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

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.

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