If you’re like many of us who love handcafted jewelry, you probably shop year round for yourself and for gifts for birthdays, holidays and other celebrations you share with your family and friends. It’s fun to shop for the things you love, but with so much handcrafted jewelry available online, it can be overwhelming, especially if you’re a smart shopper who wants to know exactly what you’re getting for your money.
As a lover of handcrafted jewelry, you already know the difference between mass produced and manufactured costume jewelry and individually handcrafted jewelry made by artisans.
A further distinction exists between fabricated handcrafted jewelry and handcrafted beaded jewelry. Fabricated handcrafted jewelry is made by silversmiths or goldsmiths who almost always have had formal training and have received a degree from an art school or who have apprenticed with a Master. On the other hand, artisans who create handcrafted beaded jewelry may or may not have formal training. Rather than create the gold or silver used in their jewelry, these artisans purchase those materials.
In addition to purchasing metals, beaded jewelry artisans must also purchase gemstones, crystals, glass or other materials. The quality of these materials plus the skills, expertise and creativity of the artisan will ultimately determine the beauty and durability of their jewelry. What’s important for you, the consumer, is to know what you’re buying. This article will help you to make informed choices about purchasing handcrafted beaded jewelry.
When buying jewelry you have several choices of metal. Most often gold and silver is used by fabricated artisans. However, beaded jewelry artisans can and do use these same metals. Because gold is the most expensive metal at this point in time, even more expensive than platinum, beaded jewelry artists will likely use gold filled metal, gold plated or gold vermeil as well as sterling silver, fine silver or argentium silver in their jewelry. When shopping for beaded handcrafted jewelry, it’s important to learn about each metal.
1. The “K” in Karat: We begin with the karat because the karat is a very old measure of how much gold is in an alloy, or gold-blend. A measure of 1 Karat is 1 part of pure gold and 23 parts of metal alloy or 4% gold. So 24K is 100% pure gold, 9K is 37%, 14K is 58% and 18K is 75%. You get the idea.
2. Gold filled: To be called “gold filled”, the quantity of gold must be at least 1/20th by weight of the total product. This is commonly known as 14/20, 12/20 or 10/20 or 14K, 12K or 10K gold filled. By far, 14k gold filled metal is the best of the filled golds. There’s 100 times more gold in 14k gold filled metal than in gold plate. Gold filled metal is also called rolled-gold. A thick covering of gold, 5% or 1/20 of the total weight, is mechanically bonded to a base metal, usually brass or copper. This is gold filled metal. It’s hard wearing, will not flake or peel and should last as long as 14K gold when properly cared for.
3. Gold plate: When it comes to gold plating, steel or brass is dipped into a bath of electroplating solution along with a lump of solid gold. When an electric current is applied, a thin layer of gold is deposited on the metal. Since the plating is quite thin, the plate, and hence the color, will definitely wear off rather quickly. The result is an unattractive flaking and peeling of this very thin layer of gold.
4. Gold Vermeil: Sterling silver is chosen as the base metal of gold vermeil and is plated with layers of 18K, 22K or 24K gold. The difference between gold filled and gold vermeil is the purity of the gold as well as the thickness of the gold and the base metal. This is why gold vermeil is more expensive than gold filled metal. It’s also why 24K gold is the best choice when choosing vermeil.
5. Sterling Silver: Sterling is a mixture of pure silver and some other metal, usually copper. The resulting alloy gives the silver strength. The standard is at least 92.5% recycled silver. Hence the .925 stamp you see on some sterling silver items. While sterling silver is subject to tarnishing, the more it’s worn, the better it looks. Of course sterling has to be properly taken care of to look its best, so wearing your silver and taking good care of it will keep a smile on your face.
6. Silver Filled: Silver filled findings and chains are also available to artisans. Because the price of silver has been high, some manufacturers have produced a silver filled product at far less cost than sterling silver. Silver filled metal is either 1/20 or 1/10 bonded to a base metal, like zinc, steel or brass. Like gold plated jewelry, silver plate is very inexpensive compared to sterling silver. While a 1/20 silver coating may be preferable to a 1/10 coating, the product is definitely inferior and will not hold up over time.
