All about Argentium

Learn the fundamentals and benefits of working with this low-tarnish, fusible silver alloy
Argentium
Photo courtesy of Creative Side Jewelry Academy of Austin

What if sterling silver didn’t develop ugly black firescale during soldering? What if it could be fused like fine silver or gold? What if it could be heat hardened? What if sterling silver jewelry took years to tarnish?

That’s the reality of Argentium sterling silver, a relatively new, finer sterling silver alloy. Argentium contains more silver (93.5%) than traditional sterling (92.5%) does, but replaces a small percentage of the usual added copper with an equal amount of germanium. The magic is in the germanium, which preferentially migrates to the metal surface where it forms a transparent oxide layer that protects the silver and copper.

The changes are more than surface deep, however, and treating Argentium like conventional sterling silver is a recipe for frustration. Instead, view Argentium as a totally different material with its own working methods. You may find yourself wondering why you would ever return to classic sterling silver.

Heating Argentium

Annealed Argentium sterling silver is much more malleable than traditional sterling silver, which is a huge advantage for all types of forming. A side effect of this malleability is the tendency for thin metal to slump during heating, so it’s critical to support the work when applying heat in order to minimize unwanted distortion. Conversely, deliberate slumping can become a design element.

Argentium a
Photo a
Courtesy of Brigitte Wilson, 7 Elements Studio
Annealing

Although firestain (cuprous oxide) will not form on Argentium, excessive heat for pro-longed periods will lead to a roughening of the surface [PHOTO A]. Any rough patches can be sanded away, but there are ways you can help avoid this effect. First, minimize oxygen exposure by using a hard, compressed-charcoal block when annealing, soldering, or fusing. The hard charcoal block creates a reducing atmosphere.
Tip!
NOTE: Don’t use a soft charcoal block; it may combust and melt the Argentium.
Argentium b
Photo b
Photo by Vickie Hallmark
Second, adjust your expectations in terms of color indicators when annealing Argentium. It does not glow as brightly as traditional sterling does when heated, so don’t aim for red hot. Mark the surface with a black permanent marker; the marks will disappear as the metal nears annealing temperature.

A better guide is the color of the flame near the metal — not the metal itself! The flame will become distinctly orange at or above the annealing temperature [PHOTO B]. Also, Argentium does not transfer heat as readily as traditional sterling does, so be sure to thoroughly anneal the entire piece. 

Cooling

Water-quenching hot Argentium will cause it to crack or break. Allow the metal to cool before moving it, and use a light touch with your tweezers. Applying too much pressure can distort the metal, which is why cross-locking tweezers and binding wire are also not recommended. Move the hot metal gently to a steel bench block, which will act as a heat sink, or simply allow the metal to cool on the charcoal block before dipping it in water.
Argentium c
Photo c
Photo by Vickie Hallmark
Balling up wire

Conventional sterling silver wire forms asymmetric, rough ends when balled up due to firescale (cupric oxide). The lack of firescale formation for Argentium leads to beautiful, perfectly smooth balls of silver. To draw a ball on a wire, hold the wire vertically with a pair of tweezers. Direct a hot oxidizing flame at the lower end of the wire until it melts and draws upward into a ball [PHOTO C]. A bit of practice will help you learn how much wire is needed to form a ball of a predictable size.
 
When working with conventional sterling silver, forming a second ball on the opposite end of the wire is difficult. The high thermal conductivity of sterling silver makes it difficult to heat a small area because the adjacent metal acts as a heat sink. The poor thermal conductivity of Argentium allows for spot heating. After the first ball cools, insert the balled wire through the pieces to be connected. Trim the excess wire with a cutter, leaving just enough to form the ball without binding. Use a tight oxidizing flame oriented cross-wise to minimize collateral heating, and focus the flame on just the tip of the wire connection, which will easily draw up into a second ball.  

Heat-hardening 

Work-hardening is a common technique to improve the strength of metal jewelry. However, not every piece of jewelry is amenable to work-hardening. Some metals can also be heat-hardened, but in the case of conventional sterling silver this requires an inert atmosphere to prevent the formation of firescale. Easy heat-hardening of Argentium is possible because of its lack of firescale formation. Pieces that might be otherwise left in an annealed state, such as castings or delicate forgings, can be hardened by a factor of approximately two. The process is simple: Just place the piece in a household oven or kiln for two hours at 570°F (299°C).

