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Wire Jewelry Resource June 13: Bronze and Brass, 2 Base Metals
by Rose Marion, Wire-Sculpture.com
We all know that the price of gold is high (higher than platinum for several months!) and silver has been around $30 an ounce ($28.95 this week). So many of us turned to base metal wires to continue fueling our wire jewelry passion. So what are base metals, anyway?
What are Base Metals?
A chemistry textbook would tell you (and I was surprised to discover this) that a base metal is a metal that oxidizes or corrodes relatively easily, and reacts with hydrochloric acid to form hydrogen. This includes metals such as iron, lead, nickel, copper (although it doesn’t do the hydrogen trick) and zinc. The term “base” comes from contrasting the metals with “noble” or “precious” metals, as set by alchemists!
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a standard list of base metals, including iron, steel, copper, lead, nickel, zinc, aluminum, tin, titanium, and several other elements excluding gold, silver, and platinum.
Bronze and Brass
Both bronze and brass are alloys of copper. The amount of copper and the other metals that it is mixed with are what determines the color and properties of the resulting metal.
The difference between bronze and brass, to many people, is irrelevant or not worth distinguishing. Since metal content varies throughout history, many museums simply describe possible bronze or brass artifacts as “copper alloy” pieces. However, in the jewelry world, the traditional terms still have important meaning. Another place where the distinction is important is the world of coin collecting, which has its own rich history of the metals and tokens used to create currency through time — a fascinating subject for another day, perhaps!
In the jewelry world, bronze is traditionally a warm, tan gold color, and will gradually acquire a brownish patina. On the other hand, brass is a vibrant color, and when it tarnishes, it develops the green verdigris seen on copper statues. Bronze is commonly patinaed and associated with Steampunk and Victorian jewelry, while brass is used in place of gold in many online jewelry storefronts.
Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, is a stronger metal than its parent copper, though not as strong as steel. Sometimes other metals such as lead and tin are added to make the brass more workable. By 300 AD, Germany and the Netherlands had become well-known for their brass. By 1852, brass cartridges were in production: the brass metal expanded as the gun was fired and contracted after firing, which allowed for the development of automatic weapons.
Brass comes in a couple of varieties — yellow and red. Red brass is an alloy somewhat between bronze and traditional brass. It contains more copper — a ratio of 85% copper to 15% zinc — which gives it its warm red color. Yellow, an alloy of roughly 67% copper to 33% zinc, produces an almost fluorescent yellowish hue that many people use in place of gold. You’ll recognize yellow brass in several spots around your home — door hinges, for instance. One of yellow brass’s great distinguishing traits is that it’s shinier and brighter than red brass.
Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, typically an 88% copper to 12% tin mix (although it doesn’t always contain tin), and can contain elements such as manganese, silicone, aluminum, and phosphorous. Early bronze contained arsenic, which was replaced with tin, a nontoxic alternative.
Bronze is hard yet brittle, used in weapons, tools, and armor dating back to 3000 BC (one source I read noted that bronze swords were more for stabbing than slicing!). The Iron Age replaced the Bronze Age, but wrought iron is actually weaker than bronze; the big difference is that iron was more economical, so it replaced bronze everywhere strength was needed. Tin was particularly hard to find, which is why bronze fell out of favor. (After Iron came Steel).
Ormolu and Doré
As a point of interest: we already know that when a coat of gold is applied to silver, the result is called vermeil, also called gold vermeil. When gold is applied to bronze, it is called ormolu (or gilt bronze). When gold is applied to brass, it is called doré (or gild brass). However, this is a rare effect to find nowadays, because it required the use of mercury. The mercury-firing process was outlawed by France in the 19th century due to the grievous toll on gilders’ health. However, some locations continued the mercury process, producing gilt bronze as late as 1960. The gilt brass and gilt bronze effect was extremely popular for jewelry, chandeliers, clocks, candelabras, ceramics, and sculptures in the Rococo and Neoclassical periods in Europe and in some Chinese areas as well. In fact, there was even some ormolu work on the Grand Staircase of the Titanic, which was decorated to recall the culture of King Louis XIV.
The allure of ormolu was that as time weathered the metal, the gold would not tarnish or fade (excellent in households). It also served as a contrast to nearby raw bronze (such as in sculptures — just the hair would be gilded, for example). To care for gilded brass, gilded bronze, or vermeil for that matter, avoid the polishing cloth. Simply wash with mild soap and water to clean the piece and reduce the risk of flaking or rubbing the gilded layer off.
Next Wednesday I will tell you about copper and nickel silver — the other base metals commonly made into jewelry wire!
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