Sizzling Silver

ALAN REVERE

Paul Revere, the Revolutionary War hero, was by trade a silversmith whose classic designs are almost as well-known as his famous midnight ride. Alan Revere (no relation) is a jewelry designer and founder of the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts in San Francisco, Cal. He likes working with silver about as much as Paul Revere liked the British.

Silver is not really a nice metal in lots of ways. It’s a precious metal, but Europeans call it the “dirty metal.” When you heat it, you get fire scale, which is subsurface oxidation that shows up only when you polish it. Getting rid of it isn’t pretty; it’s a real pain in the neck.

Silver is a much better conductor of heat than gold or platinum, but because the heat transfers, you have to heat the whole piece to get one area. You can’t spot-weld silver. With gold, you can solder right next to stones without damaging them. Silver also is not good for anything with a spring or anything where you need a lot of strength.

Silver’s only advantages are its color, cost and malleability. It’s the whitest and most reflective metal. It’s $5 an ounce, compared with $350 an ounce or more for gold. Also, it’s easier than gold or platinum to give a surface texture and it’s easier to forge. It ages nicely, and fine silver (not sterling) doesn’t oxidize much.

I resisted working in silver for the longest time. I used to work only in gold, then I started working in gold and niobium, but people kept asking me for silver. Having silver broadens the line, brings in a different customer and draws attention to the high end of the line.

I still always add a touch of gold for my own distinctive look. To me, plain silver looks boring.

AN END TO ELBOW GREASE?

For many women, the word “silver” evokes images of messy paste and elbow grease or smelly dips in jars too small to hold whatever needs to be polished. Jewelry artists may call silver a “participatory” metal, but most people just consider it high maintenance. Now, several refiners are developing sterling alloys that sharply reduce surface tarnish and fire scale.

Traditional sterling silver is 92.5% fine silver and 7.5% copper. But the metal is subject to tarnish and fire scale when the copper reacts with air, heat or other elements. So remove the copper and remove the problem, right? “If you don’t have copper, then you don’t have cupric oxide issues, but it’s not a free lunch,” says Daniel Ballard of Precious Metals West, Los Angeles, Cal., which is working to develop a copper-less alloy. The reaction and combination of metals are as much factors as which metals are used. There’s almost twice as much copper in 18k gold as in sterling silver, for example, but 18k gold doesn’t tarnish. Plus, the list of metals that will mix with silver is very short.

ABI,Los Angeles, has already developed a deoxidized sterling silver alloy called Sterilite. Operations Manager Steve Merkin says this alloy can resist tarnish for months or even years, depending on how it’s worn and stored.

But acceptance of silver products made with new alloys has been slow. They’re more expensive than traditional sterling, they often require special handling or equipment, and they can make the silver soft. In fact, Ballard says all tarnish-resistant formulas require special handling and, in his opinion, all are significantly softer than traditional sterling, which can be a problem for many jewelry applications.

“Special-handling metals” are not a bad thing – if you’re prepared to deal with them, he says. For example, some

alloys require induction melting because traditional torch melting and vacuum casting will produce “karat creep,” where the ingredients separate and then part of the product is not up to karatage. “Metal theory and shop reality can be on a collision course if there’s no communication among those who handle the metal,” he says. “You have to know how your customer is equipped, and the guy running the shop has to be trained how to handle the metal.”

United Precious Metal Refining in Alden, N.Y., has developed six tarnish-resistant formulas of silver. Vice President Mel Bernhard says that when one of United’s newer formulas is cast, it has a surface hardness equivalent to traditional sterling. The tarnish-resistant formulas are more malleable than traditional sterling, which can aid the manufacturing or fabricating processes. But Bernhard says with the newer formulas, a heat-treating process will stiffen lightweight pieces enough to withstand normal wear and tear.

“You have to remember that silver in general is a soft metal and no matter what you do to it, it won’t be as hard as 18k or stainless steel.”

TINA SEGAL

With her sterling silver Corduroy line, jewelry designer Tina Segal of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., follows the same concept that fashion designers did in the 1980s when they launched secondary, or so-called diffusion, lines. Such collections remain true to the designer’s vision, but are executed in more affordable price points.

was manufacturing a high-end diamond line and wanted to design a line that was complementary but in a lower price point.

But silver seems to have more problems in casting. There’s more porosity; you’re constantly filling holes as you polish it. It’s soft and malleable and generally easy to work with, but you can’t do very delicate things with it because it’s so soft. That’s tough, because I like delicate things.

I’ve come to appreciate silver over the past few years working with it. It’s beautiful. It’s easy to add surface texture, and it’s a very rich metal – you can change its color with oxidation or by using different chemicals. You can make it look like platinum or white gold, and it ages beautifully. I like that it’s lighter weight than gold or platinum.

Even with all the time and labor costs silver has, you can still make a high-quality item at a low price point. You can do things such as belt buckles and cuff links that are very expensive to do in gold. You can really explore your fantasies with it because it’s so much less expensive.

RIGOBERTO

Rigoberto Rodriguez, Los Angeles, Cal., was an importer who found himself left with a lot of unsold silver jewelry in the 1980s. He began changing some of the pieces – adding a chain here, a stone there. The pieces sold, and from there evolved a line of his own designs.

ilver is fantastic for model-making because it’s so easy to shape. Most jewelry models are made in silver for just that reason. Some alloys of casting grains help to reduce some of the typical problems with porosity and fire scale. Unfortunately, these alloys make the finished product a bit softer, so it’s more likely to get dings in it.

The problems people encounter come mostly in the finishing stage. The guys in the shop hate it because it burns their fingers. To get the finish I want would take five minutes in gold, but sometimes can take 25 minutes in silver, and it gets very hot.