Fusing Argentium

Argentium is much easier to fuse than fine silver. Because it is a pure metal, fine silver fuses at its well-defined melting point, and thus requires quick reflexes to pull away the heat and to avoid an un-sightly bump at the seam. Because Argentium is an alloy, it has a broad temperature range over which fusing occurs, so the process is more relaxed and controlled. With smaller projects, like the Argentium Floral Pendant, a butane torch can take the place of a gas-oxygen torch. With practice, you can flick the torch flame on and off the metal to maintain the fusing temperature as you check the piece carefully for complete joins. Of course, too much heat can melt Argentium, just like any other metal.
Tip!
When fusing Argentium, use a charcoal block mounted on a rotating base. This allows the work to be easily moved and viewed from all sides.
Fusing wire to wire

Wire forms are widely used as ring shanks, links in chain, jump rings, rims to reinforce edges, or surface decorations. Working with round wire is the easiest way to begin learning the techniques for forming Argentium. As with any other metal fabrication, the desired wire shapes must have tight-fitting joins — you can always refine the shapes after fusing.

Flux each wire shape with a self-pickling yellow flux, such as My-T-Flux or Batterns flux, then place it on the hard charcoal block.
Tip!
NOTE: Avoid using paste flux with Argentium, since it will pit the metal.
Argentium d
Photo d
Photo by Vickie Hallmark
Using a torch tip that produces a small, easily directed flame, first warm the wire on the side opposite the join; as the metal expands, this will close, rather than open, the gap. Then heat the entire ring evenly. The flux will turn white, then brown, and finally clear as the fusing temperature is neared, and the flame at the surface of the metal will turn orange [PHOTO D].

Once the flux clears, concentrate the heat a bit more on either side of the join itself, watching for the quick silver flash of fusing metal. During fusing, the flux droplets on the surface will appear to skitter around like water drops. Add just enough heat by moving the flame on and off the metal to maintain this fusing temperature until the seam closes. Complete closure may take time as the metal actually flows into the gap.
Tip!
NOTE: Remember to let the metal cool, then quench it in water.
Argentium e
Photo e
Courtesy of Brigitte Wilson, 7 Elements Studio
Argentium f
Photo f
Photo by Vickie Hallmark

Fusing wire to sheet

When you fuse wire to sheet, leave extra space around the wire edge, as the metal edges may draw in if the metal is heated at the fusing point for some time. You can trim the pieces after fusing. Again, slumping is a concern, so support sheet and formed pieces on a smooth surface to prevent distortion. Be careful not to overheat the metal: Wire may actually sink into the sheet and leave a shadow on the back if overheated [PHOTO E].

Use your torch without a tip to create a more diffused heat, and heat the entire piece by moving the torch flame in a circular pattern to build a “cone of heat” over the metal. 

After the orange flame appears (indicating that the annealing temperature has been reached) [PHOTO F] and the flux clears, watch carefully for the seam between the wire and the sheet to flow with a flash of molten metal, similar to the flow of solder. 

Once fusing begins, maintain the temperature (without overheating) long enough to ensure that all seams are securely fused. 

Mixing metals

Argentium will fuse to many metals, including fine silver, copper, brass, gold, and steel. While Argentium will not form firescale, those other metals may.

Fine silver and high-karat gold are particularly well matched to fuse with Argentium because of their lack of firescale formation. In particular, using fine-silver metal clay is an excellent way to create quick sculptural elements to combine with traditional fabricated sheet and wire. 

The fusing process is similar to that already described, with a few caveats. Fine silver heats faster than Argentium, so take care to heat it a bit more slowly (but not too slowly, which will encourage roughening) and evenly. Fine silver will not develop the bright shiny “liquid” surface Argentium develops when reaching fusing temperature, but will instead remain matte white. Argentium may flow over the edges of fine silver components as fusing occurs. Some moderate flow at the edges is desirable to indicate a good fuse, but do not attempt to completely cover the fine silver with Argentium, as melting or loss of detail may occur. The Argentium-covered area will not be apparent after the piece is pickled and polished. 