7. Hill Tribe Silver: Hill Tribe Silver is made of .999 pure silver.
Although there are several hill tribe ethnic groups, the beads, chains and findings individually handcrafted by the Karen Hill Tribe artisans are quite remarkable and possibly the best available. Some beading artisans are very fond of Hill Tribe Silver because of the uniqueness and quality of the pieces. They are made by villagers living in the mountainous forests of northwest Thailand. The largest of the hill tribes, over 400,000 tribe members, live in this region with a history dating back to the 12th century. These incredible artisans continue to make Hill Tribe Silver with ancient tools just as their ancestors did. There is no substitute for Hill Tribe Silver, and it is expensive.
8. Bali Sterling Silver: Bali sterling silver is also quite popular with beading artisans. It is made on the island of Bali in Indonesia in the Indian Ocean. The Balinese are highly skilled silversmiths and goldsmiths, known for their granulation and wirework decoration. Their sterling silver is made from 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. The Balinese also make Bali 24K gold vermeil beads, spacers, toggles and other jewelry findings. These, like their sterling silver cousins are magnificent, expensive and highly prized by beading artisans. Always ask an artisan if their Bali findings are the real thing. There are some artisans who use “Bali Style” findings. These are a cheap imitation.
9. Argentium Sterling Silver: The best argentium sterling silver is created in 935 and 960 percent grades. Argentium must be above the 92.5% content of sterling silver. Argentium sterling silver is favored by both silversmiths and beading artisans. This metal is absolutely vibrant. In fact, it is brighter than platinum, white gold or sterling silver. While silversmiths tend to use the 960 grade, beading artisans use what argentium manufacturers produce. The guarantee is that argentium sterling silver contains more recycled silver than sterling, so you know you are getting more than 92.5% silver in argentium. One major benefit of argentium silver is that it is very low maintenance, easy to care for and beautiful.
Jewelry Findings & Components
It’s important to know what metal is used in what is known as jewelry “findings”. Findings and components are the many and varied staples beading artists use to make their jewelry. Some of these materials are visible, others are not. It’s acceptable to combine 14K gold filled metal with gold vermeil, or gold metal with gold filled metal and/or sterling silver. Some artisans even combine 14K filled gold with 14K gold. However, never buy jewelry if plated findings are combined with higher quality metals because the plated metal will eventually peel, break, bend, twist and ultimately ruin the piece. It’s quite rare for a beading artist to combine metals this way, however, it’s fine for you to ask what kind of metal findings an artisan uses. You have a right to know.
There’s so much to learn about colored gemstones! The entire colored gemstone world is infinitely complex. For the purpose of this article, the ICA, International Colored Gemstone Association, is just one excellent online resource among many others. In addition to reading about gemstones, seeing, touching and asking questions are also other important ways to educate yourself about the quality of the natural stones in the jewelry you choose.
The diamond industry is tightly regulated and sets uniform prices and standards for grades of stones. The colored gemstone business is very different. There is no standard grading system for color, cut, and clarity that’s used by every jeweler so pricing can be very arbitrary.
You’ve probably read or heard artisans reference categories in their descriptions of colored gemstones as AAAA, AAA, AA, A etcetera. Though widely used, these categories are not standardized. Some gemstone dealers might refer to a particular gemstone as AAA, which is not telling you much because another gemstone dealer may refer to the same gemstone as A.
When it comes to colored gemstones, the sky’s the limit when it comes to learning about the complex world of these precious and semi precious stones. However, knowing something about the four C’s:color, cut, clarity and carat, will help you to decide what jewelry is right for you.
1. Color: The color of a particular gemstone has the greatest impact on its value. The color should be pure, vibrant, even and fully saturated without being too dark or too light.
Since there are so many variations in gemstone colors, you’ll probably be drawn by the colors you love most. People seem to have an internal color compass and gravitate to certain colors at various times in their lives for a variety of reasons. This makes choosing gemstone jewelry always a very personal choice.
