The earliest metal beads were made during the Iron Age which began about 1100 BC. In the ancient countries of Sumeria, Assyria and Egypt, gold, silver and copper were used. The Greeks and Romans used gold.
Today hollow beads are made from a sheet of metal. It is stamped with half of the shape, and cut. The halves are shaped and soldered together. Small beads are made from tubing which is cut. The shapes are made by a punching machine with a die.
Decorations on metal include:
Chasing is hammering a pattern into the metal using a chisel type tool.
Repousse is hammering on the back of the metal to make the design raised on the surface.
Filigree uses wires which may be soldered together to form a shape, or soldered onto a base to make a design.
Granulation adds tiny round grains of gold or silver to the surface of the bead.
Enameling applies a color by firing a paste of powdered glass on to the metal
surface. Exposed metal parts of the bead can be silver or gold plated after the enamel is on.
Cloisone uses enamel. A copper wire is soldered on to the bead to form a design. Layers of enamel are put into spaces in the design. The bead is polished. Then the exposed copper is plated with silver or gold.
Today most gold beads are small spacers or tubes. A few decorative beads may be found in a necklace.
Pure gold is too soft to be useful. A gold alloy is assigned a number which designates the amount of pure gold contained. The higher the number, the more gold. Most gold used for jewelry is 14K or 10K. Beads made from 14K gold that are hollow are still very soft. A large bead in a strand of gemstone beads can be dented by the weight of the heavier gemstones.
Gold filled beads are made from a layer of copper between 2 layers of at least 10K gold. It is rolled out to the desired thickness. Then the beads are formed. To be designated gold filled, the gold must be at least 1/20th of the total weight of the object.
Gold plated beads will usually contain less gold. Plating is accomplished by immersing an object in an acid bath along with the plating material. An electric current is passed through. The plating metal is attracted to the base metal object. The thickness of the plating is determined by the length of the process and the strength of the current.
Vermeil is gold plating over sterling silver.
Silver is used for small spacer beads, tubes, and decorative beads in many sizes.
Pure silver is also too soft to be used. It is usually alloyed with copper. In the United States, sterling silver designates a minimum of 92.5 % silver. Sterling silver beads and findings are softer than silver plated.
Silver plating is done using the same process as gold plating.
An antique patina can be given to silver by immersing it in a solution of potassium polysulphide. Leaving it in longer causes a darker color.
Silver work in southeast Asia uses hammering, embossing, engraving, openwork, inlay, filigree, and granulation.
Sterling silver beads made in India may contain 80% silver. Many decorative styles are made.
The most well known characteristic of silver beads from Bali is granulation. The beads are formed into halves, soldered together, and then decorated with thin wire designs which are filled in with tiny granulation balls. The beads are sometimes given a black oxidation coating to make them look old.
Thai silver beads are handmade in workshops. Using a production line, each person does one process. Each bead takes 20 to 30 minutes. Patterns are applied with household items such as razors. Soaking in black hair dye gives an antique look.
Other metals are also used for beads. Lead free pewter can be finished in either a silver or gold color. Nickel is a bright silver color. Copper looks reddish golden brown. Brass, a copper and zinc alloy, is a very bright gold color. White metal sometimes called German silver, is an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel.
Iron is no longer used for beads because it rusts. Most good quality non silver metals used today will not permanently turn black or green like the clasps on some of grandma’s old necklaces. I have used some of these metals in my own casual jewelry. Some of my necklaces are more than 10 years old and have not tarnished. These metals give me additional options in my designs.
No beads or metals can be expected to retain their beauty if you abuse them. If your sterling or silver plate tarnishes, clean it with a soft cloth. A jewelry cloth will usually work well. It can be purchased at most jewelry stores. Some may contain chemicals that could damage other delicate beads in your necklace. Ask when you buy it. Never use silver cleaning liquids or paste for silver beads. Occasionally gold vermeil can tarnish because of the sterling silver under the plating. Clean it with a polishing cloth.
Exposure to air causes the tarnish on silver. Storing in an air tight container will slow down the tarnishing. You can use a plastic bag. Squeeze the air out of the bag as you seal it. Most beading wire does not kink. I still try to avoid bending my strands of beads very sharply in a small bag.
Use the links in the right margin to find other jewelry using sterling silver, Bali, gold and other metal beads.
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