I began experimenting with precious metal clay (PMC) four years ago and one of the first things I made was these earrings, copied from a button in the shape of a Saturn-like planet.
For anyone who’s never heard of PMC, it’s wonderful stuff – a clayey material that contains tiny silver particles, although you can get bronze, copper and gold versions too. It can be shaped like any modelling clay: by sculpting, rolling, pressing into a mould or whatever. But it can also be watered down and extruded as a fine thread, or painted onto an organic former (such as a leaf or seedhead) and built up layer by layer.
After shaping a piece of the clay in any way you fancy you let it dry and harden, finesse the shape if necessary by filing or sanding, then you fire it. The firing process burns off the organic material in the clay (and any former that has been used), leaving behind metallic silver which, as long as you get the temperature right, sinters into a solid piece. This makes it quite easy for a hobby jeweller to produce pieces that would otherwise have to be hot-poured, a process which requires more specialist (and expensive) equipment and all the faff of making a mould for every piece, even one-offs.
I made this large tube bead by rolling a blob of clay into a flat oval shape, forming it around a pencil and then squirting on squiggles of PMC from a syringe. After firing it and polishing it, I made a simple choker by stringing it on several strands of pale green silk cord. The cord was twisted from a reel of thread I bought from a local factory that was closing down, many moons ago.
There are some disadvantages to using PMC, not least its cost, but the fact that wastage is minimal helps to offset that. Shrinkage is another drawback – the finished silver piece will be somewhat smaller than the clay form you sculpted – and must be designed for. Also, the sintering process produces objects that are porous in comparison with items cast from molten metal, which can make them relatively fragile and hard to solder onto. Tumbling in a barrel and burnishing help to solve those problems by hardening the surface.
An Icelandic-style lavastone necklace
If you’ve ever been to Iceland you’ll know that all the tourist shops are full of lavastone jewellery, much of it enhanced with silver or rock crystal. There’s something about that combination which is very Icelandic, it must be the visual allusion to fire and ice. I fell in love with a necklace of alternating silver and black lava beads in a very upmarket Reykjavik jewellers but couldn’t justify spending the kind of money needed to bring it home with me. Instead, I bought some 16mm and 8mm lavastone beads at a bead fair I attended a few months later, along with silver clasps, findings and tiny beads made by members of hill tribes on the Burmese/Thai border. And of course, work and other priorities got in the way and I never did anything with them. Until now.
While searching through my jewellery and beading supplies last month for the bits and bobs I needed to make stitch markers, I came across the aforementioned lava beads and hill tribe silver, as well as the dried-out remains of a couple of small packets of PMC.
It occurred to me that I could rub PMC into the rough surface of the lavastone to produce random splodges of silver on them, and that might give me the look I coveted without having to spend money on large silver beads to use between the lava ones.
Well, to cut a long story short, I reconstituted the dried-out remains from the PMC packets into clay and fired it onto some of the larger lava beads.
Then I strung them into a necklace. The T-bar clasp seemed too nice to hide away at the back of my neck. Instead, I placed it centre front and made it a feature. I think the end result is quite a dramatic necklace, and it cost maybe £7-8 in materials.
And all done with nothing more sophisticated than a blowtorch (for burning the awful resin coating off the lavastone beads, firing the PMC and soldering – my small gas-fired soldering iron has stopped working, for some reason), a jeweller’s saw, assorted pairs of pliers and a Dremel mini-drill for polishing the silver.