Shimmering Niobium: A Dream Jewelry Metal

Exotic, colorful, and easy to work with: what more could you ask for in a metal? Niobium is a favorite with many jewelry makers for good reason. Anodizing the metal to induce a range of iridescent, shimmering, beautiful colors is a process you can readily learn, though you can also buy sheet, wire, and findings already brilliantly or subtly anodized for you. You can use the tools and techniques you already know to texture and form the metal, and you pretty much need to assemble pieces with cold connections.

Dream Jewelry Material
Andoized niobium metal earrings

Michael Mara created a pattern of coloration for these anodized niobium earrings that he likens to batik; photo: Jim Lawson

“The rich colors you see on anodized niobium are actually oxide layers of varying thickness created with various DC voltages,” explains Michael H. Mara in the intro to his Anodized Niobium Earrings project that appeared in the November 2014 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist. “The colors are very permanent, and this same property also makes niobium supremely hypoallergenic. Even better, working with niobium is less expensive than you might think: it costs the same as sterling silver or slightly more, depending on the silver market.

“Truly, niobium is a dream jewelry material,” he adds. “It’s easy to form, slow to work harden, and you can color it to suit yourself. The only real drawback is that it’s not feasible to solder or weld the material without expensive equipment, so any connections must be mechanical.”

John Flynn, in his intro to Niobium Floral Earrings, a project in the September, 2001, issue of Lapidary Journal, remarked that “Working in niobium presents both opportunities and problems that are unique to the reactive metals. It can be extensively cold forged and then anodized to stunning colors that never fade or tarnish, but it cannot be cast, annealed, or soldered with tools normally found in a small studio.”

Working in Hawaii, John Flynn was inspired by lushly colored local flora to produce the leaf-like earrings shown inset on the cover of the September, 2001, issue of Lapidary Journal.

What’s Behind Those Amazing Colors

You see niobium jewelry in all kinds of retail settings now, though decades ago it was hardly known. But by the beginning of this millennium, it had “become a favorite choice for artists seeking to add a splash of color to their work,” according to Suzanne Wade in “Neon Rainbow,” a companion article to John Flynn’s luscious earring project in Lapidary Journal, September 2001.

“I would say niobium has become the dominant metal of the reactive metals,” Bill Seeley, then of Reactive Metals Studio in Clarkdale, Arizona, told Suzanne as he began to describe the metal’s history and properties to her. The company is still a distributor of niobium, titanium, and other exotic metals to the jewelry industry.

“Niobium is part of the same family of reactive metals that includes titanium and tungsten. Of those metals, only titanium and niobium are sufficiently workable to be practical for jewelry applications,” reported Suzanne in her 2001 story.

Niobium partly anodized and showing a variety of coloration

“The reactive metals all produce brilliant colors when heated or anodized, a process in which the metal is placed in an electrolytic solution and subjected to electrical charge. Both anodizing and heating cover the surface with a natural oxide of the metal that has a very high refractive index. Depending on its thickness, this transparent oxide layer produces interference colors, like a beetle’s back, or oil on a puddle.

“Although both niobium and titanium produce brilliant colors when anodized, coloring niobium is significantly easier. While titanium requires etching with nitric acid, hydrofluoric acid, or an acid substitute before coloring, niobium can go from the workbench into the anodizer, not only avoiding dangerous chemicals, but also allowing for a variety of surface treatments.”

This asymmetric neckpiece shows an anodized chain and naturally colored focal.

Asymmetric niobium neckpiece and chain.

Many jewelry makers and customers are drawn to niobium for its splashy, tropical hues, but niobium isn’t limited to such showy displays. Some people love it for its dark, mysterious tones, which it give it a very different character, like a blue with just a hint of brightness, or a near-black that is deep and gently glimmering.

Kylie Jones created a chain maille bracelet using a pretty, deep blue anodized niobium with sterling silver as well as a sharp-looking variation with black anodized niobium rings. Find Kylie Jones’s Snakeskin Inspired chain maille bracelet in the January/February 2018 Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist as a print or digital issue.

–Merle White

Editor-in-Chief of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist

Learn to Form and Color Niobium

Find John Flynn’s Niobium Floral Earring project and Suzanne Wade’s complete overview of niobium in the Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist 15-Year 2001-2015 Collection Download. The feature story includes interviews with John Flynn as well as jewelers Holly Hoseterman and Paul Lubitz of Holly Yashi — a company widely known and long associated with niobium jewelry — Diane deBeixedon, and Rick Hamilton.

Find Michael Mara’s Anodized Niobium Earring project and the full November 2014 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, or just the Anodized Niobium Earring project alone.

Don’t miss this issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist