What is stainless steel, and why is it considered as one of the modern metals in jewelry making? It’s widely known to be durable, resistant to corrosion, and hypoallergenic, but why is it so? Is it true that it has the capacity to heal itself? It’s widely used in the food industry and medical equipment, then who first thought to use it in jewelry? Let’s talk more about stainless steel and why it is taking over the jewelry industry. What are its pros and cons and why stainless steel jewelry is projected to stay and earn more in the years to come?
Stainless steel is actually the universal name for any steel alloy with 11.5-30% chromium in weight. In the early 1800s. Pierre Berthier was the first man who has discovered that chromium combined with other metals is resistant to rusting. This theory has been refined that led to the discovery of the different types of stainless steel, ferritic, stainless, nickel, and then later, stainless, nickel, and molybdenum combination.
The chromium reacts with oxygen creating and compound known as chromium oxide. It is the substance that protects the alloy from rusting by creating a thin layer on the metal surface. Nickel is also essential in hardening or strengthening the chromium oxide layer, thus making it more resistant to scratching and corrosion. Some commonly used in Jewelry making are 430, 304L, 316L
Stainless Steel was first used in watches in the late 1960s, where it was considered or called as tool watches. They were handmade and was designed for divers and pilots. The finished products were too bulky and heavy because of the difficulty they encountered in maneuvering the material. It was also expensive for the reason that it was hard to craft.
The first wristwatch that became popular was primed by a Swiss watchmaker named Gerald Genta. He was a known designer for lots of expensive brands like Bulgari. His timepieces were and are still highly-priced up to this day.
His concept was later followed by other watchmakers, and thus, the use in the jewelry industry started. Stainless steel jewelry boomed in the early 1980s, where bracelets with wristwatch patterns were used. Its hypoallergenic property made it more accessible and recommended by physicians for people with sensitive skin. Although there are many forms of stainless steel, only a few are used in the jewelry industry.
Types of stainless used in jewelry making
A 430 falls under the ferritic grade in stainless steel. Ferritic meaning it is reactive to magnetic force because of its crystalline core ferrite structure. It is considered hard with an 84 HRB and resistant to corrosion under a reasonable condition. This is the reason why this form is not commonly used in crafting ring accessories for the constant abrasion without having the time to heal and create a protective film that may damage its surface, leading to rust formation. This the lowest acceptable grade used in jewelry making and the most affordable. 430 is made up of 16-18% Chromium and 0.5-0.75% nickel. 1% silicon, 0.03 sulfur, 0.12 carbon, and 80% Iron. Phosphorus content of 0.04% and manganese at 1%.
304 and 304L
These two falls under the austenitic stainless steel, the reason behind this is its internal ferritin structure which has face-centered structures that make sit non-reactive to magnets. These have a 92HRB and contains 17.5-18% chromium, 8-10% nickels and 80% Iron, and small amounts of silicon, manganese, phosphorus, and others. 304L is the low carbon and only contains 0.030%, making it easier to be weld and maneuvered. Its 304H counterpart is widely used in the food industry.
There are three grades of steel that falls in this category. These are 316 or marine grade stainless steel, 440 and 420, also called the cutlery stainless steel. 316L and 316LVM are high-grade stainless steel that passed the international standards for it to be used in the pharmaceutical and food manufacturing industry to minimize contamination. These are also used in different body piercing accessories as well as medical implants. 440 and 420 are considered to be in the lower grade because of its high carbon content. It’s still considered under this category to be used in surgical blades because high carbon-containing alloys are durable and resistant to corrosion but are not to be used in jewelry, for it may cause an allergic reaction.
The ability of steel to heal itself. This is categorized into two. Natural and Chemical passivation.
- Chemical passivation
In this process, stainless steel is cleansed using oxidizing acid solution acids like nitric acid to remove its free iron content, therefore, making it more resistant to corrosion, the oxidizer to force the chromium element and create a chromium oxide film. With this process, you can expect an even and uniform oxide layer.
- Natural passivation
A type of passivation that occurs under a healthy condition. As we have explained earlier, the chromium interacts with the oxygen molecules and creates a thin film of chromium oxide. With this in mind, how does rust formation happens? Stainless steel still has around 80% iron. Other metals that do not contain Chromium to cover its iron content is vulnerable to rusting when the iron content reacts with oxygen. Instead of forming a thin protective coating like with Chromium, iron forms ferrous oxide or in layman’s term, rust.
Types of Stainless Steel Polish and Surfaces
This is the best finish for stainless steel jewelry for this type would create a non-porous surface leaving nothing for dirt and water to enter. It is hygienic as well as aesthetic to look at, shiny, and smooth surface that could mimic a sterling silver shine but at a darker hue.
This resembles a threadlike finish wherein you can see some lines that follow the metal lines. It also has a smooth and even surface but not as lustrous and glossy. It exhibits a space gray hue and commonly used in rings with a mirror finish edges for an organic and rough appeal.
