All of my pieces are slowly crafted with my own two hands and the inspiration behind my brand comes from the many horses that have touched my life over the years.
Now, whether you want to make a ring for yourself or begin a very fulfilling hobby or profession as a silversmith or metalsmith, this guide will talk you through the 10 things I WISH I knew before I began my journey as a silversmith.
1. Tools Of The Trade:
I strongly advise against purchasing the all encompassing “Silversmithing Kits”. Many of the tools you need, you can find at your local hardware store for half the price and you should buy them one at a time based on the project you are working on. I have so many tools I bought when starting out that I never use or that were not right for me. Later I learned to buy the version that works best with my style. Acquire your tools slowly over time and you will save a lot of money and space on your workbench.
2. Safety First:
The silversmithing process can involve harsh chemicals and materials that require proper consideration from a safety standpoint. Below is a list of items you need in order to safely work on your craft:
Bench Top Fume Extractor: This is a crucial item to have on your workbench while you work. It safely removes harmful fumes released during soldering by sucking them in and filtering them through a carbon filter.
Respirator Mask: This should be worn while soldering, grinding, sanding, and polishing. During these processes, you are creating a lot of dust and fumes that should NOT be inhaled. A good mask worn properly will reduce your exposure to these harmful elements.
Protective Glasses: These should be worn during the soldering, grinding, sanding, and polishing processes as well. When grinding and polishing, you are removing tiny shards of silver that can get in your eyes. I often have to clean my glasses in the middle of the polishing process from all the silver debris covering the lenses.
Fire Extinguisher: Last but certainly not least, anytime you are working with an open flame you must have a fire extinguisher within arm’s reach. And make sure you know how to use it! In the midst of a fire is not the time to try and figure out how to pull the pin and aim the extinguisher.
*This is not a complete list. Refer to warnings and instructions on all tools and materials you work with.
3. Hone Your Skills:
There is nothing worse than breaking a precious stone and wasting material. At the beginning of your silversmithing journey, you will find yourself overheating and melting pieces, failing to get the solder to properly flow, cracking stones, etc. I strongly suggest you hone your skills on simple inexpensive projects before trying your hand on that masterpiece you’ve been dreaming about.
If this is your first time making any soldered piece of jewelry, start with a simple ring band. Once you get the hang of that, try your hand at a stamped ring band, or a wider ring band. Once you have conquered the ring band, move on to something more challenging. If your goal is to create a piece with a stone, start with a larger stone as it is easier to form a bezel around a larger stone than a smaller one. And start with an inexpensive more forgiving stone like Onyx. Onyx is very strong, less likely to crack, and won’t break the bank if you mess up and need to buy another. If you do mess up a piece, don’t worry about it, it happens! It is all part of the process and the journey and it can often be the best way to learn.
4. Save Your Scrap Silver:
All of it! At the beginning of my journey I had a bad habit of discarding any ruined pieces out of frustration. However, there are many uses for scrap silver. One of my favorite uses is using the scrap as an added backing to stones that are too short for their bezel. The scrap can make an excellent “lift” for your stone. Native Americans have been using this technique of lifting a stone to properly fit in the bezel setting for generations.
Another use that I love for my silver scraps is making small balls (also known as shot)! You can cut up your scraps into small pieces and melt them down with your torch into perfectly round balls that can be incorporated into your piece! You can also transform these decorative balls into little star embellishments using a shot plate! See photo below:
Lastly, if you have more scrap than you know what to do with (like me) you can send your scrap to a silver refinery and get paid for it!
5. Stay Organized:
Having a well organized workbench where everything has its place is crucial. There is nothing worse than ruining a piece while working on it because the tool you needed wasn’t in reach. Organizing your tools based on each step can be very helpful, i.e. having all your soldering tools in one separate area on your workbench, or your polishing tool bits stored in one convenient drawer.
Labeling items can be a make or break! With soldering, you may need to use 3 different types of solder depending on the size of your project. When there are multiple solder joints in a piece, it requires multiple types of solder. You don’t want to re-melt a joint you just soldered while you are in the process of soldering another joint. The different melting temperatures will keep you from re-flowing a previous solder joint. The different solders, Hard, Medium, and Easy all look identical, therefore it is very important to make sure you label them and keep them separate from each other.
