Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What is Niobium?

Electric Rainbow Earrings at You've Got Maille

This weekend I sold a pair of these earrings online and a pair at the Renaissance faire. Last night, as I worked on an argentium and niobium choker, I decided I needed to talk about niobium.

It's my favorite metal. It's cooperative to work with (it won't break your hands like steel or titanium and it closes seamlessly without an argument). It anodizes in glimmering colors no photo I seem to be able to take does justice. Unanodized, it's a grey-silver color with just a touch of a glimmer that gives no hint of the iridescent rainbow it can become.

This is a relatively "new" metal, having been discovered in 1801. It's used in alloy with titanium and steel for lots of technology applications, including the space program.

The glory of niobium is the color. When it takes color, it takes it in a subtle range. I get a packet of multicolor rings and for some projects sort them into colors, and often there's no clear division - for example the bronze has purple highlights and the violet has gorgeous blue. As a result, you can get a beautiful gradient effect when weaving it into chainmaille.

The other tremendous benefit is that the stuff is as hypoallergenic as you can get. While a few people react to niobium, it's extremely rare. As a result it's used extensively in body piercings. So if you've got sensitive ears and you haven't tried niobium hooks, try them. A search on Etsy should turn up several. Niobum and titanium alloys, unlike surgical steel, should be free of nickel (which causes most metal reactions).

As I said, a search on Etsy should turn up quite a bit of niobium, but if you're a jewelry maker you're probably wondering where to get this great stuff. The suppliers I know of include The Ring Lord, Blue Buddha Boutique, and Spiderchain, although I cannot attest to their niobium because I haven't bought it from anyone. I bought first from someone on eBay but since the rings were "snipped" niobium wire, they had rough edges that weren't colored.

Every bit of niobium I buy now comes from C&T Designs, and I'll tell you why. One, customer service is the best. Secondly, Curt takes great care in winding, cutting and anodizing his wire, so you end up with very few "trash" rings (unlike TRL; I haven't bought the niobum but sometimes I'm disgusted with how many aluminum rings I have to throw away). The ends are carefully anodized and the color is gorgeous. Third, as far as I know, C&T is the only place you can get "rainbow" niobium rings, where each ring has 2-3 colors on it, and this makes for some beautiful stuff, and even prettier ear hooks. And finally, he does custom rings and custom anodizing so pretty much, if you can imagine it and he can manage it, he's up for it. Prices are really reasonable, too.

Niobium Ear Wire Selection from C&T Designs (rainbow bottom center)

I really love the mostly circular shape, they hang very nicely.

People seem to like "cheap" earrings so I'm still using surgical steel wires. If I had my choice, though, I'd go to all niobium and to eliminate reactions, although sometimes they don't look right on silver earrings. Also, if anyone knows of a good supplier of niobium or titanium posts with loops, I'd love to hear about it. I've found a few here and there but no reliable supplier.


Shuku said...

I stumbled upon your blog reading through a few others that I do, and came across this very serendipitously. I've been looking into using niobium for chainmaille and other things, so this was wonderfully informative! And such gorgeous work, I'm drooling. :)