The jewelry is first polished into a satin-smooth finish making sure that no imperfection may lead to leaking. It is then beautifully abraded to get the gloss out and have a bold matte and textured surface.
A textured surface with a glossy shine. Like the word implies, the jewelry would have dents as if it was manually hammered down by a blacksmith that creates an old illusion. This type of finish can make the stainless jewelry more glossy and contemporary, for the light that touches the multi-faceted surface creates a shine and mosaic illusion like how crystals sparkle with light.
One of the most popular textured surfaces of stainless steel jewelry as we have established, it is not easy to adorn this material with stones and crystals. Engraved Stainless steel jewelry is widely used. These may have a satin polish or multi-colored. Engraving like animals, mystical creatures, a religious symbol, and personal messages are generally available and sold on the market.
Gold, silver, white gold, black, rose gold, and other hues may be plated on stainless steel base jewelry. This is used to make the jewelry more appealing to the eyes and making it possible to be sold and purchased at a fairly reasonable price. Electroplating is commonly used in coating stainless steel, this process would yield a thoroughly even and stable adhesion of the coat and the base alloy material. Although the luster and color may fade, you can have it corrected and reapplied in the future.
Types of Stainless Jewelries
- Stainless earrings
The higher the grade of stainless steel, the better, but why is 430 stainless steel grade gaining popularity and being used in earrings? It’s not as tarnish and corrosion-resistant as 316L and 304, but it does have lesser nickel content. Just to be clear, 430 must not be used in newly pierced ears, it’s still the surgical type of stainless steel that must be used for its biocompatibility. After the wound has been completely healed, you may now use stainless steel earrings made from 430 grade. The low nickel content, .75% to be exact. It is much more affordable than the higher degree and still exhibits the coveted properties of a high-grade stainless alloy.
- Stainless necklace
304 and 316L would be the best grades for this type of jewelry. It is because the neck part sweats more than any part of the body where we wear pieces of jewelry. The frequent exposure to acid and the salt content would tarnish and corrode the 430 and may lead to a skin reaction.
- Stainless bracelets
Any of the three types may be used. However, the most commonly used are 304L and 304. The reason is that 304 is the middle ground for jewelry making, it’s easy to weld or mold, affordable and exhibits all properties of a 316L grade stainless alloy.
- Stainless Rings
304L and 316L because of if’s hardness and durability. Rings are much more vulnerable to abrasion from high impact, especially when worn by men. We use our hands a lot, we hold different things that vary in weight and texture, and we wash our hands numerous times a day. All the factors that would lead to damaging the surface of the ring.
- Stainless Body Jewelry
This type of jewelry needs the highest grade of stainless steel quality as possible because the piercing is considered as a wound. Our skin is the principal organ of our body for protection, once it is cut, our body automatically would try to heal it. Wounds are prone to infection, especially when in contact with foreign material. The jewelry used, especially with a new piercing, must pass the ISO 5832-1 and ISO 10993-6 that are studied to be biocompatible to a human body.
Pros of Stainless Steel Jewelries
Stainless steel is an alloy that consists of Iron, Carbon, Chromium, Nickel, and for 316 grade, molybdenum. Molybdenum can only be seen in 316L surgical grade stainless, which doubles the durability of a middle-grade stainless alloy.
- Scratch Resistant
We have learned that chromium oxide is the reason why stainless is resistant to corrosion. But it was said only to have a thin coating? How can it last a lifetime? The answer is that stainless steel can heal itself. No way! It’s not a living thing! Yes, way! When the chromium element combine s with Oxygen, it naturally forms into chromium oxide; therefore, every abrasion made on the film can actually be replaced by just being in contact with oxygen (O2) or water (H2O).
One of the most highly praised properties of stainless steel jewelry is it does not react to natural elements like sweat, blood, salt, and chlorinated water.
Human Sweat can affect the luster o different metals like silver and plated pieces of jewelry with a copper-based material. Our sweat is composed of ammonia, urea water salt, and others in different percentages. The amount of salt and ammonia is responsible for affecting the jewelry like necklaces and bracelets for these are commonly holding on to our skin.
When you go to the beach, your pieces of jewelry are exposed to many natural elements such as salt, sand, and sunlight. The great salt content of the oceanic water can eat on the metal surface even after you have left the water. Saltwater creates a film residue on top of the jewelry that results in tarnished and blemished surface. The sand would scratch on to your jewelry, making it vulnerable to corrosion, and constant sun exposure would lead to fading of the color.
Luckily, stainless steel jewelry is resistant to all of these natural elements.
Most individuals have a nickel allergy, how does this occur? Sweat and friction are looked upon with this unwanted skin reaction. According to the dermatologist, the sweat and friction are the causes nickel to leak onto the surface of nickel-containing materials. This results in a skin reaction called contact dermatitis, where you would experience itchiness and bumpy rashes.
