Wire Jewelry Resource June 20: Nickel Silver and Copper, 2 More Base Metals

By on June 20, 2012
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by Rose Marion, Wire-Sculpture.com

Last week, I told you about Bronze and Brass, 2 base metal wires; and today it’s time to talk about nickel silver and copper.

Copper

Here’s an interesting statistic about copper I found: although copper has been mined and used for over 10,000 years, more than 95% of all copper ever mined and smelted, has been extracted since 1900 – that’s in the last 112 years! However, I found that an estimated 80% of extracted copper is still in use today, whether still part of structures or being recycled (copper keeps the same level of quality when recycled as when it is first smelted).

Copper is extremely soft; it only rates a 2.5-3 on Mohs scale! (No wonder it is a good practice wire: if you can wrap a cab in copper wire with no tool marks, you are getting good!) Its elemental symbol is Cu, which comes from cuprum; this is short for cyprium, because the Romans sourced all their copper from the island of Cyprus. You may already know that when copper corrodes, like copper roofs or statues, it gets a green coating called verdigris – but did you know that that same property of copper is how azurite, malachite, and turquoise get their vibrant green and green-blue colors? That’s right, both these stones are exposed to copper as they lie in the earth, imparting those beautiful colors. (Having trouble with copper turning your skin green? Read the comments on this article – or, you can think of it as copper painting malachite on your skin! :) )

Copper is extremely useful in wire jewelry: you can create an entire cabochon frame, not like it, cut it apart, and only be out a few cents in materials. Plus, you can save your scrap and take it to a commercial recycler (the type that takes aluminum cans) every year or so. Strike up a conversation with your electrician, contractor, or handyman and you’ll find that copper prices have gone up for them just like silver has gone up for us: steeply over the last couple decades – but it is still a bargain for us compared to silver!

Copper is mined all over the world, with 1/3 of the world’s copper mined from large sources in Utah and New Mexico in the US, Chile, Indonesia, and Peru. In Sweden, miners operated the Great Copper Mountain from the 900s to 1992 (over 1000 years!): this allowed Sweden to have a copper-backed currency (imagine, a "Copper Standard"!) and in the 1600s, supplied 2/3 of European demand for copper.

Dale wrote an article some time ago on Copper which has some impressive pictures: you can read Dale’s take on this lustrous metal here, A Few Words about Copper.

Recycled Copper

Copper doesn’t have to be smelted to be recycled: you can simply reuse the copper wire found in house wiring and appliances. Now, can you seriously use stripped electrical copper wire in jewelry? Well, firstly, electrical wire is only going to be round, and may come in a size you aren’t expecting (a fat piece of wire may actually contain dozens of strands of 30-gauge or thinner wire, or several large-gauge wires). So if you enjoy creating traditional wire jewelry with square and half round wire, or you like consistency, stick with copper wire that is sold for making jewelry.

Electrical copper wire will be about 99% pure, just like copper jewelry wire, since it needs to be as pure as possible to conduct electricity effectively. Some people might be concerned if the copper has been exposed to lead wire coverings, but I haven’t found any information that says it is a real concern.

However, there are several considerations when recycling electrical wire. First, the temper will probably be dead soft, which means unless you work-harden your pieces well in a tumbler or with a hammer, the resulting piece could be very malleable and could deform. Of course, if you’re used to working with dead soft copper wire, you already anticipate this.

The electrical copper wire also is not manufactured with appearance in mind. You might find dirt or burn marks on the wire, which will you will want to clean off with steel wool. Also, the wire may have been milled with rough patches (less common in modern wire, but if you are stripping wire from an old house, you might find this). Also, if you are stripping the copper wire from the plastic tubing yourself, be careful be to slow and deliberate so as not to ding, kink, or damage the wire.

For me, the effort doesn’t seem worth it – but if someone gave me a truckload of old electrical wire, I would probably take a stab at it!

Nickel Silver

Nickel Silver, known by a host of other names including German Silver, albata, new silver, and alpaca/alpacca, is an alloy of nickel, zinc, and copper. Because it’s alloyed with zinc and copper, some people regard it as a relative of brass.  It’s important to note (and tell your customers) that nickel silver doesn’t actually contain any silver; instead, it is engineered to closely resemble silver at a fraction of the cost.

Nickel silver was developed, as an alternative to the Chinese alloy paktong, by German metalworkers in the 19th century. The Chinese developed this silver look-alike centuries ago, with secret exports to Southeast Asia resulting in an effort by colonizing Europeans to duplicate the guarded formula. In the 1700s metalworkers got close, and in 1823, German competition yielded a winner. Around the same time, a British man discovered a similar metal alloy.

