Argentium Sterling Silver Q & A with Argentium Expert Cynthia Eid
Silversmith par excellence Cynthia Eid is known for her beautiful jewelry and dramatic hollowware. She is perhaps best known for her pioneering work with the low-tarnish, fusible sterling silver invented by Peter Johns in 1996 called Argentium Sterling Silver.
ABOVE: Cynthia Eid’s Peaks granulated Argentium Sterling Silver cuff; photo courtesy of the artist
By definition, sterling silver is a mixture or alloy that is at least 92.5% silver. Traditional sterling silver’s other stuff typically is copper, and that is the main reason for the tarnish we associate with silver jewelry, tea sets, silverware, and other silver items.
At 93.5% silver plus other stuff, Argentium meets the definition of sterling. Argentium’s precise other-stuff formula is a trade secret, but the manufacturers tell us it has less copper and contains the element germanium. Whatever the exact difference, it’s sufficient to make this new sterling very resistant to tarnish and popular with people who like their silver glowing but could live without polishing it.
As with most changes, the difference in Argentium’s composition has made more than one difference in its properties. Besides its resistance to tarnishing, jewelers also love the fact that Argentium sterling readily fuses. Even better to many jewelry makers is the fact that Argentium does not form fire scale during soldering. On the other hand, because Argentium reacts differently as you work with it, making jewelry with Argentium does take some getting used to if you already know how to work with traditional sterling silver.
Recently, I asked Cynthia if she would be kind enough to share some tips with us about working Argentium Sterling Silver. Ever generous, she readily agreed. After combing through her email, she sent along a few questions she’s received from her fans and her answers.
Cynthia Eid’s Answers to Argentium Sterling Silver FAQs
Fan: I have been continuing to work on fusing granules onto Argentium and I can’t seem to get rid of the cloudy look of the metal after I have fluxed and heated the surface. Even after I put it in the pickle, the silver is still is a bit cloudy with little dots of shinier silver.
Cynthia: The shiny dots are where flux protected the surface. The pickle etched the surface around the dots of flux, which makes the “cloudy” surface. A bit of mild abrasive evens up and brightens the surface. For me, that it usually a brass or steel brush used with soapy water, or a radial bristle disc. A bristle polishing wheel with tripoli works, too. As usual when using an abrasive, keep the tool moving and changing directions, so that the surface is polished evenly. A tumbler with steel shot also gives a uniformly polished surface.
Fan: I hope to get started with fold-forming Argentium. I have used 24 ga. sterling previously for necklaces. Do you recommend using the same gauge? And, how do you anneal without fusing the folded metal?
Cynthia: Yes, I use the same gauge that I would have used when working with traditional sterling silver. It takes practice to anneal the folded metal with confidence.
After much trial and error, I have found that scribbled black Sharpie marker is a reliable indicator that the metal has reached annealing temperature. Take the flame off as soon as you see the marker fade to a “ghost.” It happens surprisingly quickly, since AS retains heat, rather than transmitting heat the way that traditional SS does.
Fan: I’ve heard that Argentium Sterling is fragile and brittle. How do I avoid those problems?
Cynthia: Argentium Sterling can be fragile when it is red hot, so make sure that the joint fits before you apply the torch. That way, you won’t need to push or move the silver while soldering or fusing. I find Argentium Sterling to be more malleable and ductile than traditional sterling. Both AS and traditional SS can be brittle if they are overheated when annealing, or if they are quenched too soon after annealing, soldering, or fusing.
When to Quench
Fan: I was taught to quench immediately after annealing. How do I know when it is safe to quench Argentium Sterling?
Cynthia: Here is what I do in order to know when it is safe to move or quench any sterling silver alloy — including Argentium Sterling. I dip tweezers into water, and drip a little water onto the metal, or touch the wet tweezers to the hot silver. If the water dances around on the metal in the form of a droplet, or if the water droplet stays on the tweezers, then the metal is too hot to move or quench. If the water sizzles when it touches the silver, then it is cool enough to quench.
Hardening Temperatures and Times
Fan: I am utterly confused about the times and temperatures required for the hardening process.
Cynthia: You are correct that since Argentium Silver is fairly new, there are continual discoveries, which makes it sometimes difficult to be sure what is the latest and best info. The other reason for the different times and temperatures that you mention is that they all work.
The options are offered because:
- Not everyone has a kiln or oven that reaches 580°F/290°C
- Metalsmiths have different needs depending on what they make and what their goals are — for instance, how important hardening is to them vs. how important tarnish prevention is.
- Use 580°F/290°C, if you have a kiln, to harden quickly; 1 ½ to 2 hours.
Note: Lower temperatures also harden Argentium Silver, but need a correspondingly longer time. The lowest temperature that can be used to harden AS is 350°F and requires 3-4 hours.
Also note: I find that 2-3 hours at 450°F/230°C in a toaster oven makes my work adequately hard and tarnish-resistant.
- For some people, tarnish resistance is the most important thing. In that case, it can be useful to know that the most durable germanium oxide coating is created at 210°F (100°C) for 16 hours.
Note the word durable in the previous sentence: Germanium oxide, the layer that prevents tarnish, is created at any temperature over freezing. I think of it as a race between tarnish and the germanium oxide layer.
Also note: 210°F/100°C is too low for hardening. If you want to harden, you’ll need to do it at the higher temperatures listed above.
Many Ways to Succeed
Cynthia closes with this thoughtful comment: “As with all metalsmithing, and all of life, different people do things differently. I hope that his helps you decide how you want to heat your Argentium Silver.”
That is so true, and especially important to keep in mind when working with a material that is so new!
Merle White is Editor-in-Chief of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist and Editorial Director for the Interweave Jewelry Group.
More Expert Answers, Advice, and Instruction from Cynthia Eid in her Argentium Sterling Silver trilogy!