The Magic of Argentium Silver with Peter Johns
You’re probably at least a little familiar with Argentium silver. Argentium is a silver alloy that is 93.5% silver with mostly copper and some germanium making up the rest. Argentium doesn’t develop firescale, resists tarnish, and has been enticing jewelry makers for about 25 years.
I don’t know about you, but the idea of creating a new metal alloy is right up there with magic and something you could only learn from Dumbledore at Hogwarts. In other words, I’m fascinated by the whole idea, and my mind races with questions about how it all happened. Fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to ask Peter Johns, the inventor of Argentium sterling silver, to answer some of my questions about Argentium and how this beloved metal came to be. Here’s what I found out.
TJ: What is your background and job title? What does one study to become a metal alloy creator?
Peter Johns: I am a trained silversmith and a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London. I worked in the trade in London for 15 years before joining Middlesex University. I am now past retirement age but I currently act as a consultant for Argentium International Limited.
My silversmithing background and an inquisitive mind led me to carry out some research for a mining company called Metaleurope. The research was to find new uses for one of their special metals called germanium. About the same time, a student asked me a question about firescale. This triggered my thoughts that germanium might be able to solve the problem of firescale in traditional sterling silver. This was the start of Argentium.
TJ: How do you use Argentium sterling silver? Do you make jewelry?
PJ: My focus with Argentium is in further research and development. I rarely have time to create finished pieces, although I do enjoy teaching workshops and lecturing about Argentium silver and its working properties.
TJ: What was your end goal when you set out to create Argentium? Were you trying to create a firescale-free silver alloy or was that a happy accident?
PJ: Although my initial goal was to create a firescale-resistant alloy, it soon became evident that germanium imparts other unique and beneficial properties. These benefits include tarnish resistance, the ability to be fused to itself and other metals, and the ability to be heat-hardened at low temperatures.
Mr. Johns shared this fascinating video that he and his students at Middlesex University created about the discovery of Argentium sterling silver.
TJ: Can you tell us briefly how one creates a new metal alloy?
PJ: Creating a new metal alloy involves comprehensive and structured research and testing. You have to ensure that the new material is able to perform well within the many and varied working practices in the industry–from small- to high-volume production processes. Basically, Argentium is required to do everything that traditional sterling silver has ever done, plus much more!
TJ: Why doesn’t Argentium develop firescale?
PJ: Sterling silver is traditionally an alloy containing silver and copper. Silver is unique in its ability to absorb oxygen. The longer sterling silver is heated for annealing and soldering applications and the higher the temperature, the deeper the oxygen can penetrate below the surface. The silver is not oxidized during these heating operations. The copper is though, and a dark colored, subsurface copper oxide is formed that is difficult to remove–this is known as firescale. Argentium contains silver and copper plus germanium. The germanium alloyed in Argentium silver oxidizes preferentially to the copper during the heating operations. It produces a transparent, self-healing oxide that stops the oxygen from entering the silver and, therefore, protects the copper from oxidizing. As Argentium doesn’t firescale, it also doesn’t require plating or strong acids to hide or remove the penetrating oxide.
TJ: Are there any safety considerations (other than fire/torch safety) that Argentium users need to know?
PJ: Regarding safety, we would recommend observing the same safety precautions as you would when working with traditional sterling silver.
TJ: What is the most important thing you think jewelry makers need to know about Argentium?
PJ: It is recommended to become familiar with the paler red glow that Argentium silver emits when it is heated compared to standard sterling silver. Argentium also cools more slowly than traditional sterling silver. Care should be taken to allow Argentium silver to cool sufficiently before touching or quenching.
You can learn all there is to know about working with Argentium including how to solder it and how to know when it can be quenched, in our Argentium Sterling Silver videos below. In our store you’ll find Cynthia Eid’s three popular videos on how to use Argentium sterling silver for jewelry making including soldering, fusing, and granulation, for which Argentium is particularly well suited. Have fun!