Following its discovery, the use of nickel silver exploded. It has been used in on dining tables nearly since its discovery; some sets of silverware are stamped EPNS, which stands for Electro-plated nickel silver, which is silverware that has been made with nickel silver and electroplated with real silver. These "silver" sets are of no value to a metal recycler, but are becoming more rare every year, so perhaps they will have historical value. Also, as the silver finish wears away, the nickel silver is actually brighter, due to its tarnish resistance, so an EPNS set  Used practically everywhere: keys, zippers, jewelry, silverware, wind instruments including French horns and flutes (can be silver-plated) and frets of guitars, automobiles, coins and even tracks in model railroads. It typically resists tarnish and corrosion. Used extensively by metalsmiths of the Kiowa and Pawnee tribes in Oklahoma.

Nickel silver looks much like true silver, although it can have a slight goldish tone to it. It is highly tarnish resistant and will only slightly darken with age – it really doesn’t react to liver of sulfur, unlike sterling silver and copper relatives such as bronze, brass, and pure copper. Nickel silver is especially in chainmaille, where it is prized for its affordability and tarnish resistance. Could you imagine polishing a large bracelet made from sterling silver? How about an entire garment!

A note about Aluminum

I should briefly mention aluminum: while this metal can look similar to silver, it can lose its shine and become dull. While some people enjoy using aluminum jump rings in chainmaille (it is very light, and very inexpensive), for traditional wire jewelry uses such as bundle bracelets, cabochon pendants, and prong rings, aluminum is too soft to stay in place, and is very difficult to work-harden. Although you can find aluminum wire online, we are proud to provide you with the 4 most-loved base metals – brass, bronze, copper, and nickel silver – in the gauges and shapes wire artists love.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these articles about base metal wire – Happy Jewelry Making!

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Sources & further reading

10 Comments

  1. avatar

    Rebecca House

    June 20, 2012 at 6:33 am

    I would assume that people with a nickel allergy should not wear jewelry made with nickel silver. Is this right? I used to play a French horn that was made of nickel. It was beautiful!

    • avatar

      Rose

      June 20, 2012 at 8:29 am

      Absolutely, Rebecca – steer clear!

      Sounds like a beautiful instrument. I didn’t realize before I started researching how much nickel silver might be in an orchestra – even the keypads of clarinets and parts of oboes can have nickel silver. How fun :)

  2. avatar

    Ingrid Berglund

    June 20, 2012 at 8:39 am

    If you want to strip the plastic from electrical copperwire it´s easier if you first put the wire in the deepfreezer for an hour or two. The plastic turns hard and crackles easy if you work it lightly with a hammer or bend it back and forth. (I got this tip from an electrician who collects all surplus wire for recykling)

  3. avatar

    Gina

    June 20, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Last year we remodled our kitchen and I saved all the scrap pieces of electrical wire and stripped it down and I have made some really fun jewelry with it. Some of it was very thick and I had to use my husbands pliers to bend and twist it. I didn’t want to damage my jewelry tools. I also hammered a bunch. There were also so strands of a half hard square wire that was twisted together and I just untwisted it and straightened it. There were some left over washers from the plumbing too and I made earrings using the scrap wire and and washers. I love to shop the hardware stores now for jewelry ideas. Have fun creating!

  4. avatar

    beverly

    June 23, 2012 at 11:00 am

    My husband and I did the same thing in remodeling my parents house to sell for the inheritance and when the electric work was being done I salvaged most of the scrap copper. I was asked why I was collecting the copper and I said for jewelry of course and I got a dumb look in response. I have all gages and make rings mostly. I hammer them on the ring mandrel and no one knows where the copper came from, unless I tell them of course hehehe. Bebeaz

  5. avatar

    Renee

    July 17, 2014 at 6:45 am

    Thanks Ingrid! My daughter saves electrical also.

  6. avatar

    Harold

    August 4, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    You didn’t mention Silver filled wire

  7. avatar

    Diane

    August 28, 2015 at 7:12 am

    I did not see an answer on what to do if copper turns your skin green. Does anyone have a solution for that? Thanks!

  8. avatar

    Brenda Caudill

    September 29, 2015 at 8:48 am

    To keep copper jewelry from turning your skin green, dip the copper item in Mop N Glo and let it dry completely before wearing. This can be done with new and antiqued copper. I suppose that alternatively, you could coat the parts that are touching the skin with plain liquid polyurethane or even clear nail polish. I haven’t tried either of the latter. Anyone else have a suggestion?

  9. avatar

    Janet Lowther

    November 1, 2015 at 10:29 am

    I have not only work hardened, but cracked aluminum wire. I was making lightening bolts in aluminum fence wire and was drawing the end down to a point (Lightening bolts have to be pointy, right?) and it was getting hard to move and crack. Of course I WAS reducing the cross section by about 90%

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