2.Cut: The cut of a gemstone effects the amount of brilliance the gemstone radiates to the eye. Gemstones that are well-cut will always enhance the color of a stone, while poorly cut gemstones can look drab, dead and lifeless.
Don’t confuse the cut of a gemstone with itsshape. The shape of a gemstone can be round, oval, square, marquis, heart, pear, cube and so forth. The cut of a gemstone refers to the art and science of gemstone cutting from a piece of rough.
A gemstone cutter takes a piece of rough, studies it and then creates a plan to cut the stone. This is both a scientific and a creative process that evolves through several stages. Gemstone cutting is a fascinating and time consuming process. Click on the link if you’re interested in learning about the step by step process of cutting a gemstone from rough. It’s worth the time to learn about this process.
3. Clarity: What’s important to know is that colored gems are, according to the GIA, Gemological Institute of America’s Colored Stone Grading Workbook, basically divided into three types for the purpose of grading clarity. Of course there’s a much more complicated process for the overall grading of colored gemstones, but we can leave that to the professional gemologists.
The GIA describes these distinctions as:
a. Type I Colored Stones (Often virtually inclusion-free).
b.Type II Colored Stones (Usually Included).
c. Type III Colored Stones (Almost always included).
An “inclusion” is a naturally-occurring imperfection in a gemstone, for example: feathers, crystals, needles, clouds and pinpoints, which can sometimes be seen with the naked eye. A jewelers loupe can magnify the internal structure of gemstones up to 60 times or more, so what isn’t seen by the naked eye can be seen with the use of the loupe. A truly flawless colored gemstone is very rare and often very small.
There are colored gemstones that are treated, heated or otherwise enhanced. Mystic topaz, for example, is a natural topaz gemstone that has been color enhanced by bonding it with a fine layer of titanium atoms in a process called vacuum deposition. This creates a flashy rainbow of colors across the surface of the gemstone, similar to bright light moving through a prism. The light displays a rainbow of colors or certain color spectrums depending on angle and depth that is bonded to the topaz. Only the best quality of pure colorless topaz stones are used for this color enhancement. This is a positive use of treatment. If a stone is dyed, filled, heat treated, irradiated or otherwise enhanced, the buyer should be told since some treatments aren’t durable. Beading artists who create quality jewelry almost always use natural stones. Since you want to know what you’re paying for, it’s always good to ask.
There’s a wealth of information to be learned about gemstone clarity, but for the purpose of this article, keeping in mind the 4C’s offers good information so you can make wise choices.
4. Carat: The carat is actually a unit of mass and density. Because the structure of diamonds is the same, regardless of size, they can be measured in carats. (The exception would be a very small diamond which is measured in points, where each point equals 0.01, or one-hundredth, of a carat).
While it’s common to speak of colored gemstones in terms of carats, just remember that colored gemstones of the same weight aren’t necessarily the same size. Because some gemstones are more dense than others they pack more weight into a smaller space. This is why colored gemstones are also measured in millimeters, mm.
A Final Word About Colored Gemstones
Beading artisans don’t purchase their gemstones from artisan gemstone cutters since the cost of the stones is prohibitive for them.
So where do beading artisans purchase their stones? Very good gemstones can be purchased from reputable gemstone manufacturers and exporters, predominantly from China and India. Some of these companies may have suppliers in the United States. Because these companies sell wholesale to designers worldwide, they will require a resale certificate as proof that the stones purchased will be used to create and sell jewelry.
Artisans can also purchase colored gemstones from American suppliers who may sell either wholesale or retail. These companies procure their colored gemstones from a variety of foreign vendors and the quality, as well as the pricing, varies widely. Artisans who buy wholesale rather than retail have to provide a resale certificate. Artisans should expect pricing to be on the higher side than when dealing with foreign manufacturers and exporters, since as the middle man, the company adds a higher profit margin.
There are many gemstone suppliers available to jewelry designers. The quality of their products and pricing differs widely. In the final analysis, beading artisans have to do their work to find the quality they want at the price they’re able and willing to pay.
