Wire Jewelry Resource June 13: Bronze and Brass, 2 Base Metals

By on June 13, 2012
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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

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.

In home uses, such as taps and lamps, brass is typically lacquered to protect the brass. Therefore, when cleaning brass around the house, don’t be abrasive, but use a polish and lightly buff it. You can use the same processes to protect your brass jewelry as you would silver or copper pieces: with wax, sealants, or sprays.
You can discover several levels of brass on this page: Brass Types.

Bronze

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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Sources & further reading
What is Gilt Brass?
Ormolu
Brass
Base Metal
Grand Staircase of the RMS Titanic
What is Brass?
Bronze

14 Comments

  1. avatar

    Rosemarie GreenwaldSewsing

    June 13, 2012 at 6:22 am

    What a fascinating article from an historic point of view. Loved it! Thank you.

  2. avatar

    Drake

    June 13, 2012 at 6:22 am

    Isn’t gold-filled wire over a brass core?

    • avatar

      Rose

      June 13, 2012 at 8:36 am

      Yes! Good point, Drake.

      For those who are new, gold-filled wire is a gold tube filled with brass; according to the Federal Trade Commission, the layer of gold is at least 5%, or 1/20th, of the weight of the metal; on Wire-Sculpture we have 14kt gold filled wire, also abbreviated 14/20. It’s also called gold overlay or rolled gold plate, although those are fairly rare terms. The gold is fused to a brass core; the coating will last a lifetime and won’t flake or peel when hammered or bent. So gold-filled wire is much more durable than gold plated or dore materials. Dore (a fine gold layer over brass) is much more like a gold leaf rather than an actual fused layer of gold.

      Thanks for bringing that up, Drake!

      • avatar

        Judi

        September 2, 2014 at 6:14 am

        Thanks for this clarification. I’ve been using the artistic wire to learn wire wrapping & gaining confidence to use the more expensive wire and I’m just getting into the confusing terminology of gold filled, plated etc.

  3. avatar

    Dorothy

    June 13, 2012 at 10:05 am

    Thanks so much for the science and history lessons. I use base metals as my primary material for my jewelry, as there’s no way I can afford to stock sterling or gold filled wires on my Social Security income. I love the way the metal looks as it ages and tarnishes – and for my own use, I never clean or polish away the tarnish. I will wash it in a mild detergent to keep it clean, but am very careful to minimize friction in order to leave as much of the patina as possible. The term “base metal” is unfortunate, because each of these metals has a beauty of its own, and I prefer them to either silver or gold for that reason. There is also the issue of skin tones, and those with warm undertones in their skin can wear copper, brass, bronze, or antiqued versions of them quite well, while those with cool undertones wear the silver or silver colored metals better.

  4. Pingback: Wire Jewelry Resource June 20: Nickel Silver and Copper, 2 More Base Metals | Jewelry Making Blog | Information | Education | Videos

  5. avatar

    Annie

    August 24, 2014 at 8:23 am

    The biggest problem with Silver filled and as metals is finding the right solder. Are you going to be covering solders? Silver paste does not work on silver filled metals.

    • avatar

      Chris Pearl

      November 7, 2014 at 10:45 am

      Would like to know this also.

    • avatar

      Joyce

      June 6, 2015 at 6:39 am

      I’m also interested in info on solders, specifically why it is so nearly impossible to find a good copper paste solder.

  6. avatar

    Patricia

    September 9, 2014 at 9:09 am

    I cannot find bronze wire on your website, only bronze-colored enameled wire. Will the enamel hold up to wire-wrapping? I make custom rosaries from vintage and antique parts, and would like to start using vintage bronze parts as well as silver ones, but am concerned about quality. Thank you.

  7. avatar

    Chris Pearl

    November 7, 2014 at 10:44 am

    Great article learned much. Thanks!

  8. avatar

    Lissa

    November 9, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    I have a question about how brass is made. My husband aquired a piece of raw brass, and it came in a cylindrical form, kind of like a pip without a hole. It was solid, heavy, and it appeared to have leopard type stripe on the outer skin. The stripes did not go into the brass. My husband thinks it has something to do with the fabrication of the type of brass. He thinks he heard it refered to as “manowe”, orsomething similar. Please can you help explain the stripes.

  9. avatar

    Kenna

    December 18, 2014 at 7:27 am

    Very informative and interesting. Adds to my jewelry trivia.

  10. avatar

    Judy Bjorkman

    August 31, 2015 at 5:47 am

    Thank you, Rose, for one of the best general articles I’ve seen on brass and bronze. I’ve worked with brass, copper, and nickel-silver for the last 40 years and love them. Some general articles will only mention bronze and copper — apparently brass and nickel-silver do not have enough “prestige” to bother with. However, neither I nor my happy customers feel that way!

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