Monday, March 24, 2014

Embedding Argentium® Silver Wire into Fine Silver Metal Clay

Most of the time we embed fine silver wire into metal clay because it doesn't tarnish, but it is so soft it doesn't hold its shape. Because sterling silver can be work hardened it's a better choice for embedding into metal clay, but it tends to tarnish.

Argentium® Silver is an alloy of fine silver + germanium + a smaller percentage of copper. It has a high tarnish resistance, doesn't develop firescale, and has the same strength as traditional sterling silver.

Argentium® Silver was invented in 1990 by Peter Johns at the Art and Design Research Institute (ADRI), School of Art & Design, Middlesex University. It is a new type of sterling silver. Traditional sterling silver is a combination of fine silver alloyed with copper (92.5% silver + 7.5% copper). It tends to tarnish over time and can develop firescale when heated with a torch. Firescale is a reaction of the copper and the oxygen in a torch flame that causes the metal to have a purple-grey appearance that doesn't polish to a shine. It can only be removed by abrasion or with chemicals.

When heated, the Argentium® silver may oxidize, turning gray, creating a fine layer of cupric oxide (CuO) that is easily removed by pickling. It also creates a germanium oxide (GeO2) layer on the metal's surface. This germanium oxide repels oxygen and keeps the silver and copper from tarnishing. Additionally, over time the layer of germanium oxide becomes thicker and creates an even more tarnish resistant surface. Heating Argentium® silver in a kitchen oven for 10 - 20 minutes at 250°F (121°C) and allowing it to air cool speeds up this process.

I recently tested embedding Argentium® silver in PMC3 and had great success. It did tarnish (cupric oxide), but this tarnish was easily removed just by tumbling with steel shot. Since I had a hollow form, I didn't want to get pickling solution inside the form. Brushing it with a soapy brass brush also removes this cupric oxide tarnish.

Heating the Argentium® annealed it, making it very bendable. I work hardened it by pressing the wire in several places with flat nosed pliers. Argentium® silver can also be work hardened or age hardened by heating it in a kiln at 580°F (304°C) for 45 - 60 minutes.

Argentium® Silver is still considered sterling silver and is marked as .925 G. It has a low melting temperature of 1610°F (877°C) so,  I fired it with the PMC3 using a fast ramp to 1250°F (677°C) and held it at that temperature for 30 minutes.

Argentium® Silver is a great alternative to using fine silver or sterling silver when embedding wire for a clasp, bail, as an earring wire, or any other use you may think of.

Until next time, have fun claying around!

by Janet Alexander 
Technical Adviser

Monday, March 17, 2014

Profiles In Artistry - Rosann Schwartz

I discovered the work of Rosann Schwartz through a Facebook group I belong to. Her creations are amazingly intricate and hauntingly beautiful. I'm happy to be able to introduce her to you.

PMCC - How long have you been working with metal clay?
RS - About 2 years. My thoughts at the time were “Can I add this material to my other sculpture materials and give a unique perspective to my work?"

PMCC - What skills, interests, or achievements did you bring to your designs from previous, unrelated work? 
      RS - In my professional career I am a mechanical engineer with a strong background in metals. I also have an artistic background in ceramics, costume design, and sculptural felt making.

     PMCC - How did you discover and/or develop your signature style or technique? 
     RS - I have always been more of a storyteller than a designer.  I think that is why I find it hard to design jewelry, I need a larger “canvas” to show the movement of the character in my story. I frequently find inspiration in nature: an unusual rock, a wind-blown tree, a charging animal. I am drawn to the simple lines that make up the essence of the scene, then I try to capture that simple, but powerful image in metal (clay), stone, glass, etc. in such a way that draws the viewer into the negative space within the piece.
Pegasus in progress and mounted
My first experimental piece that used this technique was a Pegasus. I built it out of Hadar’s original Steel clay (200 grams) with accents of copper.  He took about 40 hours to carve and assemble. I fired him as per the instructions, and when I opened the kiln I found him in 16 pieces!  I may have developed my “style” of forming and carving long slender “ribs” but I soon discovered that the real “technique” (i.e. technical challenge) came in the assembly and re-firing process involved in putting Humpty back together again.  The process of rebuilding Pegasus to his final form eventually took 20 firings using lots of fiber blanket and wire supports… it was very painful! It has taken another 6 months of experimentation, but I can now build and fire a sculpture in about 5 firings and generally only have a few fractures along the way.

