Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Metal Prices and the effect on Craft

The number says it all- today Silver prices shot up over $45 dollars an ounce. I've never seen it so high- well, never have been really tuned in when it was high before...

In late 1979 I was in 8th grade, in Durham New Hampshire. We had just moved there from Newark Delaware a few months before. One of my memories of that time was a discussion that happened in one of my classes about the rising cost of silver- This was the time when "the Hunt brothers" (Nelson and William Hunt) attempted to corner the world market in silver. Prices from Sept 1979 to January 1980 silver prices rose from $11.00 and ounce to $50 an ounce.

I recall one of my classmates very excited by this because he and his brothers had been given silver stock as a confirmation gift earlier that year. At the time- the rise in prices didn't mean much to me- it only left me with a pang of "missed opportunity" and a renewed interest in my mother's jewelry box.
(don't worry, I never took anything- I just would dream of each piece of silver making me "rich" like Richie Rich, the comic book character) 

However- this price increase that we are going through now is making me think very differently- I am now in my 25th year of working as a silversmith- I use silver every day, and it's price makes a huge difference to me and my business. I have a couple of shops online where I sell my silver and mixed metals designs- I chose to work in silver because it was an affordable way to start a career in jewelry. I also love silver's color and workability- It's one of my favorite materials- and it keeps getting more and more expensive to buy! which, in turn forces me to increase my prices in my shop...

Why? because I have to think about replacement cost of my work- if one piece sells, I need to replace it- even if that piece originally cost me $20 to make, with the increase in metals prices on the market, my replacement cost increases as well. In essence, if I sell a piece for the material cost when the silver prices were in their $20's, I would take a loss- because the piece couldn't be replaced for that price would be replaced at the current price of metals (plus manufacturing cost)

Wait....what? Manufacturing cost? That's right!- Manufacturing cost is added to metal when we go to the silver supply store and buy silver. You see, the metal has to be alloyed (alloying is when you take a pure metal and you add another metal to give a certain characteristic to the metal- for instance sterling is 92.5% pure silver mixed with 7.5% copper), Then the manufacturer makes the alloyed metals into forms, like sheet or wire. We metalsmiths in the US usually buy our sterling in these manufactured forms. (there is an argument also for making your own alloys, but that's a different subject all together, which I will leave for another time)-So, if metal prices are at 40$ an ounce- we are paying $40 plus manufacturing cost (which is variable, depending on the manufactured form) for our supplies...that's a great deal different than a few years ago when we thought $10 an ounce was outrageously expensive! 

So- as each trip to the silver store gets more and more expensive, I find myself faced with a dilemma- do I buy more silver? will it go up even more? can I afford to invest in more supplies right now, or do I have to re-consider my materials?

Well, I'm doing a little of everything- I'm not swearing off of silver completely- It is really a necessity for certain items like rings and earrings- But I'm not "stocking up" either.

It's a game that many 'smiths are engaged in right now, whether we want to be or not- the silver lining (no pun intended, but it's a good pun, huh) is that the rise of metals prices will have an effect on the value of skilled work. Hobbyists who have been flooding the silver jewelry market will be looking at their hobby supplies differently- due to the high "start up" cost of silver.

I believe that in the coming months there will be a further separation of professionals vs hobbyists, similar to the separation between those who work exclusively in gold vs those who work in silver. Effectively raising the perceived value of silver as a metal, and the idea that it is a metal mostly used by professionals.
I could be wrong, but that is where I see the trend heading.

That being said- I don't believe that this augmentation of silver prices will make "silver smithing as a hobby" become a thing of the past- it's just becoming more expensive to "start"- and therefore less new (inexperienced) craftspeople working in silver on the market.

My hope is that those of us who continue our silversmithing will raise the level of silverwork to a new level of craftsmanship- Therefore giving "new polish" to one of humankind's oldest crafts.

and, with that off my chest- I'm heading out to my studio to make some beautifully crafted pieces... in silver!
ciao- Maureen BZ

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

deadlines, good bad and ugly.

 Well, not really bad..

