Monday, May 23, 2011

A Journey of Making: The Chemistry of Art

By: Erica Delp

When I began metalworking a few months ago, I was thrilled with the prospect of developing a new skill set to create more wearable works of art. What I naively did not expect was that I would need to know quite a bit of science before beginning. Time to dust off those eleventh grade chemistry books!

So much of working with metal stems from developing a firm knowledge elements and their properties. Remember Au, Cu and Ag, better known as Gold, Copper and Silver? Each of them has unique properties, such as specific melting points, malleability and hardness. I believe that I must have learned this somewhere in my grade school education, but since I had no practical reason to put this knowledge to use, I had since forgotten it (haven’t we all?). But in the workshop, this information is relevant and needed to produce the result you are looking for in a piece of jewelry. Each metal has its own personality and quirks, in a way. It’s up to you, as a jeweler, to learn it inside and out so that you can work with it as a skilled professional.

My first lesson that Silver taught me is that it reaches melting point more quickly than I anticipated. Sterling Silver melts at 1640 degrees Fahrenheit to be precise . Silver also has the most thermal conductivity of any metal, which basically means, heat travels through it very quickly. In a matter of seconds, your piece can go from wonderfully shapeable to a rippled mess if you aren’t careful. Having this head knowledge about Silver to combine with the hands on experience of observing the look and feel of the metal as it goes through changes has given me the foundation that I need to gain confidence and be adventurous as a craftsman.

My advice to anyone else who is new to metalworking is to spend some time hitting the books to give yourself a good scientific foundation for building beautiful pieces. You’ll be so glad that you did when you see the results of your work!

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