But lots of people like it; jewelers say they have customers who won’t wear anything else. Even if the guys in the shop complain about the technical problems, it’s the bulk of our line, so they can’t complain too much!

SILVER TRENDS: BUCKLES, CUFFS, PENDANTS

Belt buckles are emerging as the dominant growth category in sterling silver jewelry, says Diana Shiel, public relations officer for the Silver Information Center. She’s also watching cuff bracelets and pendants for fall.

It’s too early to accurately predict design trends for fall, but she does anticipate a Scandinavian influence of clean, linear design. Otherwise, design trends will likely continue along the lines of the two prevailing aesthetics:

  • Modern, sculptural and streamlined.

  • Ethnic.

Size will continue to grow; shine is very important, but the most experimental designers are working with satin surfaces. Shiel says satin finishes are far in the future of silver design.

Top: Scandinavian design is coming back into vogue for sterling silver design, says the Silver Information Center. This grouping is available from David-Andersen, Postboks 6600, Rodelokka, 0502 Oslo, Norway; fax (47-22) 38-36-67.

Bottom: Lokki necklace in sterling silver ($250 suggested retail) is by Bjorn Weckstrom for Lapponia Jewelry OY, Helsinki, Finland. The U.S. distributor is Interart Industries, 2 W. 45th St., Suite 1705, New York, NY 10036; (212) 293-4848.

JANET ALIX

Janet Alix of Mill Valley, Cal., is known for her work in delicately granulated 22k gold and vividly colored gemstones. Her sterling silver jewelry incorporates these gold elements in her signature feminine style. An astute observer of women’s attitudes and buying habits, she finds silver a timely addition to her line.

hen I was a beginner, I did a lot more work in silver. It’s ironic that as a beginner, you work with this really labor-intensive, technical metal that has lots of problems, and then you “graduate” to working in gold, which is actually much easier.

It’s very hard to get perceived value in silver. It does give you leeway for a heavier, bulkier look, but the fact that it tarnishes on display and has to be polished is not built into the price. There’s a limit to how much you can charge before people say “Wait, it’s only silver.”

I think silver is good for casual, which suits a lot of people’s lifestyles. A lot of people wouldn’t be able to wear our gold; they’d feel it was too fancy. But we mix our silver with gold and, in combination, they can wear it.

When women start going gray, their whole coloring changes and they look for different metals. It’s good to mix gold and silver because it’s a shame to stop wearing gold just at the time you can afford it. Many Baby Boom women are in great shape and are letting their hair go gray. They’re very elegant, and watching them gives me ideas for creating in silver and platinum.

STERLING FACTS

  • Retail sales of sterling silver jewelry were estimated at $2.1 billion for 1996, up 14% from $1.85 billion in 1995 (sales were $1.6 billion in 1994 and $1.4 billion in 1994).

  • Unit sales increased roughly 7% to 52.5 million in 1996.

  • The largest purchase segment is female self-purchase (60%), followed by women buying gifts for other women (30%). The balance is composed of men buying gifts for women and vice versa.

  • Purchasers cover all age groups and income levels because of silver’s wide range of price points.

  • Department stores are the dominant retail channel for sterling silver jewelry purchases, followed by jewelry stores, mail order and large variety stores.

  • The most popular items are earrings, accounting for nearly a third of all silver purchases. Neckwear follows at 25%, rings and bracelets at roughly 20% each.

  • About 90% of all purchases are under $70; the average price per piece is $40. Nearly 60% of these purchases are made “on sale,” the remaining 40% at full price.

  • The top three purchase influences are price/sales, style/design and impulse. About 60% of purchases are made for no special reason; 40% are gifts, usually Christmas or birthday.

  • More than 40% of households buy three or more pieces of silver jewelry annually.

  • About 80% of all silver jewelry sold in the U.S. is imported, much of it from Thailand, Italy and Mexico.

Source: Silver Information Center

MARY SCHUBART

Mary Schubart is a relative newcomer to the jewelry industry. A painter and sculptor, she only recently began to express her love of pattern in jewelry. She’s one of the few designers who doesn’t work with the metal grudgingly.

There’s not really too much I don’t like about silver. The only thing I really don’t like is the way it tarnishes. When we go to shows, it looks sort of yellow by the third day. I worry about how it looks in the stores.

“But I like the price point. You get a lot of look for the money. You can make a beautiful bracelet, and you can move it. You don’t have to sell it for $2,000.”

PAUL KLECKA

Chicago designer Paul Klecka is best known for his clean-lined gold and diamond designs, but he’s also an enthusiastic proponent of silver. Despite silver’s drawbacks, he loves it for the freedom it gives. He also thinks it’s the key to capturing the next generation of consumers.

ilver is a very forgiving metal. With platinum, you have to be a very good housekeeper – clean and meticulous. With silver, you can be a slob and it still works.

Silver also has less sticker shock, so designers have a freer attitude about creating. With gold and platinum, they often are too restrained, too caught up in the preciousness of it to be free.

What I like about silver is that it’s affordable, and the Generation X market seems to love it. These are the mallrats, the kids with tattoos, body piercing and torn jeans. They will wear only white metal, they want a low price points and they’re not finding them. It would be great to address this market and give a whole culture what it wants. We’re looking at this in our product development now.

Most of my clients are Baby Boomers, and I think the jewelry industry has done a great job serving them. These are the people who have the spending power for the next 10 years, but what about the future? Generation X’ers are savvy shoppers and they have spending power. They are going to grow up and want engagement rings and beyond. I have a hard time imagining these kids in a guild jewelry store. Maybe they’ll grow into it, but they’re not comfortable in their parents’ jewelry stores now.