5 things you need to know when buying wire for making jewelry shapes and components:
My top 3 choices are Silver, Copper, and Gold-filled wire for making professional looking wire jewelry components. While I use all 3, they each have their own pros and cons …
My top choice!
#1) Sterling Silver
Malleable yet strong, Polishes to a shiny white finish, solders well, available in many shapes and sizes
Similar working qualities to silver, warm orange tone, cost effective, great for practice
Tarnishes fast, can be a bit soft especially when heated, challenging to solder seamlessly, skin interactions
Rich golden hue, holds a shine well, strong, much more cost effective than solid gold
Can be brittle, risky for forging, requires barrier flux to protect the surface when soldering
What is the best wire for jewelry making?
There are lots of different types of wire on the market these days. So before diving into the options, let’s cover the criteria I use for determining what wire is best for making jewelry shapes and components.
The top 6 factors you should consider are:
Perception of value
Visual appeal is fairly self-explanatory, but with regard to choosing wire for a jewelry project there are also underlying concepts to consider. At face value, there’s color and shine. But as you delve into techniques like forging and soldering you may find other aspects come into play. Will your solder seam show? Can the wire be forged without getting ruined?
Strength is generally associated with the thickness of the wire. But each different type of wire has its own characteristics due to the metallurgy involved. Some metals are more malleable than others and some are stiffer or brittle. These differences may seem small, but they can impact your process or limit what you can do with each material.
Durability ties in with the strength of a wire, but there are other factors to consider here as well. For instance, many craft wires have a coating of some sort. Does the coating flake or mar as you work with the wire? Does the core material show through?
Cost is surely an important factor in your decision. When you are just learning, it can be beneficial to work with a material that is low in cost so you can practice without the fear of attachment. But if you choose to work with a wire made of a solid material, your scrap bits and practice pieces can be recycled – either by you or a refinery, so you can recoup a large percentage of the cost.
Maintenance is not something often considered when you are thinking about making jewelry, but at some point, you will need to clean and/or polish your pieces. If you are wearing the jewelry you make directly on your skin, your perspiration, oils, lotions, and other beauty products may interact with the material. So, it’s worth thinking about how you’ll care for it down the road.
Perception of value may not be top of mind when you are making jewelry for yourself. But it’s worth considering, especially when you embark on a project that’s time consuming. There is value to practicing with low-cost materials, but once you start to hone your craft, there’s a sliding scale for how much time you want to invest in a piece that is made of a material that doesn’t convey a worth that’s in line with your efforts. This is a personal choice and may vary depending on the project. But this can be very important if you are thinking of selling your jewelry and want to make a living wage for your labor.
The best wire for handmade jewelry components is sterling silver.
Sterling silver wire offers a fabulous mix of malleability and strength plus you can forge it and solder it for more complex designs. The shiny white color is perfect for handmade designs. It coordinates with most outfits and showcases many stones and beads beautifully.
Sterling silver is 92.5% pure silver, and usually at least 5% copper. The addition of copper into the alloy adds strength which makes it perfect for making wire jewelry components. It comes in various hardness, and it can be melted down for casting or recycled in a variety of ways. The price point is very reasonable especially when you take into account the perception of value for finished pieces. The downside of sterling silver is that it tarnishes easily, but there are many methods for polishing and cleaning it.
When you shop for sterling silver, be aware there are other similar products available. They are not necessarily interchangeable though. Pure (99.9%) silver is referred to as fine silver. While fine silver can be used to make beautiful jewelry, it is softer than sterling. So, you need to make pieces from material that’s a bit thicker to get the same durability that sterling silver offers. Argentium silver is like sterling, but instead of copper, it’s alloyed with germanium. This makes for a silver that doesn’t tarnish as much, but it doesn’t shine up quite as bright as the sterling. Argentium is a bit more expensive than sterling and it behaves differently when heat is introduced – so be careful to seek instruction specifically for soldering Argentium should you choose to work with this metal. If you decide to work with either, you’ll want to be sure to store these different types of silver separately from your sterling and mark them appropriately, so you don’t confuse them! You’ll also want to store the scraps from these materials separately to keep from mixing the alloys for future projects or recycling. Here at Jewelry Classes with Jen we stick with using traditional sterling silver for all our lessons.
Copper is my go-to wire for learning and practicing.
Copper features a warm orange tone and it behaves very similar to sterling silver. Because it’s much less expensive than sterling silver, it’s a cost-effective material to use while honing your skills. It can be more malleable than silver though, so you need to take care that your components have the strength they need to make durable jewelry.
Though the rich warm hue also makes beautiful jewelry, not everyone can wear copper without it being sealed. Larger copper jewelry pieces can be sealed well, but small moving parts can be hard to get uniform coverage. The bright orange hue quickly tarnishes naturally to a warmer brown over time.