Granulation

Granulation is an ancient decorative surface technique typically associated with high-karat gold. Because Argentium works more like gold than traditional sterling silver, granulation is well suited to the metal.

Form (or buy) tiny, smooth, evenly sized balls of Argentium, carefully place them in decorative patterns on a prepared Argentium surface, and then fuse them into place. You can also fuse gold granules to Argentium; this is an elegant way to add the gleam of gold to less-expensive silver. 

Forming granules

The key to forming evenly sized granules is to cut equal lengths of metal. An easy and inexpensive tool for this is available at the nearest hardware store — a large washer! 

Tip!
NOTE: To prevent round wire bits from rolling away during preparation, first roll the wire through a rolling mill or use a hammer to flatten it.
Argentium g
Photo g
Photo by Vickie Hallmark
Argentium h
Photo h
Photo by Vickie Hallmark

Hold the wire vertically in the center of the washer so that the end of the wire is against your work surface. Rest flush cutters on the top of the washer, and cut the wire [PHOTO G]. Repeat until you have as many snippets as you want. Be sure to cut some extra, just in case. The washer will help corral the snippets. Finer wire and a thinner washer will yield smaller granules by reducing the volume of metal in each snippet.

Place the snippets on a smooth charcoal block, with space between them. Support the charcoal block at an angle, with the lower end over a bowl of clean water. Use a torch with a tip for fine control to heat and ball up the snippets. Start with the snippets closest to the water. As each snippet draws into a ball, it will roll into the water below [PHOTO H]. This ensures the balls will be spherical, with no flat spot on one side, as would be the case if left to cool on the block.

While pickling Argentium usually isn’t necessary (since there should be no firescale), pickling your granules is a good idea if any charcoal has adhered to them. The charcoal will typically burn off during fusing, but it may be harder to properly place the granules on your work. Collect the granules in a small plastic strainer and pickle them before use.

Cleaning and pickling argentium

Since Argentium does not form firescale, cleaning it may be as simple as removing flux, which can be done with boiling water. If a stronger action is needed, vinegar and salt make a safe and effective pickle. Heat 2 cups (473.18 mL) of household white vinegar with 1 Tbsp (14.787 mL) of table salt in a crock pot (reserved for nonfood use). After use, the vinegar-and-salt solution can be poured down the drain.

Tip!
NOTE: Unlike larger Argentium pieces, the hot granules can be dropped directly into the water because they have such little mass, they cool quickly and don’t develop much of  a temperature gradient. The temperature gradient is what can lead to stress-cracking when hot Argentium is quenched.
Argentium i
Photo i
Photo by Vickie Hallmark
Argentium j
Photo j
Photo by Vickie Hallmark

Placing the granules

Mix a small amount of equal parts water and flux. Use a fine-tip paintbrush to lightly wet the granules and move them into position [PHOTO I]. Granules typically rest against a rim or other support to provide an extra point of attachment. A triangle of three granules or more extensive hexagonal packing is often used in traditional granulation. Ensure that each granule is touching both the rim and all its neighboring granules. Some finesse may be needed to fit the last few granules; choose slightly larger or smaller granules to fit the gap. Allow the flux to dry completely before attempting to fuse; this will prevent the granules from moving too much as the flux is heated.

For curved surfaces such as a bail, form the metal before placing the granules. Forming the metal after fusing the granules is difficult and may open gaps between granules. 

Fusing granules

Gently heat the piece with your torch. The flux will expand and contract as it heats, so check the positions of all the granules while warming. If any granules move out of position, use a pick to gently push them back into place while the flux is warm. Once everything is positioned as desired, fuse the granules to the sheet, taking time to ensure that every granule develops good connections to the base and all its neighbors. 

For curved structures, it is critical to anticipate potential slumping issues. Support narrow, curved structures, like a bail, on its edge. This offers the most resistance to gravity once it is heated [PHOTO J]. 

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