by Bina Shaji Kurup
Metals beads are extremely popular in creating beaded jewellery. They can be segregated into precious metals – gold, platinum and silver and the cheaper non-precious metals like brass, copper and pewter or cast. Although the beads themselves can be plain, carved, with inlay work and in myriad shapes, the metal beads can be either hollow or solid and plated or non-plated beads.
Another silver look-alike is Pewter – an alloy of tin, antimony and copper. It has a resemblance to dull sterling silver when it is pure (pewter is sometimes mixed with lead also) and appears as silver-gray giving the beads a vintage look. The higher the content of lead, the darker the pewter beads appear and the more difficult it is to polish them to their original color once they get tarnished. Pewter beads are very easy to carve and cut therefore they are available in many different shapes from letters, animals to pewter beads with inlay work of enamel, steel on them. Steel, another alloy too contains nickel in small quantities but steel beads are not often used to create jewellery.Other metals like Niobium, Titanium gunmetal, stainless or surgical steel, aluminum, iron etc. can also be made into beads but Brass and Copper beads are more popular in creating beaded jewellery. Cheaper than the precious metals and available in several finished, brass and copper have gained acceptance – especially for their ethnic look in beaded jewellery.Copper beads are a beautiful organic gold. They can be bright or dull depending on the look required. These beads will become black or green as oxidization takes place over a period of time, but a just a little bit of polishing will restore them to their original color. Copper can be mixed with other metals and the color of copper will vary depending on the metal mixed into it. Copper beaded jewellery is durable and this metal takes a longer time to tarnish, making it popular choice. It is inexpensive and combined with colored stone or translucent glass beads can make for attractive jewellery.When copper is mixed with zinc, the metal created is called Brass. Brass has the look of gold – bright or dull yellow – some brass is even white. More zinc means a brighter yellow and a higher percentage of copper will make Brass reddish. Brass beads are a great substitute for expensive gold beads. These pretty yellow beads, like most non-precious metal beaded jewellery blacken with age but can be polished like copper beads.
Both Brass and Copper beads are available in several finishes – bright, matte, dull, and slightly tarnished for a rustic effect. Varnish is applied to metal beads to give them an antique, oxidized look.
Base metals are cheaper than the precious metals and have a distinct look of their own. Electroplating, gilting, and other techniques are often applied to coat the base-metal beads with gold and silver. Some base metals are able to take coatings easier than the other and although plated beads are cheaper than the pure gold or silver beads, knowing what metal is under the plating will help you make a decision whether you want to buy nickel-silver gold plated beads or pewter gilted beads. Each metal has its unique appeal and it is better to buy beads which are plated with a metal matching the color of the base bead, so when some beads lose their coating sooner than the other beads in the strand only close examination will show the difference.
Beads are mostly electroplated with gold or silver. The thickness of the plating determines the price of the bead and the plating thickness is measured in mils. Gold or silver overlay (also called Filling) work is also used to coat the beads. This is normally a thicker layer than plating and uses 14 karat or lesser gold for coating. Gilting is a process where gold polish or gold color is applied like paint onto the metal bead leaving a very thin layer of gold color on the bead..
Plated beads are cheaper than regular precious metal beads but their life is shorter and plating are never permanent. Most plated beads lose their color after a while and some even turn black due to the oxidization of the base metal bead. Brass, Copper and pewter take on coatings easily whereas nickel, steel, aluminum do not take on the coatings very well – meaning that a nickel bead which is gold plated will lose its shine faster than a Brass gold plated bead.
A little care in choosing beads can help your metal beaded jewellery last a little longer. For example, a brass gold-plated bead will not look too bad even after the gold plating wears off since the metal under the gold is a bright yellow. Similarly, a silver coated pewter bead will look like tarnished silver since pewter has a silvery color.
Another exciting metal plated jewellery option is the attractive Cloisonné beads – metal coated with glass or enamel and sometimes coated again with gold. These pretty beads are available as transparent, opaque, matte and several other finishes.
Plated bead jewellery looks genuine but needs care. Pewter, Brass, Copper, Silver with the exception of gold – all metals tarnish and blacken over time and the environmental conditions contribute to a faster or slower oxidization process. Care should be taken while polishing too since a rough hand can remove or chip the plating or gilt. And ammonia can dull the finish of plated beads. Metal beads are great for the antique look and manufacturers often darken parts of the bead to give an authentic look. Brass, copper and pewter allow for even plating unlike the other metals which maybe left with a patchy surface (that shows up in natural and sometimes artificial light) and these beads will lose their gold or silver appearance faster. Some plated beads are coated with varnish which slows the tarnish process considerably.
Be sure to check all the beads on your plated beaded jewellery regularly as some beads may lose their shine, be chipped or show the tarnish after a period of time. Most important, if you are allergic to metals like nickel then it is best to stay away from plated or metal beaded jewellery since most non-precious metal beaded jewellery contains some amount of nickel or make sure you inform the manufacturer of the allergy and buy products that are safe for you to use.