by Dr. Lori Verderame
Costume jewelry, also called junque, junk, or fashion jewelry, refers to the wide range of items from anklets to earrings of personal adornment. Affordability and fashion are two of the reasons why costume jewelry is so popular. Costume jewelry is all about flair, style, color, texture, and flash. These stylistic traits come from the various materials: plastics, glass, composites, ceramics, faux pearls, faux gemstones, wood, crystals, stones, rhinestones, etc. Below you find a select list of costume jewelry metals used.
In addition to these materials, costume jewelry is also enhanced by the integration of various metals in its many designs. Inspired by some of the most impressive and expensive fine jewelry, costume jewelry designers use certain metals like brass, copper, and nickel silver in the same way that fine jewelry designers employ gold, platinum, and sterling silver.
The base metals used in costume jewelry are typically introduced because of their properties as well as their low cost. In addition to the electroplating process, the most commonly used list of costume jewelry metals are: aluminum, brass, bronze, copper, nickel silver, pewter, stainless steel, titanium, tungsten, and zinc alloy.
These metals are lower in cost than precious metals and they are easy to manipulate and cast. As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention so when certain metals were needed for the war effort during World War II during the early 1940s, jewelry designers and manufacturers started using a group of more common base metals instead of expensive precious metals for their pieces.
A base metal differs from a precious metal. Known also as pot metal or white metal, these metals are often a mixture or combination of other metals. For instance, nickel silver, while silver in color, is not silver at all. It is in fact made when one combines lead, zinc, iron, copper, nickel, and manganese.
Why did designers choose certain metals? Cost was not the only reason why certain base metals were highlighted by costume jewelry designers. Here are some of the traits that you should know regarding the metals most used and most popular in costume jewelry.
Aluminum, Brass, Copper
A popular costume jewelry metal is aluminum. Like brass for its golden color, aluminum’s silvery-grayish color is popular with costume jewelry designers and manufacturers. It offers an attractive shine, sheen, or coat and may be anodized. Aluminum is malleable and lightweight. These characteristics make it easy to use the metal when creating complex jewelry designs for brooches, necklaces, pins, earrings, bracelets, etc. Aluminum, while one of the most common metals on earth, will not corrode or tarnish making it highly desirable with jewelry makers.
Brass is affordable yet golden in color. This gold toned metal, an alloy made from zinc and copper adapts well to the metal or jewelry casting process. Brass is also strong and durable, lead free, accepts lacquer to reduce the need for polishing and non-corrosive.
Bronze, a commonly used metal for casting sculpture, is a perfect choice for costume jewelry manufacture. Bronze is a metal alloy and most commonly, bronze is made up of a combination of tin, copper, and zinc. With its golden brown color, bronze is strong, accepts casting details well, and is durable. Bronze is often patinated in the casting process. Bronze may tarnish over time.
Like the attractive qualities of golden brass or silver aluminum, the red color of copper has been used in many pieces of studio art jewelry and costume jewelry. Copper is strong, affordable, heavy and durable. It has many other properties that make it a perfect choice for use in costume jewelry manufacturing, too. For instance, copper is more expensive than some metals but still cost effective to use when designing costume jewelry. Copper ages to a darker red/brown color.
Nickel silver comes by many names including German silver. Nickel silver is the base alloy of zinc, copper, and nickel. It is commonly used in costume jewelry but it will tarnish over time. It is affordable and can be used for clasps, chains, links, and other costume jewelry settings. Many pieces of nickel silver costume jewelry will be marked Nickel Silver.
Pewter, with its rich silver color, is an alloy of copper and tin which can be presented in a matte or shiny finish. Jewelry designers contend that pewter is known for its easy of use and malleability. This trait can also make pewter easily dented or damaged if a costume jewelry piece made of pewter is worn regularly. Some people are allergic to pewter and it may contain lead in some cases.
Stainless steel is strong, durable, corrosion-resistant and affordable. This widely available alloy of nickel, chromium, copper, titanium, iron and other metals is a perfect choice for modernist style costume jewelry pieces.
