a custom job.

The upside of sterling and fine silver is that you can use all the previously mentioned techniques – soldering, melting, hammering and polishing with no problems. The cost of the material is much higher, certainly, but investing in precious metals is probably not a risky option. If your piece doesn’t sell and you need to get your money back, you can purify it, melt it into an ingot and do something else with it or sell it at a time the market goes up.

Fine silver balls up better than sterling when you melt the end of the wire. It also oxidises less. The downside is that it’s softer, so it deforms easily and it isn’t strong enough for any parts that require tension. It’s best used for decorative parts, not for clasps, jump rings or anything that needs strength.

To get a similar strength to sterling wire, you should go up a size or two when using fine silver wire. For example, if you normally use 0,8mm (20g) sterling wire you should use 1,00mm (18g) fine silver for the wire to retain the shape the same way.

The issue with sterling silver is more on the legal side of things. A lot of countries require a maker’s mark, a specific license for the sale of items made from precious metals and for the item to be sent to an assay office for hallmarking before it can be sold. These rules are made to protect the customer but they do increase the cost of legally selling silver items.

You could work around it and either make items that weigh less tan the legal limit – 2 grams for Portugal, 7 grams for the UK, for example – or sell your items without stating that they’re sterling silver – if you don’t claim your item is made from silver and simply state that it’s a “white metal”, for example, you can’t really be accused of cheating your clients because you’re not selling anything as “precious metal”. In fact you’d be giving them more than they expect. It may not be entirely ethical but it’s not, strictly speaking, illegal. The problem is that it makes it harder to justify the cost of the items to a client.

A middle ground is silver filled or bimetal. This is a type of wire that has a base metal core that has been fused to a thick top layer of silver. Unlike silver plating, the precious metal content is much higher – 5, 10 or 20% of the total mental content. It’s not enough to be considered a precious metal and require hallmarking but it’s thick enough that won’t rub off with use and can be soldered, hammered and polished with no issues. The cost is somewhere in between silver plating and sterling silver. And since the top layer is fine silver, it also oxidises less.

The main downside is that you can’t ball the ends and sometimes, if it’s not good quality wire, it can crack or flake when you bend it, so it’s important to find a good supplier.

I’m planning to make a few wire wrapped pieces in silver filled for those people who don’t like the colour of copper but also don’t want to pay the price of sterling.

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