Let’s celebrate World Thrift Day by celebrating the exceptionally thrifty jewellery-making material that is silver clay. This time last year, I’d never heard of the stuff; now it’s in integral part of around half of my designs…
So, what is it?
Silver clay is made of tiny particles of silver, combined with binding fibres (paper or cotton usually) and water. In its original state, it behaves just like the normal soft clay you’d find in an art class. When fired, the binder burns away (making a really cool-looking flame in the process), leaving behind fine silver (99.9% purity, as opposed to sterling silver’s 92.5%).
There are two main types: Art Clay Silver and Precious Metal Clay. They’re much of a muchness in many ways, and that leads us on to…
Where did it come from?
This is the good bit. So, silver clay was first developed in Japan in the 1990s by two companies. Weirdly, they both got patents on their versions of silver clay around the same time. Not quite sure how that happened, but apparently good ideas are like buses sometimes…
What’s of note for today’s theme is that silver clay is also a really sustainable material, made of recycled silver which usually comes from discarded electrical items. Turns out TVs have silver in them – who knew? The clay can even be recycled at home – if a design goes wrong and you put it back with the rest of the blob fast enough, it can be reconstituted into a new design.
As well as the environmental benefits of using silver clay (who doesn’t like feeling good about saving the planet?), I actually find the clay kind of fascinating because of the way it changes. The first few pieces, it does feel a little like magic…
It’s also interesting because of the possibilities it offers – it can be smithed like normal silver once it’s fired (albeit it’s a little softer than silver), but it behaves completely differently before that. You can use it to pick up the tiny details of a fingerprint before setting it into a bracelet, or form a ring to be hammered and shaped after firing. It’s a fusion of modern technology and ancient techniques. It can’t currently replace traditional silversmithing techniques, though, particularly stone-setting – I prefer to see it as an addition to them rather than a substitute.
If you want to have a go yourself, it’s not super expensive (around £2.50/gram in the UK), which makes it thrifty in another way, too! Here are a couple of tips for starting out with metal clay:
- Make sure you wrap it up tightly and put it back in the packaging as soon as you’ve taken the amount you want to use – once the clay dries, it becomes very brittle and hard to work with (although it is salvageable)
- You probably need less clay than you think – it’s very stretchable!
- Press firmly and evenly, directly down onto your clay – if you press at an angle you risk smudging or blurring whatever impressions you want your clay to pick up.
- Get some of this stuff – it means you can make moulds of things which you can then ‘cast’ in the clay.
- If you have a gas hob, all you need is a metal gauze to put over one of the rings, and you’re good to start firing. If, like me, your flat is electric-only, you can use a simple camping stove and camping butane.