Brass, Copper & Pewter: Using Low-Cost Metals in Jewelry

Jun 17, 2009

Mixing Metals

Probably like you, this crazy economy is making me think differently about the materials I use in my jewelry designs. For example, I used to be a bit of a snob about using only precious metals in my jewelry, but now I’ve embraced copper, brass, and pewter for their color, availability, and lower cost. It’s been freeing to give myself permission to mix these types of metals in with my precious metal beads and findings, allowing me to be even more creative with my materials. Coco Chanel used to do the same thing, you know—she’d create jewelry and accessories that mixed high and low materials (like precious stones with glass) all the time. For her, the price tag wasn’t what made a piece special; it was the look. She once said, “Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity.” Well said, Coco!

If you’re interested in learning more about how to mix your metals in strung designs, check out Melinda Barta and Danielle Fox’s wonderful new book called Mixed Metals. Talk about a feast for the eyes! This is arguably one of the most beautifully designed books I’ve seen all year, and the projects within are extremely inspirational, even for a primarily seed-bead girl like me. The way Melinda and Danielle put these strung projects together is so savvy and so, well, free, that it’s a good lesson on design no matter what kind of jewelry you make.

What’s in that Metal?

As I’ve welcomed new metals into my bead stash, I’ve been curious about their qualities. Here’s a quick-glance table of facts you might find helpful as you add these to your stash, too:

Metal

Color

Strength

Content

Cleaning

Design notes

Brass

yellow to brown

medium

70% copper and 30% zinc; tin and antimony are sometimes added as anti-tarnish measure. Yellow brass has more zinc; red brass has more copper.

Use brass polish for lacquered brass (and don’t rub hard!); use a mild abrasive for natural brass.

Nickel-free brass can be a good alternative metal for those with nickel allergies.

Use a heat gun or torch to remove any lacquer from brass before you add a patina or color it with alcohol inks, paint, or paste.

Seal a brass patina with olive oil or paste wax.

Copper

orangey brown

very soft

An element unto itself; it is usually mixed with other alloys to create metals like brass, bronze, and 18k gold.

There are copper-cleaning solutions, but they are pretty caustic; instead make a paste with flour, salt, and vinegar to remove tarnish.

Most copper beads and findings are actually pewter or brass coated with copper.

Some people’s skin turns green when they wear copper; it’s a harmless, but unsightly effect that can be easily washed away.

Seal a copper patina with olive oil or paste wax.

Pewter

white to gray

Medium, depending on the antimony or bismuth content

90% tin combined with antimony, bismuth, and/or copper.

Warm, soapy water and a soft cloth; for polished pewter, use the paste outlined for copper.

Be comforted to know that most solid pewter made in the U.S. is now lead-free due to federal and state regulations. Regardless, you should still be careful when using antique, imported, or cast antiqued-pewter items—chances are these contain lead. The safest thing to do is use a lead-testing kit to check for lead content and certainly keep the pieces out of your mouth before you do so!

Have you been incorporating different metals into your stash lately? Any tips to share on working and caring for them? Please share on the website.


