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Know Your Metals: 9 Different Types of Metals

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There’s a lot of talk these days about investing in precious metals such as bullion, coins, and bars. Both gold and silver. However, when buying gold and silver bullion, you don’t have to wonder what your buying. You know. However, for those purchasing antiques made of metal, it helps to know a little bit about the various types of metals you might find. In this post we’re going to take a look at some of the most common metals used in antique items. This might be the whole item as in a sculpture or only the decorative trim as in ormolu.

Base Metal

Not really a metal but more a catch all term for the more common metals used for describing the findings one might see when buying costume jewelry. These finding might be jump rings, closures, or pins made of brass, copper, pewter, pot metal, nickel silver, and surgical steel (more modern pieces). These are usually not marked and often will be either oxidized, tarnished or have a patina.


Brass is an alloy consisting of copper and zinc . The proportions of each component can vary depending on the item and its use. Brass is popular due to its bright gold-like look and you’ll find candlesticks, bowls, fireplace items and planters made from brass. It is also popular for musical instruments.


There are different types of bronze depending on the application. Modern bronze is usually copper (88%) and tin (12%), while you may find antique or historical bronze items are composed of any type of metal the artisan might have had on hand. These metals might include copper, zinc, tin, lead, nickel, iron, antimony, and silver. In some cases coins were melted down to use.

One of the many types of bronze is Bismuth. It is an alloy consisting of copper, nickel, zinc, lead and bismuth. It is unique in that it will hold a good polish. In addition to sculptures, coins, and medallions, you’ll also find some mirrors and light reflectors made of bronze.


Bronze Agent

Bronze agent is also knowm as white bronze, and is alsosometimes called German Silver (see below).


German Silver

German silver goes by many names: Nickel silver, Argentan, new silver, nickel brass, albata, alpacca, or electrum. Regardless of what you call it, none contain any silver, but rather consist of a copper alloy with nickel and zinc. It was developed by German metalworkers in the 19th century – hence the name ‘German silver’.

When first discovered, it was very popular as a base metal for silver plated items such as silverware and knives. We’ve all seen the markings – EPNS (Electro-plated nickel silver). You are likely to also fine German Silver used for jewelry and in the old mesh hand bags. The marking can usually be found on the inside of the frame.

Interestingly, after the late 1860′s the Plains Indians used sheets of this metal to make horse gear, pendants, bracelets, conchas, belt buckles, slides and much more. It is still in use today by some tribes in Oklahoma.



Pewter is a metal alloy consisting of tin with the remainder being either bronze, silver, tin or even gold (very old pieces). Although in the pewter of today, you’re not likely to find any pewter with gold or silver content.

To harden pewter, copper and antimony (toxic gray metalloid) were used. Lower grades of pewter used lead for the hardening process. This type of pewter may be identified by a bluish tint. Obviously you would not want to use it to hold any food product.

Older pewter items might be porringers, plates, mugs, bowls and various decorative items.

Pot Metal

Pot metal is an old-fashioned name for an alloy of copper and tin or lead. It can also be referred to as white metal or die-cast zinc. There are no set proportions for the making of pot metal but the primary component is zinc. Other metals you are likely to find used with the zinc are lead, copper, tin, magnesium, aluminium, iron and cadmium.

This metal was popular for making inexpensive castings quickly. These might be lamp bases, figurals, fittings, or decorative pieces. A problem with pot metal was its tendency to crack, shatter, pit and become weak over time. It is also prone to external and internal corrosion with the external corrosion often causing the decorative plating to flake off. These problematic features make it almost impossible to repair.


Ormolu (Gilt Bronze)

Although it is comprised of metals, ormolu might be more correctly called a ‘metal finish’ in that the gold or gilt seen has been  applied to another metal.   The term ormolu is from 18th century English and defines the process whereby finely ground, high-carat gold in a mercury amalgam was applied to a bronze object or trim. Once applied the item was exposed to enough heat to burn off the mercury, leaving the gold attached to the metal. Items you might find with ormolu trim might be a statue, vase or dresser boxex to name just a few.



Silver Plate

Silver plate is not an alloy but rather a thin – almost microscopic – coating of silver over a base metal. This base metal might be copper, nickel silver, brass, or any other inexpensive metal. Most sterling items will be marked as such with either Sterling, 925, 925/1000 or a figural hallmark if foreign.



Silver plated items, may or may not be marked. Some of the more common silver plated antiques are candlesticks, candelabras, compotes, bowls, cutlery, silverware, perfume bottles, and platters to name a few. If you are buying a silver item as sterling, always check to make sure it marked ‘sterling’. If it is not marked, you are most likely buying silver plate.

Some silver plate marks to look out for are:

  • EP
  • EPNS
  • EPC
  • AI
  • XII
  • Heavy plate
  • Triple
  • Quadruple
  • Quadraplate
  • Community
  • IS
  • 1874 Rogers Bros

Having metal antiques and collectibles in the home can add their own charm and knowing what you have makes it even better. Visit the Texas Antique Mall Compendium for articles on how to care for and cleanyour antiques.


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