     PMCC - How has your work or skill set evolved since you began working with metal clay? 
     RS - I started by taking a box-making class. It was a little advanced but I had done ceramics for 30 years so I got through it and made a nice little (carved) hinged box. I found silver a little too soft (and expensive) for my taste, so I quickly moved to base metals and began carving. The real challenge was, and continues to be, the firing and sintering process.  I love the way base metal clays carve, and now I just keep pushing the limits in terms of how large and thin I can form a  metal clay structure.  I am also experimenting with firing base metals onto porcelain and cast glass to create unique surface extensions and effects.

PMCC - Do you teach? 
RS - Not in metal clay. I have taught in other media in the past (felting, ceramics, polymer clay, etc.) but I have chosen to focus on building my technical skills in using the metal clay in mixed media sculptures.

PMCC - Do you consider yourself primarily a teacher or a maker/seller? 
RS - Maker, although I am happy to share my processes on line and plan to share more of my technical “tips and tricks” via YouTube videos and a blog.


PMCC - How do you feel about teaching others your signature techniques?
RS - It’s not ready for prime time. My designs tend to be pretty intense and the techniques used to build them are very time consuming and complicated. A typical sculpture takes 30-40 hours to form and carve, plus 5 or more 2-stage firings to assemble. There is also a great deal of “engineering-sense” that goes into how to balance and support each section of the sculpture during the sintering process. I am experimenting with simplifying my designs into smaller forms that can be put into an online tutorial, but I am not there yet.

     PMCC - How would you like your future with metal clay to evolve?  
     RS - As much as I love all the new colors of base metal clay that are coming onto the market, I am still sticking to a few base metal clays (steel, copper, bronze) and hoping that the sintering process becomes more reliable and the final product becomes stronger and less brittle, particularly as it relates to larger-scale, non-jewelry applications.

     PMCC - Why did you choose metal clay as your primary jewelry (sculpture) making material? What qualities do you particularly appreciate?  
     RS - I am basically a mixed media sculptor/carver. I gravitate toward using base metal clays as my primary sculpture media because of their strength (in the bone-dry state) and ability to hold detailed carvings when using traditional wood carving tools.  People often ask why I don’t sculpt in wax. My answer is that wax (and lost-wax casting) doesn’t give me the  “immediate satisfaction” of combining multiple metals (copper, steel, etc), and other materials (glass, stone), into unique pieces of art.  Metal clay allows me to build the one-off unique sculpture, as well as the prototype for a casting mold without all the wax.

     PMCC - What would you like new users of metal clay to know?  
     RS - It’s a wonderful material, but it is still in its infancy, particularly the base metal clays, so have patience. It’s fun to keep trying all the new colors and formulas of clay, but you still need to test, record, re-test and record until you find the right balance of firing conditions.

     PMCC - Oh my gosh, it's been so wonderful to get this glimpse into your process Rosann! Please let us know when you create your YouTube channel and blog. You're the first artist that I know of to use metal clay in this application and we all look forward to seeing more from you. 

Posted by Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Looking for Air Pockets in Lump Clay

Many of us add glycerine to the PMC lump clay to make it more flexible. I add it when making rings, pendant bails, and for using with the Silhouette CAMEO® machine.

The small dark spots are actually air pockets

I recycle my clay dust, crumbles, and leftovers into new lump clay by adding water to it and rolling it between a plastic report cover until it returns to the lump clay consistency. Any glycerine that has been added to the clay previously is still in the clay, don't be tempted to add more or you may end up with small air pockets! 

Here is a sheet of clay I rolled out for cutting on the Silhouette CAMEO® machine. The small domes and dark gray spots are trapped air. I mixed non-glycerine clay with glycerine clay and added some additional glycerine. This is what I ended up with. No matter how much I rolled it or added water, I could not get rid of the air pockets.

Opened air pocket in the clay.

In this photo I opened up one of those gray spots to find a small hole.

So, what can be done about this? Add new fresh lump clay, mixing it into the old clay by rolling it as flat as possible between a clear plastic report cover, fold it into itself and repeat these steps until the clay is completely mixed. You may need to add distilled water to the clay, as well, to achieve the correct consistency.

Until next time, have fun claying around!

by Janet Alexander 
Technical Adviser

Monday, March 10, 2014

To Wholesale or Not

I would sell more items if I could lower my prices. I should say, I suspect more of my items would sell, as that is pretty consistent feedback.

