7+ Expert Tips for Making Jewelry with Argentium Sterling Silver Wire
Yes, it is sterling silver. Containing a small percentage of the element germanium, Argentium Sterling Silver is best known for its resistance to tarnishing. Its unusual composition also means that it has some special requirements when using it. Once I learned to work it, I began exploring ways of making increasingly complex filigree jewelry from Argentium wire (affiliate link) and granules. Fusing requires practice and experience. If you haven’t fused previously, allow yourself some extra time and material while learning. That said, Argentium Sterling Silver should be fabricated, filed, fitted, and finished similarly to any other jewelry metal, and with just as much care.
ABOVE: Argentium Filigree Earrings by Betsy Porter take advantage of how readily Argentium wire fuses and granulates. The project originally appeared in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist March 2012 and is now also available in the compilation 10 Sensational Silver Jewelry Making Projects Using Low-Tarnish Argentium or Traditional Sterling. Photo: Jim Lawson
1. When You Anneal
To anneal Argentium wire, make a flat spiral coil from 12″-18″ of wire. Do not let the wire touch itself or it may accidentally fuse! Mark the coil in several places with a permanent Sharpie marker, and heat the coil with a torch, working from the center to the outside. When the marker burns off, the wire is annealed.
2. Make Granules
You can buy tiny granules ready-made. For larger granules, cut snippets of Argentium wire or sheet. Lay them out on your charcoal block spaced about 3⁄4″ apart. With the torch, heat each snippet until the flame turns orange, and the snippet shivers and melts into a little sphere. Larger granules will have a flat bottom. Fuse granules with a join at least 1⁄2 to 2⁄3 the diameter of the granule.
3. Fuse It
Using this alloy is just amazing! As the flame turns orange, the metal may appear wet, and you can actually see the silver vibrating and flowing as the parts merge into one another. Watch carefully, because metal must melt just enough for a good join plus a bit extra but no more. Then you must withdraw the torch immediately to prevent overmelting.
Fuse wire components to one another with a join at least 3-4 mm long. It’s a good idea to make several extra granules and at least one extra of other components in case of mishap. Allow for a few surprises like that. After you get the feel of fusing, you may well find it easier than soldering.
When heated to fusing temperature, Argentium becomes flimsy, and may tend to move or sag if not fully supported. It can shatter under pressure or handling, so take the following precautions:
- Add only a limited number of components or granules in each step. Apply liquid flux to your components and granules, and carefully set them up on the charcoal block. Pieces to be fused should be firmly touching each other. It is best to let flux dry before torching.
- Do not put any pressure on Argentium or pick it up with tweezers while it is hot, or it may shatter. Do not set it up in a third hand, which will exert too much pressure.
- Argentium wire will tend to sag, move, and shrink slightly when heated with a torch. Do not lay wire components on top of one another. Keep the assembly flat on the charcoal block.
- Do not quench immediately! First let your piece air-cool, or set it on a metal block to cool before quenching and pickling. Argentium cools more slowly than traditional sterling.
4. Multiple Operations
As fluxed assemblies are built up on the charcoal block, they do not necessarily have to be pickled between steps, but before pickling, check the piece to verify that granules are securely fused. Contact with other components should extend at least 1⁄2 the size of the granule. If a granule comes off, return the piece to the charcoal block, flux, and fuse on another granule if necessary.
Check that everything is solidly fused before pickling, polishing, and shaping. After pickling and drying, finish the piece using 3M bristle brushes, first blue, then peach, then green. I find that most filigree is too fragile to finish on a large polishing wheel. In the event a granule comes off during finishing, fuse it again, pickle, and refinish. Do not put filigree in a tumbler.
6. Hardening Is a Good Idea
The following steps are not essential but are strongly advised. Oven or kiln hardening will noticeably increase strength and springiness and with these the metal acquires a greater shine. If you have a kiln, preheat it to 580° F, and bake for 60 minutes. In your home kitchen, preheat your oven to 500-525° F and place finished and shaped Argentium pieces in a shallow, ovenproof dish. Bake for 90 minutes to temper and harden the metal. Remove and allow to air-cool before pickling.
7. In the Pickle
The metal will be discolored after oven treatment. In a glass or plastic container with a snug-fitting lid, prepare a home pickle: one teaspoon salt to one cup white vinegar. Use non-steel utensils when adding or removing silver from pickle. Save pickle for future use. Warm the pickle and add silver pieces, and the discoloration will disappear quickly! Remove silver and lightly polish with a soft brass wire brush and soapy water. After drying, pieces are ready for final assembly.
Argentium Troubleshooting Tips
- Working small. When working with small pieces and smaller granules, flux each piece before placing on the compressed charcoal block. Pointy tweezers will make pieces easier to handle. Add only a few pieces of wire or granules at a time. Ideally, the flux should dry thoroughly under an incandescent light before torching. As this is not always practical, lay components on an absorbent cloth or paper towel to partially dry them.
When torching small components and granules, you may notice that the heated flux tends to bubble up and move them out of place. Don’t panic! The pressure from the torch and the capillary action of the flux will almost always pull a component back into its intended location. Use the torch to gently blow granules into position.
- Fusing wire. If a wire shape should distort after fusing, saw it off, taking care not to damage adjacent components. Carefully file the site. Then fuse on a spare component. Save the defective component for future granule-making.
- Fusing granules. If granules are not solidly fused, they may come off during finishing and shaping. Flatten the piece with a rawhide mallet if necessary, flux, lay on absorbent cloth to air-dry, return to the charcoal block, and fuse on a new granule. To change a piece after oven hardening, first anneal and flatten it, then flux, air-dry, and return it to the charcoal block.
Betsy Porter is an architect, metalsmith, and Byzantine iconographer in Oakland and San Francisco, California. Her sales site is BetsyPorter.etsy.com, and her artist site is betsyporter.com. She first studied using Argentium Sterling Silver with Ronda Coryell. This post is adapted from her Argentium Tips in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist March 2012.
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