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Nickel silver

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"German silver" hair comb by Bruce Caesar

Nickel silver, maillechort, German silver,[1] argentan,[1] new silver,[1] nickel brass,[2] albata,[3] or alpacca[4] is a copper alloy with nickel and often zinc. The usual formulation is 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc.[5] Nickel silver does not contain the element silver. It is named for its silvery appearance, which can make it attractive as a cheaper and more durable substitute. It is also well suited for being plated with silver.

A naturally occurring ore composition in China was smelted into the alloy known as paktong or báitóng (白銅) ('white copper' or cupronickel). The name German Silver refers to the artificial recreation of the natural ore composition by German metallurgists.[6][7][8] All modern, commercially important, nickel silvers (such as those standardized under ASTM B122) contain zinc and are sometimes considered a subset of brass.[9]


Tracing a cross onto a piece of crude nickel silver at a workshop in San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico

Nickel silver was first used in China, where it was smelted from readily available unprocessed ore.[8][10] During the Qing dynasty, it was "smuggled into various parts of the East Indies", despite a government ban on the export of nickel silver.[11] It became known in the West from imported wares called baitong (Mandarin) or paktong (Cantonese) ( , literally "white copper"), for which the silvery metal colour was used to imitate sterling silver. According to Berthold Laufer, it was identical to khar sini, one of the seven metals recognized by Jābir ibn Hayyān.[12]

In Europe, consequently, it was at first called paktong, which is about the way baitong is pronounced in the Cantonese dialect.[13] The earliest European mention of paktong occurs in the year 1597. From then until the end of the eighteenth century there are references to it as having been exported from Canton to Europe.[13]

German artificial recreation of the natural paktong ore composition, however, began to appear from about 1750 onward.[13] In 1770, the Suhl metalworks were able to produce a similar alloy.[14] In 1823, a German competition was held to perfect the production process: the goal was to develop an alloy that possessed the closest visual similarity to silver. The brothers Henniger in Berlin and Ernst August Geitner in Schneeberg independently achieved this goal. The manufacturer Berndorf named the trademark brand Alpacca, which became widely known in northern Europe for nickel silver. In 1830, the German process of manufacture was introduced into England, while exports of paktong from China gradually stopped. In 1832, a form of German silver was also developed in Birmingham, England.[15]

After the modern process for the production of electroplated nickel silver was patented in 1840 by George Richards Elkington and his cousin Henry Elkington in Birmingham, the development of electroplating caused nickel silver to become widely used. It formed an ideal, strong and bright substrate for the plating process. It was also used unplated in applications such as cutlery.[citation needed]


Nickel silver pieces from the Ruth Cortez Rodriguez workshop in Mexico

Nickel silver first became popular as a base metal for silver-plated cutlery and other silverware, notably the electroplated wares called EPNS (electroplated nickel silver). It is used in zippers, costume jewelry, for making musical instruments (e.g., flutes, clarinets), and is preferred for the track in electric model railway layouts, as its oxide is conductive[citation needed]. Better quality keys and lock cylinder pins are made of nickel silver for durability under heavy use. The alloy has been widely used in the production of coins (e.g. Portuguese escudo and the former GDR marks). Its industrial and technical uses include marine fittings and plumbing fixtures for its corrosion resistance, and heating coils for its high electrical resistance.

In the nineteenth century, particularly after 1868, North American Plains Indian metalsmiths were able to easily acquire sheets of German silver. They used them to cut, stamp, and cold hammer a wide range of accessories and also horse gear. Presently, Plains metalsmiths use German silver for pendants, pectorals, bracelets, armbands, hair plates, conchas (oval decorative plates for belts), earrings, belt buckles, necktie slides, stickpins, dush-tuhs, and tiaras.[16] Nickel silver is the metal of choice among contemporary Kiowa and Pawnee in Oklahoma. Many of the metal fittings on modern higher-end equine harness and tack are of nickel silver.

Early in the twentieth century, German silver was used by automobile manufacturers before the advent of steel sheet metal. For example, the famous Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost of 1907. After about 1920, it became widely used for pocketknife bolsters, due to its machinability and corrosion resistance. Prior to this, the most common metal was iron.