6. Not All Stones Are Equal:
Buying stones is my favorite part of the whole silversmithing process. There are endless stones available on the market! But the endless supply can be quite overwhelming. It is extremely important to make sure you are buying from a reputable lapidarist. If you are buying stones off Etsy, you can simply read the reviews from past customers on the quality of the stones. However, if you are like me and want to purchase your stones through Instagram , you will need to do some more research. I typically buy all my stones from US sellers. I will carefully inspect their stones and look for cracks/defects in the stones. I will also look at their tagged photos in their Instagram page to see if other silversmiths are using their stones. I almost always buy stones that are stabilized or backed when it comes to Turquoise. Turquoise is a much softer stone, therefore it needs added strength. This thin layer of backing provides a shock pad for the stone while also allowing the stone to sit above the bezel.
7. The Silver Market
Silver prices are market dependent and extremely volatile. This means the price of silver fluctuates every single day. Sometimes it’s only by 20 cents, other days it can be a couple dollars. It’s important to educate yourself on the price of silver, by checking the history in the last year of how much it has increased and decreased before buying in bulk. If silver seems high for the day, and you are in desperate need, I would only buy exactly what you need. If silver is at its lowest point for the week, this would be a good time to buy your bigger bulk. You can track the silver prices for the day, month, year and even the past 20 years on the website marketsinsider.com. Studying the price of silver is also extremely important if you plan to sell your jewelry. Since the price of silver can vary greatly year to year, your prices for your pieces will have to reflect that variance and you need to communicate this variance to your customers so they understand possible inconsistencies in your pricing.
8. Selling Your Jewelry:
Now, when it comes to pricing your goods, you aren’t simply pricing material and labor, you are pricing the cost of running your own business as well (marketing, advertising, branding, accounting, etc.) and the cost of gathering and learning your skills. To determine how much material (aka silver) goes into every piece, you will want to weigh your entire piece BEFORE you set the stone. This will give you the amount in ounces of silver you used based on the market price for that day. You will then need to take into account the price you paid for the stone (if applicable) along with your hours of labor that were put into the piece. After you have gathered your expenses for the actual product, you should then factor in a set markup that covers the cost of your business and craft. This markup will vary based on how much time and effort has gone into establishing your craft, brand, and business. Oftentimes when starting out, you will sell your pieces lower than the market value to gain credibility. Once you begin to hone your skills as a silversmith, gain more experience, and your craftsmanship improves, you can start selling your pieces for what they are worth.
9. Caring For Your Jewelry:
Once you have a small collection made, it is important to properly take care and store your jewelry so it doesn’t lose that lustrous shine! Sterling silver will naturally tarnish over time due to sulfates in the air which causes your piece to oxidize. When the surface layer of your piece oxidizes, your piece will start to look dull and slightly discolored. It is important to store your pieces in a dry enclosed area. My recommendation is to use air tight anti-tarnish bags that you can purchase off Amazon. If you prefer to store your finished pieces in an enclosed, plastic storage box like me, you can also purchase anti-tarnish strips to throw in the box as an extra level of protection. If your pieces have begun to tarnish, you can simply give them a gentle wipe with a jewelry polishing cloth (i.e. Sunshine Polishing Cloths). It is important to educate your customers on what to expect with their jewelry and the proper way to care for their pieces. I like to include a Jewelry Care Card and a complimentary Jewelry Polishing Cloth with every order. On the card I tell customers to remove their jewelry before showering, washing dishes, swimming, applying lotions/perfumes, etc. I also remind them to store their jewelry in an enclosed dry box/baggie when they are not wearing their pieces. If their pieces do begin to tarnish overtime (which is inevitable), the provided complimentary polishing cloth can be used to restore that lustrous shine.
Last, but certainly not least, is education. You will not become a master silversmith overnight. I am learning new things every day and I never expect to be done learning. There are many resources out there for education. Books and articles are great but those can be tough if you are more of a visual hands-on learner. Silversmithing classes can also be great, but they are often expensive and inaccessible. For me, YouTube has been the greatest resource for learning and developing my craft. My reliance on YouTube to learn Silversmithing inspired me to create a YouTube channel of my own to share my knowledge and journey with others.
Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/c/SpiritMountainSilver