Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Earring Allergies and my Solution

One of the unexpected scourges of growing older has been learning to deal with earring allergies. It finally came to the point that I gave up wearing earrings for extended periods of time. Inevitably my piercings closed. This has been especially maddening because the most popular pieces of jewelry that I design have always been the earrings - sold through my Etsy site to customers all over the globe who seem to delight in collecting these low cost accessories and matching them to special pieces in their wardrobe. Why should I deny myself this pleasure? I decided to investigate further.

Just as I suspected! Lurking out there, often not showing up until middle age, is something known as "contact allergic dermatitis", waiting to spoil our delight in wearing jewelry. You would expect this from certain foods, flowers, and pharmaceuticals. But metals? After a quick web search of the topic I learned to spell met-allergy.

It turns out that certain metallic elements are reactive, meaning that some of the electrons in its electron cloud are willing to swap orbits with other free electrons in their vicinity. It is what we call oxidation or tarnishing. The primary culprit is nickel, which is often used to alloy sterling, stainless steel and even some gold-filled metals. Most people never have a problem with this process. Their bodies accept it. But some of our metabolisms try to reject or isolate or defend against the offending electrons. At this point, I already knew more than I wanted or needed to know about the chemistry. What I needed was to find a pure, natural, non-reactive element that is free of things like nickel and lead - and hopefully, something less expensive than platinum! Enter Niobium!

Number 41 on the periodic table, used by Edison as filaments in his electric light bulb, adapted for use by NASA in space vehicles, Niobium has a storied history. It is strong, malleable, and 'half-hard' to shape - like sterling (and unlike pure gold and silver, which are termed 'dead soft'). But what interests us is: hypoallergenic. Also interesting to the jewelry artist is that Niobium can be electrolytically anodized into flashy colors like blue, green, purple and even pink!

Hopefully I've (re)pierced my ears for the last time. I wouldn't think of offering Niobium ear wires to a customer until I had proven to myself that they are satisfactory in every way. After weeks of self-experimentation, I am satisfied. Because Niobium can't be soldered to create post earrings, I am now shaping Niobium wire into several types of ear wires. Here is a peek at some french wires, kidney hoops and even some coil shaped posts. It will be interesting to know how many other women my age are looking for a wire that does not make war on our ear lobes.

Enamel Earrings on Niobium Ear Wires

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Shimmery Spring Jewelry in Enamel Lusters

Enamel Cross Earrings in Shimmering Blue

Jewelry makers naturally keep an eye on the latest styles and color trends. So I've noticed that this year's spring fashions have been dominated by iridescent fabrics and high-wattage metallics. These lovely shimmering pastel textiles reminded me of a group of unique mica based pigments - Carefree Lusters - that I had purchased from Thompson Enamel a few years ago. After seeing the samples in the middle of a Thompson's catalogue I just couldn't resist ordering them, knowing that someday they would be ideal for a special project.

Metallic Aqua Enamel Teardrop Earrings

Back then, I had played with the lusters for a few days, but never had that "Ah ha!" moment...  until I saw this spring's fashions begin to appear on travel shows, commercials and in fashion magazines. So I retrieved the lusters from storage and began to experiment anew, making samples and recording the results at different firing times and temperatures. Soon, I felt comfortable enough to fire the lusters on actual enameled components and was ready to begin creating some new jewelry pieces to complement this spring's styles and colors.
Tiny Metallic Rose Gold Enamel Earrings

For those of you who may be interested in the techniques involved in working with Thompson Luster Enamels, I will offer a few of the discoveries that I made through trial and error in developing my own procedures.
  • Firing temperature is calculated according to the base enamel.
  • I had success firing at approximately 60 degrees below the normal firing temperature of the base enamel.
  • More is better. Any excess of unfused luster can easily be wiped or washed away after firing; but using an insufficient amount of luster can result in a rough surface.
  • Always start with a smooth, level surface that extends completely to the edges.
As with any new enameling technique, one should experiment, make samples, and become comfortable before using it on something special. Enjoy! I did!

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