19th century banjos used German silver rims over wood for tonal quality and appearance

Musical instruments, including the flute, saxophone, trumpet, and French horn, string instrument frets, and electric guitar pickup parts, can be made of nickel silver. Many professional-level French horns are entirely made of nickel silver.[17] Some saxophone manufacturers, such as Keilwerth,[18][19] offer saxophones made of nickel silver (Shadow model); these are far rarer than traditional lacquered brass saxophones. Student-level flutes and piccolos are also made of silver-plated nickel silver,[20] although upper-level models are likely to use sterling silver.[21] Nickel silver produces a bright and powerful sound quality; an additional benefit is that the metal is harder and more corrosion resistant than brass.[22] Because of its hardness, it is used for most clarinet, flute, oboe and similar wind instrument keys, normally silver-plated. It is used to produce the tubes (called staples) onto which oboe reeds are tied.

Many parts of brass instruments are made of nickel silver, such as tubes, braces or valve mechanism. Trombone slides of many manufacturers offer a lightweight nickel silver (LT slide) option for faster slide action and weight balance.[23] The material was used in the construction of the National tricone resophonic guitar. The frets of guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, and related string instruments are typically nickel silver. Nickel silver is sometimes used as ornamentation on the great highland bagpipe.

Willem Lenssinck, Formula 1 Racing Horse

Nickel silver is also used in artworks. The Dutch sculptor Willem Lenssinck has made several pieces from German silver. Outdoors art made from this material easily withstands all kinds of weather.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Principles of Metallurgy. Forgotten Books. p. 62. ISBN 978-1-4400-5699-4.
  2. ^ Gayle, Margot; Look, David W; Waite, John G (April 1993). Metals in America's Historic Buildings: Uses and Preservation Treatments, Pt. 1, A Historical Survey of Metals, Pt. 2, Deterioration and Methods of Preserving Metals. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Cultural Resources, Preservation Assistance. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-16-061655-6.
  3. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  4. ^ Marks of Berndorf Metalware Factory in Austria – Marks of Alpacca and Alpacca-Silver II Products: an article for ASCAS – Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver website. Ascasonline.org. Retrieved on 2013-12-19.
  5. ^ Tim McCreight, The Complete Metalsmith.
  6. ^ Samuel J. Rosenberg. Nickel and its alloys. Vol. Monograph, 106. National Bureau of Standards. p. 8.6.
  7. ^ Keith Pinn, Paktong: The Chinese Alloy in Europe
  8. ^ a b Joseph Needham, Ling Wang, Gwei-Djen Lu, Tsuen-hsuin Tsien, Dieter Kuhn, Peter J Golas, Science and civilisation in China: Cambridge University Press: 1974, ISBN 0-521-08571-3, pp. 237–250
  9. ^ Nickel Silver – retrieved 19 April 2010.
  10. ^ Oberg, Erik; Jones, Franklin Day (1917). Machinery's Encyclopedia. The Industrial Press ; [etc., etc.] p. 412. The alloy came originally from China, where its composition is said to have been known
  11. ^ Dwight Dana, James (1869). Manual of Mineralogy. p. 265. smuggled into various parts of the East Indies... and is not allowed to be carried out of the empire
  12. ^ Holmyard, E. J. (1957). Alchemy, p. 80. New York: Dover.
  13. ^ a b c Derk Bodde, "China's Gifts to the West". Columbia University.
  14. ^ Neumann, Bernhard (1904). Die Metalle: Geschichte, Vorkommen und Gewinnung, nebst ausführlicher Produktions- und Preis-Statistik. Vom "Verein zur Beförderung des Gewerbefleisses" preisgekrönte Arbeit. W. Knapp. p. 327. ISBN 9785877316324.
  15. ^ Neumann, B. (1903). "Die Anfänge der Argentan- (Neusilber)-Industrie und der technischen Nickelerzeugung". Zeitschrift für Angewandte Chemie. 16 (10): 225. Bibcode:1903AngCh..16..225N. doi:10.1002/ange.19030161004.
  16. ^ Dubin, Lois Sherr. North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999. ISBN 0-8109-3689-5., pp. 290–293.
  17. ^ [1] Archived 10 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ [2][dead link]
  19. ^ [3] Archived 4 November 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ Quantz505 – Pearl Flute Worldwide Archived 7 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Pearlflute.com. Retrieved on 2013-12-19.
  21. ^ Elegante – Pearl Flute Worldwide Archived 7 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Pearlflute.com. Retrieved on 2013-12-19.
  22. ^ [4] Archived 6 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ Bach > Professional Bb Tenor Trombones > Viewing Model LT16M Archived 16 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Bachbrass.com. Retrieved on 2013-12-19.

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