A great choice for costume jewelry metals is titanium. It is a 100% hypoallergenic metal. Many feel that it is very beautiful while being affordable too. Titanium is lightweight, strong, durable, tarnish resistant and corrosive resistant which is just about everything you want in a costume jewelry metal. Like tungsten, titanium is hard which makes it more difficult to manipulate in the jewelry making process.
Tungsten or tungsten carbide, a very hard materials, is a black metal and that attracts many jewelry designers to selecting it for use in various designs. Since the early 21st century, this metal and titanium have been popular choices for gentlemen’s wedding rings. Costume jewelry designers like tungsten because it resists scratches and abrasions, it is affordable, and it hypoallergenic.
Like other metals, zinc alloy is conservatively priced and versatile when used in jewelry casting. Some people are allergic to zinc alloy or the other metals combined with it such as lead or nickel. Again, the cost is an attraction and it is resistant to corrosion. It may tarnish as well, so be advised of this trait when you buy your next piece of costume jewelry.
Plating Costume Jewelry
In addition to this list of costume jewelry metals that are commonly used in costume jewelry, plating processes are also used in the manufacture of such objects of adornment by many costume jewelry firms like Trifari, Renoir & Matisse , Eisenberg, Ciner, Kenneth Jay Lane, Kramer, Schreiner, Napier, Miriam Haskell, Hattie Carnegie, and other costume jewelry designers, Gold plating is popular as is silver and rhodium plating. Understanding when these plating processes are apparent on a piece of costume jewelry is important to a piece’s value and collectability.
Gold plating is a method of placing a thin layer of gold onto the surface of another metal. Gilding is another term used for this process and often the gold is deposited atop silver or copper. To manufacture costume jewelry, gold plating is used or as it is commonly known gold over silver. Measured in microns, the thickness of the gold impacts how long the look will last when applied to the base metal. Gold plated items must have a thickness that is 0.5 micron or more. By definition, gold washed pieces have a layer of gold that is thinner than 0.5 micron. Sometimes a layer of a barrier metal is used, often rhodium or nickel, to prevent tarnish of the outer layer of gold.
Other types of gold plating like vermeil and the many types of marks associated with gold plating may be found on my article on gold jewelry marks.
Rhodium plating will impact the durability of metals and produce a shiny finish. Rhodium does not tarnish or corrode and it is very durable but rhodium is not easy to manipulate or form. Rhodium is a hard metal and when it is used in the plating process, it makes the jewelry piece scratch resistant. A highly polished finish is what you get when you rhodium plate a piece of jewelry. Based on microns, most rhodium plating measures .75-1.0 micron. Rhodium is hypoallergenic and it can be used to plate silver but it will tarnish after a long period of time or wear off. If you want to make the shine on a rhodium plated piece of jewelry last longer, avoid rubbing the piece of jewelry or exposing the piece of jewelry to harsh chemicals, chlorine, perfumes, and make up. Rhodium plating is costly and can require re-plating once every year.
Silver-plated costume jewelry is not the same as sterling silver jewelry. The silver-plating process deposits a layer of thin silver over a base metal like copper, brass, or other metals. Depending on the base metal of the costume jewelry piece, silver plating can be used to enhance the look of costume jewelry. Pewter, unlike other metals, is difficult to electroplate however most other metals can accept the plating process. One consideration to remember when dealing with faux pearls or other synthetic gemstones often used in the costume jewelry manufacturing process is some of these elements will be more apt to handle the plating process than others. Rhinestones and lab created gemstones react well to the plating process however some faux stones or faux pearls can peel, crack, or discolor during the plating process. Most of the time, faux stones and pearls will be removed from their settings prior to the plating process and then re-set after the silver plating process has occurred.
While the crystals, faux pearls, colored glass, and faux faceted gemstones are part of the fascinating world of costume jewelry, the metals that host these lovely elements are important to the look and value of vintage costume jewelry pieces.
Watch videos on my YouTube channel where I add more to the list of costume jewelry metals. I can appraise your costume jewelry from photos or you can show me your costume jewelry during a video call.