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Differences Between Precious Metal Clay and Traditional Metalsmithing

Updated on June 7, 2014
Precious metal clay allows artists to create amazing detail that wouldn't be possible with traditional metalsmithing techniques. It's now available in a number of popular metals including copper, silver, gold and platinum.
Precious metal clay allows artists to create amazing detail that wouldn't be possible with traditional metalsmithing techniques. It's now available in a number of popular metals including copper, silver, gold and platinum. | Source

Precious metal clay - or PMC - has hit the artistic world with tremendous force several years ago. Suddenly, all manner of designs are possible in a small variety of metals and, best yet, you don't have to have much equipment to get started. Essentially, this is a clay filled with minuscule pieces of a precious metal such as fine silver or gold. The clay can be shaped in any imaginable way and then fired. All of the clay burns off, leaving only the metal in the exact same shape and size as the original sculpture. While the initial cost of the clay may seem steep, when compared to the prices of specialty settings for jewelry or the requirements of traditional metalsmithing, it is considerably less than trying to find truly unique pieces.

Get started with silver PMC

Art Clay Silver Starter Kit,
Art Clay Silver Starter Kit,

Start using precious metal clay in your jewelry designs with this handy kit. It includes all the tools you'll need to get started, books of tutorials, and clay that burns off to fine silver.

 

Conventional metal is quite a lot cheaper than precious metal clay for the raw materials, but takes a lot more skill and equipment to be able to work. Traditional metalsmithing requires intimate knowledge of each individual metal and specialized tools. Each type of metal requires different heat levels, different cooling times and reacts differently to various factors. Skilled metalsmiths can make any design with raw precious metal, but the time and experience required is significantly more than that needed to be successful with PMC.

Why do artists gravitate to precious metal clay?

The primary attraction of PMC is that it is easily accessible to the average craftsman (or craftswoman). After the initial investment of a firing kiln and some starter PMC, all a crafter has to do is read the firing instructions and apply their own techniques for forming the clay into gorgeous pieces. Hand-sculpting takes an artistic eye and experience always improves it, but the learning curve is minimal as compared to traditional metalsmithing. In addition, the time to sculpt a piece is generally significantly less than the time to heat, re-heat and form pieces in the traditional manner.

Precious metal clay (PMC) brings stunning handmade pieces like this one within reach for small home artisans.
Precious metal clay (PMC) brings stunning handmade pieces like this one within reach for small home artisans. | Source

Precious metal clay may be the most versatile thing that ever happened to fine jewelry. Suddenly, anything you can form with your hands can turn into fine silver, gold or platinum. People who already carve wax molds for traditional metalsmithing, or who are experienced with molding regular polymer clay, can start using PMC with little other knowledge.

Want a good look at what you can do with precious metal art clay? Check out this video for some basic techniques. It's shockingly easy to create basic settings, rings, and other metal pieces, then add things like prints from fingers and leaves, or vines, or other fine details.

Magical Metal Clay Jewelry
Magical Metal Clay Jewelry

What can you do with precious metal clay? The question is really, what can't you do? This book concentrates on fascinating and whimsical designs unlike anything you've seen in jewelry stores.

 

While PMC may be more expensive than plain metal, excluding the cost of necessary equipment, it has numerous advantages to many different types of artists. Namely, without taking the time to learn metalsmithing, a beader, polymer clay artist, glassworker or other such artisan or crafter has the ability to create settings and embellishments completely unique to their pieces.

For a price averaging about $3.50 per gram for silver precious metal clay, it's possible to create the types of settings that traditionally sell for hundreds of dollars. This is where true one-of-a-kind art can be made in just a couple of hours, as opposed to sometimes days required for traditional metal pieces.

"Cost of entry" in traditional metalsmithing

True, there are going to be a lot of tools when you work with metal, regardless of which type of metal you use. However, there are a lot of tools you can get away without when starting with precious metal clay. Traditional metalsmithing requires hundreds of dollars' worth of equipment, and most of it is essential from day one. This can be a huge drawback for someone who might not be sure if this is what they want to do. Mentoring with experienced metalsmiths can help reduce the risk, but it's not an option for everyone -- especially if you're in a secluded area, or someplace with few artists.

Check out this video for a good look at silversmithing with a small, traditional setup. Obviously, traditional metalsmithing requires a lot more dedicated space than precious metal clay, and it's a lot less forgiving if you're not sure what you're doing.

A look at the tools and techniques of traditional metalsmithing

Learning advanced techniques in traditional metalsmithing

An advanced technique in precious metal clay may be a matter of adding in different colors, leaf from different metals, or adding unique textures. Since you're working with soft, cold materials, you can play around with it quite a bit without committing to the overall result. If you mess up, just go back over the undesirable portion and squish it into the right shape before you fire the piece.

Advanced detail can be achieved with traditional metalsmithing, but it's time-intensive for each piece and can take decades for each artist to perfect.
Advanced detail can be achieved with traditional metalsmithing, but it's time-intensive for each piece and can take decades for each artist to perfect. | Source

Traditional metalsmithing can lend itself to any imaginable technique, but in a medium in which it's much more difficult to experiment. You can play around with it, but you may have to melt it down and start over more than once. In a lot of cases, you're working with hot or molten metals -- don't mess up or you could lose a chunk of skin. When you're working with wax castings, you may only have one chance to get it right before you have to build a new mold. There are a lot more steps involved, and a lot more ways that it could go wrong.

Skilled silversmiths sometimes take decades to master particular techniques, while similar effects can be achieved on a small scale within a matter of weeks with persistent PMC practice.

So what's the real difference between PMC and metalsmithing?

In short, the primary difference between PMC and traditional metalsmithing is that the former is more accessible to the masses. It is easier to create quality pieces without investing excessive time in learning a new craft, and requires a lot less equipment. As a result, precious metal clay also requires a lot less devoted space and a lower initial investment. Additionally, molds are not required to make intricate pieces quickly with PMC, while they are often required in traditional metalsmithing.

Thank you for reading this hub. Let's keep the conversation going -- please leave me a comment answering the question, what is your biggest frustration when it comes to metal components for your unique jewelry creations?

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