Should Metal Clay Manufacturers Be Held to Agreed-to Guidelines Just as Other Product Manufacturers Are?

I’ve been following the trials and tribulations of the glass industry for over a year, now. For those of you not in the loop, some US Art Glass Manufacturers were held accountable for several unwanted chemicals entering the environment because of the way they were disposing of their effluents. It was a matter of the EPA discovering that some of the Manufacturers weren’t following established rules to protect our water, soil and atmosphere. As a result, several, not all, glass manufacturers found it easier and less costly to close their doors then comply with the enormous task of rebuilding their furnaces, chimneys, etc. In the end, this led to a consolidation of sorts, with the same kinds of glass being made, with the same quality, albeit in Mexico.

When there were but two major silver clay manufacturers, and both being well established, big companies, compliance wasn’t a factor. Each knew the hoops they had to go through to comply with their country’s laws, and the distributors in other countries learned quickly what and what was not applicable and necessary for importation of the clays (we all have different hoops, but we jump through none-the-less).

Now, many years later, the 2 major silver (and sterling & copper) clay manufacturers have been increasingly outnumbered by medium, small, and micromanufacturers putting out everything from “snow bronze” to Sunny Bronze, to Brass to Iron, to Steel clays. And Japan has been joined by France, Poland, Turkey, Australia, and more recently, the US. Technology is such that anyone with a spare room or basement can experiment with metal powders, add a binder of choice, do some beta testing, and deliver, for immediate sale, a neatly packaged packet of metal clay, in powder or clay form.

I’m not necessarily saying this is bad. Not in spirit, anyway, and the artist part of me applauds the individuals for their entrepreneurship. But the Distributor part of me continues to groan as these new brands come out, nearly weekly it seems, without the proper information or packaging that any other, more recognized product, would be forced to have by regulation.

I got a package of clay recently that said absolutely nothing about what was in it, where it was manufactured, barely even enough instructions to get it in and out of the kiln!

Personally, I have thought for years that certain base metal clay manufacturers were very happy to put out a product and then let the customers beta-test it for them, letting them know what temps would work better, what lengths of time would result in a more completed product, and then announce the changes in a blog or email almost as an afterthought.

This is wrong, I had thought to myself, then and still now. Would I buy a boxed rice mix that would, maybe, come out all right by adding the specified amount of water, but maybe not? Would I buy a cake mix that I had to adjust my oven to so that it would come out edible? Would the consumer put up with that cake mix, knowing that the instructions are “almost” right, or the cake mix works some of the time but you might have to make 2 or 3 of them before you got that oven temp “just right.”

Recently I had a call from someone very involved in the metal clay industry since the very beginning. He wanted to know if I had any ideas on how to revitalize the metal clay industry, how we could regain control. Sure, we could focus on getting new customers, but was that the real problem? Was that the reason that the current metal clay community seemed deluged and confused with products that seemed to be almost the same thing but not quite? This metal clay alumnus and I agreed that metal clay might need, first, to create a Council of Metal Clay Manufacturers (CMCM) or (MCMC) so that we could get our acts together, set guidelines for packaging, contents and how to go about perfecting each brand BEFORE it was released. In other words, return to quality control basics. I realize that the main reason for all the different brands and colors was cost. After all, how expensive should bronze, brass, iron and steel clay be? But, on the other hand, shouldn’t the artist, the consumer, reasonably expect the product to be tested thoroughly before he or she purchases it? We are still buying metal clay products that only completely sinter a percentage of the time. Should it be the user that is told to “raise the temp of the kiln” or “use less carbon” cover the pan, uncover the pan, sift the carbon, don’t sift the carbon, round pan, square pan, no pan. Many people ask me why I stick with silver clay, and avoid the many, many base metal clays out there. It’s not just that I truly, truly believe that silver is the most cost effective metal clay out there, but (in reality) I’m spoiled by my metal clay working 100% of the time. Every time. Why should I buy a product I’m dicey about. Will it work today? Is it humid enough, is the moon waxing or waning? Is Jupiter aligned with Mars?

Seriously, I think it’s a travesty for the industry to have so many metal clays that claim they work, only to read rushed and frenzied questions about why their pieces broke when they followed the directions to the letter. What other consumer industry would put up with that? Is it because we are artists and we don’t mind “suffering” for our art? Or is it, God forbid, because we are women, who are used to being used as product guinea-pigs?

The current status of my dream to have a CMCM (council of metal clay manufacturers) is that no one of the manufacturers wants to play nice with the others. My fantasy is a large boardroom with a huge, round table (so there can be no “head” of it, of course, with a rep from each manufacturer sitting around, coffee, tea and diet Coke/Pepsis at their elbows, all talking energetically about the fate and future of metal clay: what needs to happen, what can be done to re-invigorate it, to synthesize its options to manageable proportions, and what kind of marketing it would take to put it into the hands of every man, woman, and child (over the age of 5) in the world.

