All that glitters in a western store is not gold: it's probably silver. Since
so much money can be spent on western silver for horse and rider, this chapter
will act as a primer on the many differences between materials, finishes, and
embellishments on western silver.
There’s a grand old tradition of hand-engraved silver decorations on western
horse equipment, so a western wear or tack store is a good place to look for
this type of jewelry. But, why does one buckle cost $45, and another, smaller
buckle have a price tag of $300? Why do some folks spend several thousand dollars
for a buckle? Like most fine things in life, it’s all in the details.
Here's a quick primer on points to ponder when purchasing silver accessories
for horse or rider:
silver pulled from the earth is too soft for jewelry
making, so it is alloyed (mixed) with
other metals to make it workable. While a bar of silver
(also called fine silver) would be stamped ".999 pure" to
indicate it's metallurgical content, the purest form of
the metal used in design work is called sterling, and is
stamped, by international agreement, as "sterling
silver" or ".925" indicating that it is
92.5% pure silver, with alloy metals comprising 7.5% of
the composition. Look at the back of the finest quality
silver accessories to find the words "Sterling" and/or
the ".925" mark.
used in western silver, silver overlay is made by mechanically
bonding a layer of sterling silver over a thicker base
metal, usually nickel. This process creates a metal
with the visible properties and qualities of sterling—lustrous,
engravable, acquires a fine patina (minuscule scratches
that add to the jewelry's character)—at a lower
price than solid sterling. Silver overlay should be
to allow the silversmith to make all of his engraving
cuts in the sterling silver layer without cutting through
to the base metal below.
called nickel silver, this common alloy contains copper,
zinc, and nickel—but no silver. Also sold under
manufacturer's trade names, this material is very hard
and must be machined.
jewelry manufacturers very successfully utilize their
own 'secret recipe' metal alloys. Know what you are
buying: if there is no precious metal in the alloy,
you’re not buying(or paying for) real silver. Several
jewelry companies use their own special alloys to make
inexpensive and well-designed buckles and jewelry that
you’ll find in western stores, so if you like the
item buy it, but know that it’s an adornment,
not an investment.
plating is the least expensive method of utilizing silver
in decorative work. To silver plate, a base metal is
electrostatically charged so that a very thin layer of
silver adheres to the base. The silver us usually applied
as a liquid and is at least 7 millionths of an inch thick—which
ain't very much silver. Silver plate cannot be hand engraved,
but is often applied over design cuts made in the base
pure silver, solid gold is too soft to use in jewelry-
though it looks great in a heavy bar hidden under your
bed. For artistic use, gold must be alloyed to make
it more workable. Pure gold is denoted as 24 karat,
the alloys are named for their pure gold content: 14
karat gold (commonly used in premium western jewelry)
is 14 parts gold and 10 parts other metals.
the look of precious karat gold at a more economical
price, many jewelers choose gold fill. Like sterling
overlay, gold fill consists of a thin layer of alloyed
gold (10 kt for instance) bonded over a layer of base
metal. It looks like gold, it acts like gold, but it
costs less than pure karat gold. Gold fill is denoted
as a fraction of the total metal weight: "1/10 10
kt G.F. " indicates the material is 10% 10 karat
silver plate, gold plate is a very thin veneer of gold
that is applied over a base metal. It cannot be hand
engraved, and often disappears at points of wear.
alloy of copper and tin is often used for overlays and
accents on western jewelry. It's appearance is golden
or copper in color, but it tarnishes more quickly than
its precious metal cousins.
the name implies, manipulating of the metal is done by
hand, from cutting to polishing and engraving.
Labor always equals cost, so this is the most expensive
manufacturing method, and also the most desired by consumers.
Hand-made jewelry will always have slight (and charming)
variations in shape and finish.
the metal is manipulated by machines for cost savings
and uniformity. Industrial presses cookie-cut shapes which
are then embossed by hydraulic machines. For entry-level
jewelry, machine made pieces are often stamped from nickel
or a proprietary alloy, then plated for a shiny finish.
is a manufacturing method whereby molten metal—usually
sterling silver or bronze—is
poured into molds to yield finished product. Cast pieces
are usually curvy and simple in design—think
of southwestern Indian jewelry. Casting does not lend itself
to intricate detail, but some contemporary designers are
augmenting cast pieces with hand-engraving and other accents
after the casting is complete.
When evaluating western silver and accessories,
keep in mind that finished pieces may combine two or all three
manufacturing methods and multiple materials. For
example, a popular-priced trophy buckle might have a machine-made silver
plate oval with machine engraving with a cast jeweler's bronze
calf roper figure and
hand-cut and hand-engraved lettering.
The variety of materials and manufacturing techniques used today make for a wonderful
assortment of western-flavored jewelry and tack trims, with a style or special
piece sure to appeal to every shopper—but some people may be overwhelmed or
intimidated by the choices. All that glitters in a display case may catch your
eye, but because knowledgeable sales staff are sometimes hard to find, educate
yourself and buyer beware. Like all jewelry purchases, understanding the differences
in quality and materials will help assure your satisfaction with the items you
(Many thanks to Chet Vogt of Vogt
Western Silver for his help with this column.)
Chapter 11 - Tack Coordination