Related Posts
+ Add a comment

Comments

ppeeler wrote
on Jun 17, 2009 2:07 PM
Jean - This chart has great information and I appreciate you sharing this with us. Not only has the economy affected the materials some of us like to use in our designs, but has had an impact on what customers will pay for nonessential items. They are more willing to pay for silver plated instead of sterling silver or precious silver because they can get the same "look" at a much reduced price. Who can blame them?
on Jun 17, 2009 2:07 PM
Thanks for all the info on the various metals. I also try to use SS and gold filled and/or plate, but I really like the look of pewter. it is underrated, in my opinion, since manyy ears ago pewterware was quite the rage and antique pewter things are quite collectable. I also use copper beads, especially the ones with designs on them, as well as copper and antiqued copper findings. Some of my beads and gems just lend themselves more to copper than SS or gold. And of course, copper has been 'in vogue' more and more in the last couple of years. Hallie J.
Lisa Arrow wrote
on Jun 17, 2009 3:29 PM
I have long been a fan of copper and brass, especially copper. I just love the warmth of the metal and the way its richness combines with certain colors/stones. Sometimes it can be a challenge to mix copper findings purchased from different vendors in the same piece -- the colors might be slightly off from one another or one might be shiny and another oxidized. In those cases, I oxidize the entire thing using a hard-boiled egg. It really helps match the tones to give the piece a cohesive look. I also enjoy mixing metals from time to time in one piece, especially sterling and copper. It makes for a funky and eclectic look that works well with certain charms and findings.
KarenV@33 wrote
on Jun 17, 2009 5:15 PM
I often use brass and copper in my wire wrapped jewelry and I use a mixture of salt and lemon juice to clean it. It's non-toxic, cheap, and really works well. The proportions are about 3 Tb. of lemon juice to 1 Tb. of salt. I keep a sealed container and reuse it. Just dip and swish and the tarnish disappears. Rinse with warm water and dry. Ketchup will also work, but it's a whole lot messier!
annmarie@7 wrote
on Jun 17, 2009 6:40 PM
Karen above said it as far as cleaning brass and copper. But do you reaize that brass and copper are considered precious metals? My husband who is in construction, they always saved the copper and brass and made thousand of dollars on amounts that were not very large. Copper is #1, then Brass and pewter last, tho good pewter is quite valuable. I have used all three in my jewelry for over 10 years, economy had nothing to do with it. Just think about birthstones, they are semi-precious gemstones BUT they also include diamond, Emerald Sapphire and Ruby, can you get more precious gemstones than them? Yet they are in the birthstone catagory! So these three mertals are not at all a means to a cheaper product. Beadbender
Margaret@136 wrote
on Jun 17, 2009 7:58 PM
The picture labeled "Coco Campbell" is actually Coco Chanel!
LeeAnne70 wrote
on Jun 17, 2009 8:23 PM
I started making wire jewelry 3 years and began with copper because it was less costly, to learn on, than silver. I became known as the "Copper Queen" at the local bead store and I still am. Three years later I still prefer copper and bronze with silver accents. If the copper becomes tarnished I use inexpensive worcestershire sauce. It does not have to be Le & Perrins Put a tablespoon or 2 in a small cup and swish it around for a moment and it will be clean. Rinse with water. It may need another swish if heavily tarnished. DO NOT USE IF IT HAS A PATINA!!! it will take off liver of sulfer. Wired,Hammered,N' Worn.
MimiM@7 wrote
on Jun 18, 2009 8:05 AM
Thanks for sharing this, it's liberating! There's an "effete snobbery" sometimes among beaders, jewelry makers, etc. who simply wouldn't even consider using anything but precious metals. I love to bead, make jewelry but honestly can't afford to use precious metals in everything. They're for very special pieces. And I really LOVE the way glass looks; the light coming through the color is captivating to me. And the picture of Coco Campbell was fantastic!!
cjsews wrote
on Jun 18, 2009 8:12 AM
Thanks for all the infomation regarding cleaning copper. I have purchased copper rings but my skin turns almost immediately when wearing, not comfitable trying to sell a product that does that. Is there any finish that can be used on a completed project to stop or slow down the tarnish?
SueC@76 wrote
on Jun 18, 2009 8:15 AM
I just sold a necklace that I created with copper split rings, silver plated split rings and black glass beads. Most of my customers were not interested in the copper but once the customer put the necklace on everyone liked it. I like the idea of mixing things up and making things look different.
1catlover wrote
on Jun 18, 2009 9:05 AM
TY Jean for writing this article. Like MimiM said, "it's liberating!" I've been beading for 3 years now and am sick and tired of feeling guilty about not using precious metals. Plus, think of it, look what's available for us in the online stores, primarily B, C & P metals. Loved the quote from Coco, so French, lol. She's a personal inspiration of mine.
JudyB@92 wrote
on Jul 1, 2009 4:10 AM
CJE said, " I have purchased copper rings but my skin turns almost immediately when wearing, not comfitable trying to sell a product that does that. Is there any finish that can be used on a completed project to stop or slow down the tarnish?" I'm a metalworker, not really a beader, have used copper, nickel-silver, and brass for 30 years, and love them! To cut down on rapid tarnish, I use a patina (Jax Black) on the metal. Rub off the excess with a slurry of pumice & water. This leaves nice shadows in the background and slows tarnishing. Of course, the rapidity of tarnishing also is related to humidity (bad!) and to one's body chemistry. --JudyB