Stainless steel pieces of jewelry like 304 have 8 percent nickel, while the 316L has 10% nickel. Why is 316 preferred over 304? It’s because 316 has 2 percent molybdenum in it, an element that added to resist compounds like Chloride from breaching the surface and leaking its nickel content. It’s like a double seal, molybdenum, and Chromium oxide that seals in the nickel.
- Green product / Environmental Friendly
Stainless steel is considered as a green product, why? Because it is a hundred percent recyclable. It is considered to be a sustainable material for it is not consumed and can be recycled to a new product. The article does not need any coating, for it can be polished to a gleaming shine; therefore maintain its original form and composition, which is organic and environmentally friendly. This is also the reason why stainless material is now widely used in go green inspired buildings.
Why is it essential for consumers to consider using green products and metals? Because if you have heard of E-landfills and how metals used takes around 50-500 years to decompose. These materials can cause detrimental effects to humans when it seeps into our water reservoir, you would surely appreciate how stainless steel material can be totally recycled and be useful in other areas of our daily life.
Stainless jewelry can be dented. Being scratched resistant is totally different from being dented. To understand more about the hardness of stainless steel, let us compare it to tungsten, which is considered as a hard material. Stainless steel has a 64-70 HRC compared to the 85HRC hardness of tungsten carbide. As we know, tungsten does not dent when dealt with high impact. Instead, it shatters or gets chipped. Stainless steel can absorb the impact and bend. This creates a dent instead of totally breaking like ceramics. This is actually positive and a negative, for it is so durable that it can only be dented, unlike softer metals that bend and can be harmful in some circumstances. Negative for a dented jewelry is not beautiful and elegant to look at.
Gold and silver are considered as priced metals and therefore sold at a higher price. Stainless steel, on the other hand, is an alloy that is way cheaper and affordable, making it more reachable to people of different financial statuses. Stainless steel may not be as lustrous and luxurious as these pieces of jewelry made of gold and silver, but then again, it has its own properties that trump these traditional jewelry base material.
Cons of Stainless steel Jewelry
- Limited Availability and Designs
Aside from it being widely used in wristwatches and bracelets, it is still rarely used in rings, especially wedding rings. The main reason would be its hardness. While it can be molded in different ring sizes, it is not easy to be resized.
- Difficult to resize
Stainless steel jewelry especially rings, are difficult to resize. Some features would need to be considered in resizing like the inlay, engravings and embedded stones or crystals. These three features are not advised to be adjusted because resizing would disrupt its beauty. Plated or plainly designed and buffed can be resized. The melting point of Stainless steel is 1,510 degrees centigrade which is about 600 degrees higher than that of sterling silver. Cutting and soldering it together may take longer and harder for local jewelers to do so you would need to go to a more extensive jewelry shop that has the right equipment to do so if you are keen on resizing your stainless rings.
- Reselling price
Stainless steel pieces of jewelry are already affordably priced and therefore has no value when it comes to reselling unlike jewelry made from priced metals like gold that may increase in value. It is also the reason why most stainless steel jewelry does not have precious stones like a diamond set on it. So, when you get yourself a piece of stainless jewelry, be sure that you really love the design as well as it fits you perfectly for any thought of it fetching higher price would be a bit far-fetched as of the moment.
Stainless steel jewelry, when compared to other precious metals used in jewelry, has a heavier weight. It may be nothing for men, but women would usually love to wear something like and shiny. This is why rings, bracelets, and necklaces made from stainless steel are more designed for men rather than women. Stud and earrings made from stainless steel are a bit heavy for the earlobe. That is why designs are made simpler and smaller especially those earrings for newly pierced ears. These would be small beads studs and barbers for the helix piercings.
- Nickel allergies
Although it is hypoallergenic, there are still some who develop skin allergies. Stainless steel contains nickel in about 8-10%. Nickel is the culprit for skin allergies, as mentioned by a dermatologist. Some low stainless steel quality base material may leach its nickel content and thus result to contact dermatitis.
Stainless can look like and buff to a sterling silver or platinum sheen to the untrained eyes, but as time passes, the jewelry would have a characteristic grayish hue that is the natural metal color of the stainless steel. Although it can be rebuffed to a gleaming and silvery shine, its natural color would resurface at a given time. Mind you, its natural metal hue is not unpleasant to look at. However, if you are looking for silver or white gold-tone, stainless steel jewelry may not be the right choice for you.Stainless steel Jewelry, as we have studied earlier, is proving that it is the superman of metals. With the right grade or quality used, you can be assured that it is resistant to rust, scratching, and corrosion, maintain its glossy sheen, and furthermore have the capacity to coat or heal itself to maintain its durable, non-reactive properties with only air and water. Best of all, it is hypoallergenic and affordable. Just a secret between us, I am personally a fan of stainless steel jewelry, and it’s been one of the constant companions of mine since it was given to me. But don’t take my word for it, the fact is, it’s really a great material to be used in pieces of jewelry that are profiting millions and is projected to increase sales till the year 2024. So if you’re looking for a daily accessory and you haven’t tried any stainless steel jewelry yet, give it a shot and you might appreciate its organic beauty and personality.