There are still a couple of days left for a few important deadlines-

one, we in the US know is that *taxes* thing (which is actually due on the 18th this year)

another thing you may know about is the deadline for VIDEO submissions to the SNAG Seattle (click here for more info)...which has had a DEADLINE EXTENSION until April 29th (Yay!) 

and finally-...--
the deadline which I know you are all working on (right?) is for Exhibitions proposals for the SNAG Phoenix 2012 Conference....."the Heat is On"
and that one is the most pressing, due on APRIL 15th!  Friday! 

****find out more about submitting proposals at the PDF link found HERE, under Phoenix conference**** please submit proposals! I'd love to have Metalsmiths Unite represent in Phoenix- my home state!!

(**ps, full disclosure, I'm on the exhibitions committee for the Phoenix conference)

check out the fabulous brand spanking new logo for SNAG Phoenix!

isn't that a super cool logo? or, is it Hot?

:-) ciao- Maureen

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Open Studios

It's time for the Spring Open Studio tour here in Tucson!

to find a comprehensive list of participating studios please go to Zocalo Magazine online- where you will find maps and info about the studios that will be open to tour.

I will have my space open on SATURDAY ONLY-
I'm tidying up my studio today, so that it will be spiffy clean - believe me, you don't want to see it in it's normal unruly state!

 If you are in Tucson, come on by next Saturday (the 16th) from 11-5 to see where all the magic and metalsmithing happens :-) I'd love to see you!
ciAO- Maureen

Saturday, April 9, 2011


It's patina week here on Mabel street- I brought in a bunch of samples and did a little demo in my class Wednesday morning- then today, I had a client ask about putting a patina on a pair of gauged grommets.
in short, it's the vapors that do the reaction on the metal- makes it grow a surface of blue crud aka "patina"

I thought it might be interesting for my readers to see as well- give a peek "inside the studio" for non-metalsmiths as without further ado...... Here's a quick look at putting a beautifully textured blue patina on copper-

Here's a fun project- if you have a piece of copper (you can get a plumbing part from the hardware store) take a handful of sawdust, put it in a ziplock bag- add a bit of non-sudsing ammonia (to get the sawdust damp-(not too wet) add about a 1/4 teaspoon table salt....then mix it up (shake the bag around)

put your clean copper in the bag, cover it with the sawdust solution and SEAL the bag shut to keep the ammonia vapors inside, doing their magic...every hour or so go and check on it...

take it out of the bag- and lightly rinse- being careful to not rub the surface- pat dry, put it under a light bulb to warm up and dry completely.. the piece will appear that it hadn't changed much at first, but with drying you will see some patina/changes in color.
continue to bury the piece in sawdust mixture and check every hour or so to check the color development.
stop when you are happy with the colors-----be careful not to build too heavy of a patina surface, because it will tend to chip off. (the sawdust will get pretty grungy looking after a while.. that's ok, as long as it continues to have a strong ammonia odor)
Once I'm happy with the patina color I like to seal my patinas with either clear butcher's wax , renaissance wax, or a light application of clear spraypaint/fixitive (very light application only)

it's best to experiment with patinas on small sample pieces before you dive in and try to patina an important piece-

remember to use good ventilation, the fumes are really strong!

This is just one way to develop color on metal- there are many tutorials online and in books- There are many patina recipes and techniques- and many opinions... :-) it's up to you to decide which works for you, and how you want to use it.

Patinas are surface color only- they don't go "into" the metal, they cling to the surface- When you design a piece for patina make sure you don't use them for anything that will get lots of wear and tear (like a ring) or, if you do put it on an exposed area, you need to put a protective structure on top of it to avoid abrasion...

take lots of notes, do some variations (use distilled water/add more/less salt/ammonia, change sawdust type to different coarseness/wood type) and enjoy watching your metals morph into something beautifully colorful!
top right piece is unpatinaed copper- then clockwise, blue patinaed copper with liver of sulfur base, the three samples on the left are all copper with an ammonia, salt and sawdust patina.

Have fun-
may the flux be with you- ciao- Maureen


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