Precious metal clay

Precious metal clay or pmc is a great addition to your jewellery making skills. If you’ve not tried using pmc yet then What is PMCread on……

What is precious metal clay?

First of let’s just explain what this magical material is and how it came about. Precious metal clay is made up of tiny particles of metal suspended in water and an organic binder. It was invented in Japan in 1990 by a metallurgist called Masaki Morikawa. PMC was originally just available in two grades, however it has been updated many times since the early days. It is often referred to as PMC or Art Clay. In fact, Art Clay is a brand name for a rival Japanese company that have produced numerous different types of clay, including base metal clays.

What to buy?

There are a lot of different types available across the two brands and if this is a subject you take to, then it is worth trying them all to see which you like the best. Each has subtle differences in working quality.

Originally it was only available in lump form; pure silver or 22k gold. However it is now available in base metals; copper and bronze, silver alloys and as paper and sheet. Although similar there are marked differences between working with silver, alloys, papers and the base metal clays.

PMC, Silver Clay and Art Clay earringsA young metal

It has been around as a medium for making jewellery since it was invented but it has only really gained recognition in recent years. I went on a three day course in London 15 years ago. At that time the company that ran the course was the only place that you could buy the clay. There was also a small team of very skilled specialist tutors teaching. It was not widely known back then that precious metal clay even existed. Things have come a long way since then. That company had sole rights to sell the clay in the UK. However they have since lost their exclusive rights and sadly the company no longer exists. Nowadays it is possible to buy the clay from almost all bullion dealers. There’s also a plethora of dedicated internet websites selling clays and tools.

An accessible metal working process

In terms of metal working; precious metal clay or PMC, is a young material. It has benefitted from a great deal of exposure from magazines. Many jewellery making magazines had to focus solely on working with beads until precious metal clay came along. It is a medium that has made jewellery making available to a wider audience than its traditional counterpart. Mainly due to the need for simpler tools and the different process involved to work with it.

So what is the process?

The process of working with PMC falls in to 4 stages:

  • Modelling: PMC is clay. So it has to be made with clay and modelling techniques, not traditional silversmithing based jewellery making techniques.
  • Drying: after the clay has been formed in to pieces of jewellery it has to be dried thoroughly. Once dried it is referred to as being in its ‘plaster’ or ‘greenware’ stage.
  • Pre-finishing: Once dried, although it is still not metal PMC is usually refined with tools and emery papers similar to the silversmith’s finishing stage.
  • Firing: PMC is fired with a heat source to burn away the binder. This results in the final metal item.

The Pros & the Cons!

As I mentioned earlier, this is a material that is relatively new in the scheme of the ancient tradition of silversmithing & jewellery making. It has revolutionised jewellery making and made it accessible to many more individuals because of the way it can be worked. If you pick up any jewellery making magazine there will no doubt be a ‘make in an afternoon’ (?!) PMC project in there and it will be hailed as the best thing since sliced bread and very easy.

Sounds too good to be true?

Some of us here will have ‘had a go’ at jewellery making and know that there is not much about it that is either quick or easy. The same can be said of PMC. It is just different – and like any new satellite subject within the jewellery making field it needs to be studied, learned and tried and has its own set of good & bad points. So I’ve laid them out here for us to consider before we all rush off and abandon our existing jewellery making expertise:

The Pros

  1. The number one spot has to be the way PMC can be textured quickly and easily with almost anything you can think of.
  2. It gives the freedom of expression to sculpt very individual pieces directly in precious metal
  3. It can be very easily engraved in its plaster or greenware state.
  4. PMC can be ‘cast’ very easily by pushing it in to pre-made moulds. Making it possible to replicate shapes without the need for traditional casting methods which are costly to set up and complex to learn.
  5. It can be constructed with a very basic tool kit, so the expense of an extensive jeweller’s kit can be avoided.
  6. Once fired PMC is basically metal. So it can be soldered to itself and on to other jewellery components made in the traditional way.
  7. It lends itself to being made in to small, fiddly adornments to be attached to traditionally made components.

The Cons

  1. Number one has to be the price. It is at least 3 times more expensive than its traditional metal counterpart. So learning how to use it can be very costly and making items to sell can be impractical or even impossible.
  2. The fired metal is not as strong as its traditional counterpart. It can be brittle and break easily. For that reason it is not good for structural components like jump rings. Or items that are subjected to heavy structural wear like rings.
  3. Shrinkage, the clay shrinks as it is fired. This makes it very difficult to make rings as it is not easy to judge and make the correct size to fit your finger.
  4. The fired metal cannot be beaten or bent very successfully – it tends to break or shatter if subjected to undue stress or a sharp blow. So the majority of the design has to be done in the clay stage.
  5. The clay starts to dry out as soon as it is out of a wrapper. This can make it difficult to deal with. Even for individuals that are experienced at using polymer clays.
  6. Soft clay working techniques are required. These are a totally different discipline to traditional metal working skills and can be very tricky and unfamiliar for the traditional jeweller.
  7. It requires finishing at ‘plaster’ stage – again this is an unfamiliar way of working which requires ultimate delicacy. There’s not much room for anyone who may be a little heavy handed.
  8. It has to be fired and this needs accuracy to be successful. So it is not a very forgiving medium as far as making mistakes are concerned.
  9. All the clays are different to each other so it can take a long time and be very costly to find out which you get on with the best.

As you can see, the cons do slightly outweigh the pros! But not by much and your own personal working practice may dispel some of the above immediately.

Learn to use Precious Metal clay wisely

PMC, SIlver Clay and Art Clay workshop

Silver bracelet with PMC and Art Clay charms

With the above pros & cons in mind it’s worth pointing out that it has been hailed as the new wonder material for jewellers and to an extent it is too good to be true. I suspect this is mainly by the ‘marketeers.’ After all they are trying to sell a metal that is more expensive than the metal it is made from! But the clay has got its place, it is up to you to recognise the appropriate use of it and when traditional metals would be easier and cheaper to work with.

We still need the traditional skills!

I do firmly believe that we cannot turn away from the traditional skills used for silversmithing and jewellery making. I have had experience of precious metal clay items breaking. These have often been items with components that undergo structural stress. But not always! Additionally, I often see projects in magazines using precious metal clay to replicate wire projects. Wire would be infinitely more appropriate and easier to use in most cases. After asking myself why this more awkward material has been recommended for this; I’ve realised that these projects are aimed at individuals who have never worked silver in the traditional way and don’t have this skill base.

Precious Metal Clay Beginners project

Try it for yourself

Learning how to work with precious metal clay will definitely open up many new design opportunities for you. So by all means, give precious metal clay a go. Remember that it is not necessarily a ‘stand-alone’ material. If you can combine it with your usual metal work it will be a great addition to your jewellery.

Silverpetal offers a Precious Metal Clay for Beginners course. This is a one day course to get you started and is well worth attending if you’ve never tried using clay before.

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