I’ve done the record-keeping and determined exactly what I need to make on each item to cover my costs, my time and materials, my almost negligible overhead, and to make a little profit. The little profit helps buffer the changing price of silver.

My rock bottom price on any item is its wholesale price. Retail is twice that. Some wholesale buyers mark up items as much as 2.5 times. In the industry, it is a big no-no to have your items set at different prices in different locations. For example, I shall not sell a pair of earrings online for $50 and at a shop in town for $72.

Here are some further wholesale versus direct retail versus consignment considerations.

I could tally up and use the percentages of types of sales: wholesale, direct retail, and consignment. Then I could adjust my prices accordingly. For example, if I sold the highest percent as wholesale, then I would keep my calculated prices. Then again, if only 2% of my sales were wholesale, I could lower my prices.

Wholesale implies that one attends wholesale shows, goods shows, and maintains a presence with an online wholesale marketing company, such as This means focusing on a few products and marketing the heck out of them. There is significant money to be made. If you take this path, you can count on having employees, figuring out how to have your popular items cast, and starting company-esque practices. Are you ready for this, and do you want to transition into it? Do you have other goals and priorities with regards to your metal clay work for which you want to have time and energy?

Wholesale also implies that you would be turning out cookie-cutter products; that is, you would be making the same item over and over. You might sneak around this if you had a wholesale line of goods that were each one-of-a-kind, which might satiate your creative desires. Say you make a product line that is a certain style and size pendant, each with a natural-stone cabochon. A buyer orders fifteen and you ship them a variety. Be prepared for a random wholesale buyer to make a special request; such as, send only pendants with lapis lazuli.

Product lines are a way to keep wholesale items separate from your retail items. What if you had a wholesale product line and a direct-retail product line? You could price these separately, but they better be pretty different in appearance. A downside to separate product lines and price sheets is that it involves a lot of desk time. Hopefully, time at your desk is less than time at your workbench.

Here’s another way to maintain consistent prices. This may work for items that you have on consignment that you also wholesale: You could tell the shop owners of your consigned goods to have a seasonal or permanent sale on your items. For example, I could tell the local gallery-type shop in town to mark down all my items 15%. We’d keep the same shop-to-artist percentages, so I would receive less money per sale, but maybe the number of sold items would increase.

The bottom line is, how hard do you want to work? "How so", you ask? Well, lower prices mean more sales, which translates into more production at the workbench. Or, would you rather sell less often, receive more dollars per item, and cherish your time at your workbench? Work smarter, not harder (coined in the 1930s by Allan H. Mogensen, the creator of Work Simplification). Within this phrase lies your choice.

If you have any experience or information on any part of this balancing act, let us know. Someone out there has a handle on this, right?

by Kris Kramer

Monday, March 3, 2014

When Opportunity Knocks

Gabriel Craig. This is one of my favorites. I just can't figure
out how in the world he 'married' that thin gold chain to the sterling
ring shank. I prefer to believe it was magic.
You just never know what's gonna pop up. Opportunities can happen any time, and if you're prepared, taking advantage of them can actually be fun instead of stressful! That's what happened to me when Professor Susie Ganch from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) sent a mass email to instructors of the Visual Arts Center where I teach. Susie organized an event called "The Radical Jewelry Makeover" in Richmond in 2007 and it's traveled around the world ever since. That random email allowed me the opportunity to take part in the 2014 version!

I'm so honored and excited to be participating, and very grateful that my puttering around with metalsmithing techniques is allowing me to transform my baggie filled with odds and ends of discarded and forgotten jewelry into something new and fabulous.

Also participating are professional goldsmiths, VCU metals students, independent jewelry makers, and my friends Robin Kranitsky and Kim Overstreet. Some past participants include Amy Tavern, Nina Dinoff, and Catie Sellers - along with many, many other talented jewelry makers. I'm slightly intimidated by their advanced knowledge and experience, but considering how often I've taken the same type of introduction to metalsmithing classes - I'm prepared for the challenge.

I got a huge baggie filled with beads, pendants, crystals, chains, and other treasure, but this is what I'm working on first. I think it will be a stilted brooch (meaning that the top piece of brass will be elevated above the bottom piece).

You can see samples of the completed projects from every year here.  We're only allowed to use the elements that have been donated, so no metal clay in this project. That's why my piercing, soldering, riveting and other metal working skills are so valuable. Learn as much as you can. It will not only take your metal clay work to another level of skill and professionalism, it will open up opportunities that you never knew existed!

Posted by Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor