Argentium sterling silver has been commercially available in the U.S. since 2005, but not all jewelers have scrapped their traditional Sterling in favor of this wonder metal. The industrial market has been even slower to adopt this patented silver alloy, in which germanium has been added to the sterling/copper mix. To its faithful in the craft world, the arrival of Argentium sterling has been nothing short of miraculous.
It beats the old standard sterling in tarnish resistance by light years. It can be heat treated to make it stronger, and therefore less prone to scratches and dents. What customer wouldn’t appreciate that? According to the official Argentium silver website, it is also more environmentally responsible. Unlike traditional sterling, the metal does not firestain when heated because of the presence of germanium, an element similar to tin or silicon. There’s no need to use acids to avoid firestain, or chemicals or abrasives to remove it, so there’s no need to eventually dispose of these hazardous wastes, either.
Cynthia Eid, Certified Argentium Instructor, is one of a handful of prominent jewelry artists who passionately espouses the benefits of Argentium silver. She will conduct a workshop at Metalwerx August 3-7, 2011, “Microfolding and Fusing Argentium Sterling Jewelry“, in which students will use corrugation techniques, granulation, fusing, and soldering for texturing and forming. Ask her why she she’s made the switch to Argentium sterling, and you might receive a look that implies you have four heads: “Because there’s no reason not to! NO firescale!”
If you’ve ever dealt with removing the nasty by-product of copper joining with oxygen and rising to the surface, stop to think how much time it took out of your day. Add all those hours spent polishing and tumbling to work-harden your Sterling creation. You can then begin to appreciate why those who made the transition become fanatical.
Cindy’s workshop is aimed at established Argentium fans as well as those who have little or no experience with it. There are a few working qualities to know about before becoming adept with Argentium sterling. In contrast to traditional Sterling, it anneals faster, because it is less heat conductive than traditional Sterling, so it keeps the heat longer. Cindy likens working with Argentium sterling to a good training ground for working with gold, as the entire piece does not need to be heated for a soldered or fused join to occur.
During the workshop, participants will make both samples and finished jewelry in microfolded Argentium sterling, or copper, or they may choose to focus more on fusing, granulation, and soldering. Cynthia will also demonstrate the techniques and textural possibilities of manipulating microfolded metal with pliers, fingers, rolling mills, the corrugation compressor, and hammers.
“In my work, I get interested in the process,” Cindy says. “When combining two processes, such as microfolding and fusing, you come up with something new. Both these processes are so open to serendipity.” Over the years, Cindy has created dozens of pieces incorporating corrugation, most notably her “Spirit Vessels,” and it is often a feature of her jewelry, holloware, and Judaica. The flowing, wavy lines of corrugation in solid metal create a pleasing juxtaposition, and a piece of durable strength.
“Microfolding makes thin metal strong, and it creates lovely, incredible textures. It’s a good value in these high-priced days” she says. Coupled with fusing, the opportunities for design multiply. Germanium is less conductive than many other metals. That quality makes Argentium sterling a joy to fuse, as it produces a clean join with little clean-up. Cindy recommends using a dab of flux at the juncture point to ensure a good bond, and a higher rate of success.
Argentium sterling gives superior results when used in granulation, too, as the granules are less likely to suffer meltdown collapse. Pure metals have a finite melting point. Fine silver melts at 1761 degrees Farenheit. Alloys, which are combinations of metals, have temperature ranges over which they melt. Argentium sterling has a large melting range, which makes it more “forgiving” during the fusing process.
With all these exceptional qualities, why isn’t Argentium sterling more prevalent? It’s a question which is one of Cynthia Eid’s motivations for sharing her knowledge about this material. When she first heard about it, she couldn’t wait to try it out, but it was available only in England. She found a small supply in New Mexico that had been made by a New York-based refiner, but it had been a limited experimental batch. Cindy bought it all. When that was gone, she found an investor who had imported Argentium silver from Finland. In those days (2004), she could buy a 12×12-inch piece of silver in 18-gauge for three hundred dollars. It is now readily available from several companies, and some companies offer findings and other parts in addition to sheet and wire.
Peter Johns, an accomplished Professor of Silversmithing at Middlesex University in the United Kingdom, invented the alloy. Germanium, a byproduct of zinc mining, was used extensively during the Cold War for night vision goggles. A surplus after the Cold War’s end prompted a mining company to send out samples of germanium to professionals who use metals and ask them for ideas of using it. When Peter Johns experimented with melting the germanium, he was intrigued to see that it stayed bright, even when mixed with copper. In a moment of epiphany, Peter wondered whether germanium might be the answer to the problem of fire scale, and began experimenting with proportions of silver, copper, and germanium.
Still, there is the undeniable fact that it’s hard to change artist’s opinions on what they use for their craft. Cindy understands this reluctance to jump ship and move to something new. “If it sounds too good to be true, it’s reasonable to be suspicious,” she says.” It’s a big claim: no fire scale, tarnish resistance, it can be hardened in kitchen oven, more malleable and ductile than traditional Sterling, and easily fused and welded.” But for her, Argentium sterling is akin to Mithril, which Lord of the Rings freaks will recognize as the magical silvery metal mined by Dwarves and used to protect Frodo the Hobbit.
Here’s how the great wizard Gandalf described the make-believe metal: “Mithril! All folk desired it. It could be beaten like copper, and polished like glass; and the Dwarves could make of it a metal, light and yet harder than tempered steel. Its beauty was like to that of common silver, but the beauty of mithril did not tarnish or grow dim.”
Sounds a bit like Argentium doesn’t it? Argentium sterling may indeed eventually outshine sterling silver, but keep in mind it will not protect you from an Orc’s spear.
To learn more about Metalwerx’ upcoming workshops, Argentium silver, and the work of Cynthia Eid, click on the following links:
Argentium sterling silver is patented and trademarked by Argentium Silver Company, UK.
(By Yleana Martinez)
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