Why designers searching for craft, creativity, variety, and vision are eschewing gold in favor of silver
When she joined the faculty at San Francisco’s Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts in 2001, Christine Dhein taught all metalsmith techniques using silver. Back then, it was principally a practice metal. Today, however, silver is as much an end as a means in learning how to make custom jewelry. “Most of our students leave planning to be designers, but primarily in silver, not gold,” she says. “If they use gold, it’s more as an accent and not the main ingredient.”
The reasons for selecting silver are many—some obvious, some not. The most obvious is, of course, economics. With gold seemingly stuck above the $1,600-per-ounce mark, silver, at about $30 per ounce, is the only practical precious metal option for new craftspeople.
But the influence of economics doesn’t stop at commodity prices. As Pedro Boregaard, a designer from Narrowsburg, N.Y., puts it, “We are witnessing the disappearance of the middle class. For all those workers and professionals displaced by the recession, silver gives them affordable access to custom precious metal jewelry.” The same is true for a new generation of designers and craftspeople. Silver allows them to find careers they may not find in a gold-based marketplace. “In [our] economy,” says Boregaard, “silver is an ideal job creator.”
What’s more, these aren’t menial jobs. These are positions that demand creative and technical skill. That’s because silver, says Tucson, Ariz., jeweler Lisa Krikawa, is “an art metal first and foremost.”
Personalized Family Circle bracelet in sterling silver, leather, and birthstones; $420 (excluding stones); Krikawa Jewelry Designs, Tucson, Ariz.; 520-322-6090; krikawa.com
The emerging reality of the silver market—with which gold- and diamond-dependent retail jewelers admittedly struggle—is that, until recently, there has been “no tradition or demand for silver as a marriage or special-occasions metal,” says Durango, Colo., designer/silversmith/lapidary Michael Boyd. “Silver is all about fashion.” Boyd adds another factor to its popularity with craftspeople: experimentation. “Thanks to silver’s low price, it’s not the end of the world if you screw up a piece. ‘Try, try again’ is an affordable credo.”
Krikawa agrees: “As a designer, I am not constrained by cost, I do not have to worry about weight, and I am not concerned about cracking.” But will retailers adopt the same rhapsodic enthusiasm for silver jewelry? “It means repositioning one’s store, in whole or part, as a design center and even an art gallery,” says Boregaard.
The last time silver was a high-traffic item in jewelry stores during the 1970s, it was mostly in the context of Native American pieces. Now sterling has become a portal into a wide diversity of techniques and finishes—wider than that associated with gold. More and more artists are becoming oxidation enthusiasts, producing pieces that capitalize on silver’s tendency to tarnish. “Instead of fighting blackening, designers use controlled oxidation to produce intriguing tarnish tones,” says Boregaard, who’s considered a master of fine-silver blackening.
Meanwhile, anti-oxidation partisans are enjoying the availability of extremely effective anti-tarnish alloys such as Argentium (its high germanium content retards tarnish). The British import and its many American offspring allow manufacturers to give pieces the longest-lasting shine in silver’s 3,000-year history as a jewelry metal—a boon to retailers and consumers alike, thanks to lower maintenance costs.
Boregaard Jeweler’s wide and slim Alligator cuffs in oxidized sterling silver with 4.25 cts. t.w. and 3.05 cts. t.w. natural fancy cognac colored diamonds; $11,650 and $9,000
“Jewelry is all about keeping up appearances,” says Don Raymondi, a silver coin and accessories collector in Reading, Pa. “Argentium keeps silver looking fine for months and months. Even when signs of tarnish appear, they are easily removed with soap and water.” No wonder Jeffrey Herman, founder and executive director of the Society of American Silversmiths, hopes “Argentium will end the pernicious practice of rhodium plating. What kind of message does plating send? That silver can’t hold its own with gold or platinum. That’s nonsense.”
Of course, some metalsmiths, like Andy Cooperman of Seattle, feel no need to take sides in the oxidation debate. Their pieces blend techniques in such a way that they have distinctive multi-toned and textured surfaces where small and large areas of rapid-acceleration oxidation intermingle with medium- and high-shine areas. “If oxidation is the fate of silver,” Cooperman says, “celebrate that fact and let your pieces show their destiny the first day they are worn.”
Ironically, even blackening does not last forever. Tarnish wears off—leaving, says Boregaard, a beauty no artist can imitate and few consumers would alter: “In 30 years of owning my own studio, hardly anybody has asked me to re-oxidize a piece. I tell clients the more they wear a piece, the lovelier it will become. Silver needs to be worn to look its best. And that best has a drama only usage can give.”