Just like with silver, copper can be melted down for recycling, so you can save your scraps. However, with the low price point it doesn’t yield much monetary value unless you collect a large volume.
Gold-fill wire offers the lustrous look of gold with a fraction of the cost.
Gold-fill wire features a brass core with a thick layer of karat gold fused onto the outside with heat and pressure. The karat gold accounts for 20% of the total weight of the material, so this is a much more durable product than gold-plated material. Because of its layered nature, you must take great care not to expose the brass core. So, it’s not appropriate for heavy forging, deep hammer textures, or any technique where the surface is scratched or filed. If you solder with this material, you need to use a barrier flux to prevent fire scale. Plus, you need to consider that the ends of the wire (or the edges of it in sheet form) where the brass core is naturally exposed will tarnish over time.
The brass core of gold-filled wire also makes this wire stiffer and more brittle than sterling silver. So that means it’s harder to form elegant curves. It’s also less forgiving if you bend in the wrong place – correcting a sharp bend could fracture the wire. Even gold-filled jump rings require more care than silver.
There are various other wires on the market …
Many inexpensive wires are in the “craft wire” category and feature color coatings on copper or other base metal wires that can be quite fun to play around with, but they are not appropriate for soldering, the coatings will not stand up to forging, and they’re often not as strong or durable as sterling silver.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are fine metals like solid gold, platinum, and niobium. These wires are quite costly and have very different working qualities when it comes to forming and soldering than sterling silver or copper. These metals are often much stronger than sterling silver, hence why they are used by jewelers to set hard gemstones like diamonds, rubies, and sapphires.
Now that you know sterling silver is the best wire for making jewelry, here’s what you should know when shopping for it:
Dead soft vs half hard …
When shopping for sterling silver, it’s important to understand the difference between dead soft and half hard wire. They are options for the hardness of the metal you are buying.
Without diving too deeply into science, dead soft means the crystal structure of the metal is in its natural state which is its most malleable form. Soft wire forms elegant curves and can be forgiving if you need to straighten a bend. This is my favored form of sterling silver for making wire shapes and components.
I recommend buying dead soft sterling silver wire unless you are using it to make jump rings or certain styles of ear wires. The malleability is great for forming graceful curves, and if there’s a need to strengthen a piece, that can be achieved through a variety of techniques like forging or twisting.
Half-hard means the metal has been work hardened. Practically speaking, half-hard wire is stiffer to work with. It takes sharp bends well and holds a shape better which is great for ear wires or jump rings. However, half-hard wire is not as forgiving as dead soft wire. If you need to straighten a bend, it’s more likely to fracture.
There’s also hard wire, which is extremely stiff and not often used other than as a pin in a hinge or as a spring.
There are many techniques we employ as jewelers that can work-harden the wires. Simply bending and forming the wire increases the hardness but hammering and forging amplify the effect. Likewise, heat can either harden or soften the metal depending on the temperature. But these are topics for a future discussion.
What gauge wire for jewelry making?
The best gauge wire for making jewelry depends on the specific project. We use thinner wires for wrapping beads and decorative weaving techniques and thicker wires for crafting larger components and clasps. There’s a correlation between the size of the wire and the strength of the object. So, while the visual appeal is also a factor, the thickness of the wire is generally chosen for its durability.
Gauge is the term used to describe the thickness of wire. The higher the number, the thinner the wire. It helps if you think of it in terms of how many strands would fit in a space. You can reference a jewelry wire gauge chart for the exact measurements of the diameter for each gauge. Or, if you have a wire for which you want to determine the gauge, you use a wire gauge (for nonferrous metals) to measure it.
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It's just one of the many handy charts included in the Jump Ring Buying Guide. If you make jewelry, you'll want this valuable resource for sure!
Most common wire gauges for making jewelry shapes and components: 14, 16, 18, 20, and 22
The most commonly used wire gauges range from 24, which is quite thin, to 12, which is fairly heavy.
Thin wires like 24 and 22 gauge are often needed to wire wrap gemstone beads and pearls. The holes on this type of bead are small and these wires are the only size that fits through them. However, wires this thin are not very strong, so you can’t really use them for anything too structural. They are not appropriate for open loops. The other main use for these delicate wires is wire “weaving” which combines techniques like coiling and wrapping or weaving around other wires for an intricate, decorative look.
20 gauge wire is perfect for creating your own ear wires. Many natural stone beads that are 6mm or larger have holes that will fit this wire, so, it can be used to wire wrap these beads or as a larger version of wire for weaving techniques. This gauge is not generally strong enough to create loops that are not soldered closed unless they are being utilized in a manner where there is very little stress – like attaching a bead dangle onto an earring for instance. And I recommend these open loops be kept to a rather small diameter (under 5mm or so). If you want to craft a larger diameter loop with this size wire, you should solder it closed or use the pigtail wire wrapping method.