CRYSTAL BLING & The LURE of GLASS
Beading jewelry artists have a wealth of man made crystal and handcrafted glass from which to choose in designing their jewelry. We’ll take a brief look at Swarovski crystal, lampwork glass and Italian Venetian Murano hand blown glass since these are materials often used by beading artisans.
1. Swarovski Crystal: In 1892, Daniel Swarovski invented a revolutionary machine that allowed crystal to be cut more precisely than by hand. Over the past 120 years Swarovski has made other great improvements so that as of December 31, 2011, the company reports that their crystal business has 26,140 employees, that their owner operated boutiques and concessions number 1,218, and that their partner-operated boutiques number 1,000.
There’s no doubt that Swarovskis big business, nor that it is very popular in the jewelry designed by beading artisans. Swarovskibeads are perfectly cut man made crystals that reflect all the colors in the gemstone world and more. Plus, they are very easy to work with. Beads cut with man made holes are perfect and just the right size for beading so there’s no need to use an electric drill as there sometimes is when working with natural gemstone beads.
Without a doubt, when it comes to purchasing man made crystals, the color, quality, bling, glitter and dazzle of Swarovskireigns supreme. Whether you want a little or a lot of glitz, you’ll find plenty of gorgeous artisan jewelry fashioned with Swarovskicrystals. You may want to click the link to learn more about the evolution of Swarovski products. Even in this informative history, the company won’t “tell all” its manufacturing secrets. But there’s nothing wrong with a bit of mystery, is there?
2. Lampwork Glass: Glass has been around for a very long time. There’s evidence of the origins of the hollow glass industry in the glass fragments that were found in Mesopotamia in the 16th century BC.
The most common forms of lampwork glass is soda-lime glass, a soft glass, and borosilicate, a hard glass. Lead crystal is a form of glass which has a much higher index of refraction than other glass, and consequently much greater “sparkle”. Lead is used in Italian Venetian Murano glass.
The work that lampwork glass artists create using their torches and rods of glass both is rich and plentiful. There are a wealth of gorgeous glass beads and pendants that are handmade by some wonderful lampwork artisans. The only words of advice I can offer are to follow your eyes. By carefully looking at glass beads and pendants, both large and small, you’ll find yourself gravitating to what pleases you most.
Each artist has their own level of skill, creativity, and sometimes just plain luck, as they say. The colors, patterns and designs are limitless, so you will be surprised and delighted by the incredibly beautiful work you’ll find in the designs of beading artists. To learn more about lampwork beads, you may want to view the work of the Top 100 Lampwork Artists.
3. Italian Murano Glass has a history that is truly fascinating. While Venetian glass production dates back as far as 982, it wasn’t until 1291 that all the furnaces in Venice were moved to the Island of Murano in order to protect Venice from the risk of fire. Thus, Venetian glass and Murano glass are one and the same. The Island of Murano is still active today in producing the desirable and incredibly beautiful glass beads artisans use today in their jewelry.
There are no assembly lines creating Murano glass beads. Genuine Murano beads are made one bead at a time. A single glass bead is hand formed on a copper wire and then the wire is dissolved using nitric acid. The bead hole is clean all the way through. There are “imitation” Murano beads that are mass produced in places like China and India. They are made when several beads are formed on a single steel mandrel that has been coated with a liquid releasing agent. When the beads slid are removed, the hole is coated with the white powder remains of the releasing agent. It’s not an attractive sight!
Beading artisans favor Murano glass for the depth of color, sparkle and the many techniques used to incorporate and produce a variety of beads that almost feel magical. The beauty, depth and richness of Murano beads abounds with a history of a culture and people committed to excellence in their craft. For more information on the history and varieties of Murano glass, you may want tovisit The Glass of Venice Blog.
Beaded jewelry designers are proud of their work and are pleased when a prospective customer asks about their jewelry. Hopefully, this article has provided you with enough information so that you can ask questions and make wise decisions when buying handcrafted beaded jewelry.