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:
Pure 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.
Commonly 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 thick enough to allow the silversmith to make all of his engraving cuts in the sterling silver layer without cutting through to the base metal below.
Also 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.
Some 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, realize that 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.
Silver 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 metal.
Like 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, while 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.
For 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 gold.
Like 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.
This 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.
As 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.
Here, 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.
Casting 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 choose.
(Many thanks to Chet Vogt of Vogt Western Silver for his help with this column.)