18 gauge wire works well for constructing small lightweight components – appropriate for earrings or small chain links. If it fits in your beads, this is a better choice than 20 ga for open style loops. But it is still not quite strong enough for larger structural components typically found in necklaces and bracelets. These pieces are more likely to “catch” on something so the components used to make them need to withstand more stress.
16 gauge is the most common size I use to make components. Smaller diameter open loops are quite secure when made with this thickness. While the wire is more durable, it’s still fairly easy to form and produces a visual with some substance. Components made with this wire offer more weight than those made from 18 ga, which can help with drape. Works great for making pendants, necklace links, or bracelet links.
14 ga provides even more visual pizzazz. It’s my go-to for clasps or any piece that needs structural soundness. It can be hard to form small diameter loops with this gauge, but larger loops work well. Perfect for making bold pieces like this handmade chain necklace.
12 ga wire is quite substantial for forming. Though there are much heavier wires used for forming bracelets and rings, this is often the largest size wire I use for making shapes and components. It offers a bold visual but can be harder to form.
The pricing structure of sterling silver and how to comparison shop …
Many jewelry supply companies sell to the public as well as professional jewelers. The price of sterling silver is generally a cost/ounce (or troy ounce) which is based on the commodity list and fluctuates with the market. Jewelry making suppliers generally use the commodity list price updated daily (or weekly in some cases) and add milling charges to come up with the price you’ll pay for wire and sheet. Though most websites will just display the current price for each item, the prices change all the time. Knowing the formula is helpful for comparison shopping. A national website-based supplier is generally going to be able to offer better pricing than your small local supply house, but there’s value in personal service and it’s great to support your local businesses. Often, the price difference is offset by not having a shipping cost. Plus seeing the items in person can be helpful.
Jewelry supplier’s pricing formula: commodity list price + milling charges = your cost for silver
There are also retail sources that sell sterling silver. Places like your local bead store may have some for sale for your convenience. Or even a big online bead supplier. The difference is in the pricing structure. Sources that are not in the business of selling raw materials as a mainstay often don’t have the systems in place to manage the fluctuation of the market price. So, their pricing is more likely to be based on a standard retail formula which can vary greatly depending on their markup percentage. It’s more common for a retail seller to package the silver and price it by foot as opposed to by weight. Often, you will pay more for the same product through this type of source. But perhaps the convenience is worth it for you. It may be a case where you just want to support your local business or you’re saving on shipping costs by making the purchase in conjunction with other beads and findings from a single source.
Comparison shopping can be difficult when one source is selling by weight and the other by dimension. A savvy shopper needs to do their homework. Luckily, it’s not that difficult to conduct a quick price comparison using the Rio Grande website. Rio is one of the largest jewelry supply companies in the US, and as such the website allows you to choose weight or dimension when ordering silver wire. So, you can easily get an idea of the current days competitive price. For example, if a retail location is offering a package with 3 feet of 20 ga sterling wire, you can use the “by the foot” measurement and enter in 3. If you look at the information that pops up near the pricing, you’ll see how much 3 feet weighs in troy ounces. Whether you use this feature for purchasing, comparison shopping, or even to figure the cost of material you have on hand, it’s very helpful.
So, where should you buy silver and copper wire for jewelry making?
If you have a local jewelry supply shop, that’s a fabulous source. You get to see the materials in person, and many of these small suppliers have experienced jewelry makers on staff who can answer your questions. Plus, you can feel good about supporting your community. These local shops are often small businesses owned by your neighbors. The pricing can be a bit higher because they don’t have the same buying power as the big shops, but that can often be countered with the lack of shipping cost.
My local suppliers here in Phoenix, AZ carry some items I haven’t found elsewhere. And they’re happy to ship to you. C&D Silver offers twin cut cup burs sold individually as well as many of the Beadsmith pliers I suggest. SJ Jewelry Supply carries the Nikolas clear lacquer and Protectaclear for sealing copper, plus they have individual sheets of emery paper. Combining items you can’t source elsewhere with the wire you want to purchase can also help you save on shipping costs.
Rio Grande is one of the largest jewelry supply companies in the US. This is where I purchase most of my sterling silver. Members of the Jewelry Classes with Jen online learning center get access to a student code which upgrades member buying power to a wholesale level providing more access to stones and materials along with price breaks usually reserved for businesses. Learn more about membership now!
There are many more reputable jewelry suppliers than those I have listed. But it’s worthwhile to understand the pricing structure and how to effectively comparison shop when you are buying sterling silver and copper wire for making jewelry.
Hope this was helpful!
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