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Glossary of Jewelry Material Terminology

Glossary of Jewelry Material Terminology | Eclectic Affinity

To get started with jewelry making, it’s useful knowing the composition of your materials. Different materials need different care and handling. Additionally, things like metal allergies and material safety are factors as well. Here’s a breakdown of some basic terms.


Metals fall into 3 main categories—precious metals, base metals, and platings. Precious metals include metals like silver, gold, platinum, and the like. “Filled” or “overlay” metals (e.g. silver fill, gold overlay) differ from plating in that the thickness of the applied precious metal is 50 to 100s of times thicker than standard plating. The term “base metal” simply denotes any metal that is not a precious metal (e.g. brass, copper, etc.). Base metals are often or usually made of various alloys and may also be plated. Plating denotes metal that’s had a thin layer of another metal applied over it.

  • Karat Gold is a precious metal. It is made of 24 parts of metal. For example, If something is said to be 24 karat gold, it’s pure gold. If something is said to be 14 karat gold, that means 14 parts out of 24 are gold, and the remaining 10 are other metals.
  • Fine Silver is a precious metal. It is at least 99.9% pure silver (.999), making it a higher percentage of silver than even sterling silver.
  • Sterling Silver is a precious metal. It is made from an alloy of at leaset 92.5% (.925) silver and (usually) copper. It has a brilliant shine; it can also be antiqued to a dark black.
  • Gold Fill, also called gold overlay, has a surface of karat gold that is applied to a less costly base. This overlay process differs from gold plate in that the minimum thickness required must be at least 1/20 the total weight of the whole.
  • Silver Fill is created by applying a layer of fine or sterling silver to a less costly base, producing a surface layer of sterling or fine silver. Typically, this layer is hundreds of times thicker than silver plate, making it a viable alternative to sterling or fine silver.
  • Niobium is a nickel-free inert metal. Because it contains no additives, it is a reliable and safe metal for wear by most people with metal allergies. For this reason, it is often used in medical implants.
  • Stainless Steel is a base metal. It describes a wide-range of iron-based metals. Surgical stainless is a narrow class of stainless. Stainless and surgical stainless may contain small levels of nickel.
  • Brass is a base metal made of an alloy of copper, zinc, and sometimes other metals. It is typically 70% copper and 30% zinc.
  • Copper is a base metal. It is a warm, reddish-orange metal. Over time it will gain a patina. It may discolor skin, though most commonly on very tight-fitting jewelry such as rings or tight bracelets.
  • Nickle Silver, also called German silver, is a base-metal alloy of nickel, copper and zinc. Though it it is silver in color, it does not contain sterling silver.
  • White Metal, a base metal, is a term for tin-based alloys. The exact composition varies.
  • Pewter, also a base metal, is one form (of many) white metals. Vintage pewter may have a slight lead content, but contemporary pewter typically meets lead-free criteria.
  • Permanently-Colored Wire, Plated Wire, and/or Enameled Wire typically has a tarnish-resistant coating. Coating may be any number of colors. The base of these wires may be copper, silver-plated, and others. Plated wires, if scratched, may expose the wire base.


  • Gemstones are either made by nature or are lab-grown simulations with the same chemical, physical, and optical characteristics. There are many, many varieties of gemstones.
  • Freshwater Pearls are a type of gemstone. Pearls are an organic gem created by oysters and other mollusks when a foreign object such as a stone or piece of sand enters their shell. Cultured pearls are those in which people rather than nature implant material in mollusks that are looked after.  Nearly all pearls available today are cultured pearls, so the word “pearl” should be understood to be cultured unless specifically stated otherwise. Colored pearls are often enhanced, dyed, or electroplated to give them their color.
  • Crystals are fired using a composite of natural minerals and quartz sand, and then slowly cooled to avoid inclusions, making them very sparkly. Most non-naturally occurring crystal (i.e. lead crystal or leaded glass) has a degree of lead; that’s what makes the crystal sparkle like it does. This form of lead is a lead oxide (PbO), which does not pose the same threat as metallic lead (Pb). Even so, exercise caution and keep out of reach of children.
  • Czech Glass describes a glass bead-making process that originated in Czech Republic. Glass is pressed into a mold, then possibly re-fired (as is the case with fire-polish beads) to polish over cut facets or irregularities.
  • Seed Beads are a very small tube bead, often referred to as Japanese seed beads or Czech seed beads, per their style and hole size.
  • Upcycled Components are objects that were formerly something else but were transformed into something used within a jewelry design. These components may be found, everyday objects or they may be antique or vintage objects. Note that components that are antique and/or were not made with the original intent to be used in jewelry might potentially be subject to being outside ever-evolving material requirements in jewelry. If you don’t know the origin or material of a component, use with discretion particularly with direct skin contact if there’s any chance the item could contain lead or other toxic materials; and as always, keep jewelry away from small children.



Designer & Illustrator | owner of Charm Design Studio, LLC.

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