18-gauge silver sheet is by far my favorite gauge of silver sheet. There are several reasons for this preference. First, I like to make pendants, you may have noticed that my Etsy shop it is dominated by pendants. Every jeweler has their favorite thing to make, for me it has been pendants since the first day I picked up a saw. 18-gauge is great for sturdy and strong pendants. There are some downsides with 18-gauge, which mainly are its weight and expense.
Pendants/Bracelet Backings With Expensive Stones
Expensive cabochons, which for me are any cabochons over $30, are very appealing for people who buy pendants and bracelets. I know it is tempting when you have an expensive stone to skimp on other areas to make the piece cost a little less. Many jewelers, especially beginners, are tempted to set nice stones in a thinner gauge of sliver, like 22-gauge or 20-gauge, in order to make the piece cheaper. I did this myself when I first started setting stones.
I used the word cheaper deliberately. Cheaper implies that the item is of a lower quality than something that is more expensive. In this case you are making the piece of lower quality. The thicker silver is sturdier and tougher. The stone also will look nicer on thicker silver most of the time. If you are at the point where you are comfortable enough with your technical ability that you want to use more expensive stones then you should use a thicker gauge of silver with those stones.
Solid silver Pendants
For solid silver pendants, which means pendants without any stones, 18-gauge is the minimum thickness I would use. As stated above 18-gauge is thicker and sturdier and with a good work hardening in the tumbler it would be hard to damage. If you use a thinner gauge, like 20, there is a good chance the pendant will bend and get misshapen.
Remember that silver tarnishes. It tarnishes even quicker is someone wears the piece often. Most likely when the owner of the piece cleans the pendant they will be using a rouge cloth or some sort of chemical cleaner. If you make the pendant with thicker silver, owners will be less likely to damage the piece while cleaning it.
Lastly, the pendant will look nicer in 18-gauge. This because in thicker gauge silver you can do more complex sawing, it will be easier to file, and it will make the pendant look sturdier. I have seen a lot of solid sheet silver pendants for sale on Etsy, Folksy and at art fairs and the ones in thinner than 18-gauge silver don’t look as good.
Not For Earrings or Large Brooches
18-gauge is great for pendants, bracelets and smaller brooches but not for earrings or larger brooches. The main reason is because of the weight. 18-gauge is significantly heavier, even when compared to 20-gauge. This additional weight is due to the fact that volume, which causes weight, goes up more quickly than surface area. Therefore, a small piece of 18-gauge will be considerably heavier then a piece of the same dimensions in 24-gauge.
I would never use 18-gauge in earrings, unless it was small amount, because they will be too heavy. I don’t want to responsible for pulling out a woman’s ear lopes. For small brooches or even medium size solid silver brooches 18-gauge should work fine. For larger solid silver brooches or for brooches with stones I would use 20-gauge. There are two reasons for this. First, you don’t want to damage the buyer’s clothes because the piece is too heavy. Second, a heavier brooch might not damage the clothing, but the weight might distort the shirt or blouse and make the whole outfit seem off.
There is no way around it — 18-gauge is expensive and the price for silver has been going up over the last decade. For a beginner jeweler the price tag for 18-gauge sterling silver sheet may seem high. It fluctuates from $7 to $10 a square inch depending on the cost of silver and where you buy it. Another option is to make your own gauge from sheet but that is time consuming.
In general I would recommend that beginners stick with 24 to 20 gauge silver sheet until they are pretty solid with setting stones and sawing. If you want to practice with a thicker metal and not pay the silver prices, remember 18-gauge copper is reasonably priced. A piece of 18-gauge copper sheet, measuring 6 inches by 12 inches, is about 20 dollars. But there will be a point in your progression as a metal smith where you will have to make that financial jump to 18-gauge, and I always recommend taking this leap sooner rather then later.
The advantages of using 18-gauge sheet for pendants and brooches outweigh the cost and other issues. Other gauges of silver do have uses for which 18-gauge is not appropriate, but in general I have found that 18-gauge is the most often used gauge for me. I now use it for almost all of my stone settings that are not in earrings or large brooches. I used 24-gauge for pendants during my early years and I wish that I had switched over sooner. Not only did my work with my pendants become better once I started using 18-guage, I also became much better at using thinner gauges.
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