I did say it was a fantasy. But we have to start somewhere. Will it take us artists boycotting certain brands until they work dependably to get the point across? What kind of impression must all these base metal clays make on the very people we are trying to bring into our fold?

I have no answers, only suggestions. Stop being the beta-testers for new brands of metal clay. Demand that the instructions be thorough, accurate and legible, and that the finished product WORKS!! Every time! What a concept!! A product that you can depend on when you use it, every time. I know they are out there, and they have huge, loyal followings. That’s terrific. But…what about the others? I know my time is way too valuable and I’m just too darned busy to do scientific research with pans of carbon to see what works and what I have to do to get it to sinter. I’ll just stick with my good ol’ silver clay, adding gold, gemstones, embeddables and wire, content in my knowledge that when I open the kiln (or turn off the torch) my fine silver will be exactly as I had imagined.

4 thoughts on “Should Metal Clay Manufacturers Be Held to Agreed-to Guidelines Just as Other Product Manufacturers Are?

  1. I had to laugh, Jackie. I get asked the same question. How come you work primarily in fine silver metal clay? As much as I love the idea of the other clays, and I do, I love the reliability and satisfaction of opening that kiln and knowing my pieces will be just as expected. I don’t get paid to beta (although I would!) and so, I’ll work with the tried and true. And hope the wonderful idea of a manufacturers organization can come to fruition.

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    1. I totally agree with you upon the fact that working with silver clay is cost effective. I made myself sick (I mean it!), trying to fire a certain brand of base powder metal clays a few years ago and was “kindly” told through PM and e-mails, to stop expressing my results and deceptions in forums.

      I think the problem about beta testing is that some people, chosen few (or not) are HAPPY to be beta testers. They feel honoured to be part of a development. Some do have the inclination to test, they have the scientific (or pseudo scientific) inclination to try, try, try again. And tweak this, and tweak that to eventually manage. I feel they have a sense of being rewarded when after weeks and months of trials and errors they’re able to eventually have a sintered piece (of one only clay or of combined clays). These people will always be!

      So I let them work the way they want with base metal clays, and stick to (a few different brands of) silver clays, that I like for their particular properties: one will be better for this, one will be perfect for that. As an artist, a user and a teacher, I feel it important to be able to know why I use this brand or that brand.

      The idea of a CMCM would be great still… although I’d be perfectly happy if it was only concerning the silver clays!

      Caroline Jaccard Krejci / Tulipes en Janvier

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  2. In my fantasy world we also have a Metal Clay Guild with the organizational power to hold the manufacturer’s accountable. The same guild could have a testing protocol funded by dues or fees from the manufacturers that would facilitate consistent recommendations capped with a This product has been found reliable by the test facilities of the Metal Clay Guild. If a manufacturer chose not to submit their product or pay their fees then they would not be sanctioned by the guild. In my fantasy world we also have a board and staff who would magically appear to administrate the whole thing.

    In the meantime, I too stick with silver for jewelry not only because of its reliability but because that’s what I want to use. When it comes right down to it my design time, construction time, and finishing time remain the same for fine and base metals. If I use a living wage pricing formula I can’t make a case to justify selling base metal jewelry in my situation since I don’t do production work of any kind. But, that’s just me.

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  3. I wholeheartedly agree with your comments, Jackie. While it would be wonderful to have reliable base metal and other silver clays, we are not there yet, and it’s not fair to let people think that we are and have them waste their money. The direction we really should be going in, especially if we want to see more people become interested in metal clays, is reliable firing methods that don’t even require having a kiln, much less carbon, multiple schedules, etc. Time and time again we see people’s frustration in the various metal clay forums because they have put so much time, effort, and money into making pieces only to have them not sinter or melt into blobs. Every response recommends different temperatures, times, carbons, no carbons, and still the firings are unreliable.

    When I hear students talking to one another in my classes and recommending that they start with a base metal clay because it is less expensive, I cringe. I tell them, yes, that works for wire wrapping when you practice using copper until comfortable with the technique before switching to the good wire. I always tell them silver metal clay is less fussy and pretty much foolproof, and the big bonus, does not require a kiln to fire.

    That being said, I don’t mind experimenting but it takes time and money. I feel that a product shouldn’t be put out on the market unless it has been thoroughly tested and will pretty much perform predictably with maybe a few tweaks to account for differences in kiln temperatures. It’s just too expensive and frustrating.

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