Column: From the Workshop – Designer Davis Hatcher

Column: From the Workshop

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The materials we use are silver, niobium and gold, and sometimes copper, so far. For those of you who only recognize three of the four, here’s a bit of background on the stranger element, Niobium, the 41st square on the periodic table.This combination of materials helps us design Unique Cuff Bracelets for our clients.

I originally chose niobium to replace the steel hardware store tie-wire I used for the original bracelets, which has a dark grey color but would rust on your arm; not the most stylish accessory, the old rust ring.

Check out the story of the first cuff design here:

Niobium is a rarely-used material in industry and in jewelry. There is a little used in electronics, super alloys, aviation and rocketry, but even in these, it’s by no means a big player. One of our customers, an American Airlines captain, imparted that there is about 600 pounds of it in certain jet engines.

The machinability of niobium is quite unique like our Unique Cuff Bracelets. It’s unlike any other material I have worked with. Funny to think back when I was first using it and was like, what the hell? It is non-ferrous but still sparks on a grinder like a ferrous metal, unlike copper, gold, silver, and platinum, brass, aluminum; but it doesn't hammer like steel, which you have to heat up red-hot. You do it cold.

It has its own unique feel for twisting and forging compared to the other metals, and you can hammer it down to 10% of its starting thickness before it has to be annealed, which is crazy, but also a blessing, because you cannot anneal niobium without industrial equipment the includes a vacuum chamber, whereas silver and others can be annealed with a torch. Likewise, you cannot solder or braze it. It can only be welded to itself with inert gas shielding. Ideally, you have a laser welder. Those start at $18k and go up from there past $50k (Todd Reed, my favorite jeweler, has 2). The reason it is dark grey is the same reason you can't solder it. This rare earth metal goes into helping us create Unique Cuff Bracelets.

Niobium oxidizes so completely that it doesn't look oxidized, i.e. within the metal it is more silver-colored, but the surface is dark grey and perfectly uniform so you suspect it’s grey the whole way through. This layer is extremely non-reactive, preventing soldering / treatment in many ways, but this property also makes it incredibly hypoallergenic.

You can anodize it, it takes on super vivid unnatural colors when you run electricity through it in a solution of just soapy water. In contrast to anodizing aluminum, which I did in my garage in high school with a giant vat of sulphuric acid and a car battery charger.

See anodizing in action- here’s a video of making a purple Niobium pendant:

Finally, gold and silver (and I think copper) have a low 1000 F soldering temperature and a melting temperate somewhat above. But platinum solders at like 4000 degrees and melts at like 4800 (looks these up if you are curious; they are just ball park). You need #6 welding goggles to solder platinum to keep your eyes from frying out. Niobium's melting temperature? It’s like 4950 also, a little higher than platinum actually.

Hmm, probably has something to do with it having to be welded also.

So yah, crazy stuff. And, hey, now you know more about niobium than 99.9% of people on the Earth!


ferrous - containing iron.

anodize - an electrolysis process and its result of the building of an oxidized layer on the surface of a metal. The process of electrolysis means to submerge a metal in a solution and run a current through it. Most commonly done for Aluminum, Titanium, and Niobium.

anneal - used here, to soften non-ferrous metal by heating it red hot and quenching (dropping in water). Interestingly, anneal is also the act of combining to form double-stranded nucleic acid.

cold working - any manipulation of metal and other materials done without heat. Things like bending, hammering, twisting, rolling, drawing.

Work hardening - when you work metal either through bending, twisting, or hammering the structure of its ‘grain’ is deformed on the molecular level so that the metal stiffens from pliable to harder states. Certain metals are more or less pliable, but the more work that’s done on it, the harder/less flexible it gets. Eventually working will crack it. Think of bending a paperclip back and forth over and over till it snaps.Contact Helix Cuffs today to learn more about our Unique Cuff Bracelets.

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