Silver clay is an amazing material - Microscopic particles of pure silver are held together with an organic binder. It can be shaped and molded like any clay, when left to dry it can be shaped further. When fired (usually at 700°C for about an hour) the binder burns away, the silver solidifies and shrinks slightly and your left with pure hard silver.
There are a few small differences between finished silver clay and traditional sterling silver. Sterling silver is more hard-wearing and durable. Finished silver clay tends to be a little more brittle than sterling, making it less workable after firing - when sterling silver is annealed it can be hammered and shaped for a long time without fracturing.
Below is an interview I gave to Mastered about my use of silver clay in Jan 2014:
How long have you been working with metal clay?
It's been 5 or 6 years since I first tried silver clay, but I have been working with silver for at least 25 years - my grandmother was a silversmith, she taught me when I was a child. There's still loads more I'd like to learn about silver clay myself. You never stop learning in crafts like this: it's such a satisfying feeling to adopt, then slowly perfect, a new skill.
Why are you so attracted to the technique? When did you first come across it?
Another jeweller recommended trying it - it sounded too good to be true! A soft material that feels and behaves like clay and when fired turns to pure solid silver, I couldn't resist! Art Clay Silver (ACS rather than PMC) is recycled rather than mined so is more eco-friendly too.
I love that it can be very quickly moulded as well as achieve very fine detail (I'm a details person!).
The way I use it most is to first create a piece using the traditional techniques with a fretsaw, fabrication and wire work, then I make a rubber mould of that piece. Using silver clay I can then quickly and easily make duplicates of the same shape or pattern. I often oxidise or colour the finished fired pieces in different ways.
This way of working is much less physically and mentally demanding than the hours I spend sawing, sanding, filing and hammering. . . Most of my bigger one-off pieces take a lot of time and energy in designing and making, it's nice to balance that with something slightly less laborious. Although silver clay is more expensive than normal sterling silver gram for gram, it usually takes much less time to create a piece so it works out more affordable for customers.
What’s the best piece you’ve ever made using metal clay. What makes it your favourite?
A couple of years ago I made a big pendant that I was really happy with, I had a beautiful dendrite opal that I'd brought back from a trip to India: it looked like a miniature snow-scape, dark tree-like patterns on a white background. I'd wondered for ages how to set it. It needed to be simple but I wanted to somehow echo the pattern of the opal in the surrounding silver. I used silver clay because I wanted to get a more 3-dimensional look and knew I could get a nice texture. It was an experiment that worked (and happily it ended up going to a good home).
What types of jewellery do you like to create most. Why?
I'm attracted to intricate details and fluid patterns, this comes through in most of my work. Sometimes I wish I could be content to make very simple plain things - it would make life easier! However I like a challenge and enjoy pushing a design or technique in different ways. It's satisfying to overcome problems and make something unique. Many of my works are one-offs that are made to order for special occasions.
Tell me about your design process - do you plan everything beforehand with sketches or experiment with the material as you go?
I tend to spend a long time designing, often working to order and need to have the design approved by the customer before I start making. Some nice repeat clients are happy for me to play around with a rough concept and just see what happens but usually I've already given them good notion of what they will be getting. People can come to me with an idea and they tell me which of my pieces they like most so I have an guide of what they like and we take it from there: I do a few sketches, they pick their favourite elements, I recombine them and develop them until we're both happy. Working with customers and friends in this way keeps the jewellery evolving.
What advice would you give to someone starting out with this technique?
Use bronze or copper clay to start out with, it's much less expensive and you can get a good feel for the process. Use a little more clay than you think you need when it's still malleable - then when it's dry you can file or sand it down to the perfect size, smoothness or texture, saving all the dust to reuse. It's so much easier to take away from dry clay than to add it afterwards.
Every few seconds spent carefully shaping a dried unfired piece can save minutes finishing after firing. It took me a long time to get a feel for the fragility/strength of the unfired pieces though. Patience and a firm but gentle grip is the key.
Tell me a little about your latest collection and the inspiration behind it.
In the last few months the recurring theme has been rivers. Inspired by aerial photos of undulating rivers going through rocky valleys. I've been using textured (reticulated) sheet silver as the base then adding smoothly curving wires, embellishing with gemstones and granulation. They have been one-offs so far, made with traditional techniques but I'll be working on translating these designs into silver clay in the coming months and adding more colour.