Margaret Schindel has designed, created and sold one-of-a-kind and custom handcrafted jewelry for decades. She loves sharing her techniques.
Do you love the look of vintage jewelry, or love vintage beads or components but want to mix them up into a more modern look that's uniquely your own? This article will teach you the basic techniques you need to create beautiful 1950s, 1960s and 1970s inspired jewelry designs, even if you have no prior experience.
As a mostly self-taught, professional jewelry designer, I can assure you that learning to make jewelry isn't that difficult, if you are willing to practice the basics a little. (All the jewelry photographs in this article are of one-of-a-kind pieces I designed and created.) There are some wonderful resources for learning techniques and for design inspiration, and I'll share some of my favorites with you to get you started. And if you keep your eyes open, you'll find inspiration all around you.
Vintage or Vintage-Style Beads Strung in Symmetrical Designs
An Easy and Effective Design Approach
The easiest way to create vintage-style jewelry is to use authentic vintage beads and components in a simple necklace, bracelet or earrings. One hallmark of many beaded necklaces from the 1950s, '60s and '70s is symmetrical designs with small groups of larger beads interspersed around the strand, using metal spacer beads to "punctuate" the glass beads and pearls, as shown in my design, above.
The vast majority of the beads in this necklace, including the glass pearls and textured metal spacer beads, are genuine vintage. The large coral glass focal beads are extremely rare, but using even a few very striking, authentic beads from the post-World War II era as focal points can help give a design like this a distinctly vintage look.
Memory Wire Coil Bracelets
As Easy or Challenging to Design as You Choose
Another simple way to create jewelry with a vintage look is to cut a section of bracelet memory wire with several coils and string on glass beads of varying sizes and shapes. In the bracelet shown above, I mixed genuine vintage glass beads with contemporary beads to create a wide, cuff-like coil bracelet with a bead dangle at each end.
Random or Planned Design
The easiest approach is to string on a mix of coordinating and complementary beads in a fairly random order that pleases your eye. Alternatively, planning out which beads to use and in which order to add them gives you the opportunity to infuse more of your unique artistic voice into your memory wire bracelets.
Use Variety to Create Visual Interest
Mixing different sizes, colors, finishes, textures, patterns, and solids can make your beaded jewelry designs more interesting and distinctive. It's also another opportunity to express your voice as a jewelry artist.
Give Your Designs a Rhythm
Looking at the multi-coil memory wire bracelet in the photo, it has an interesting visual rhythm. Imagine it as a sound wave, with highs and lows. It helps give the bracelet a harmonious visual flow. There are different ways to create this effect.
I often build my designs with short, symmetrical units of between three and seven beads. The largest bead, in the center, is flanked by matching pairs of small and/or medium sized beads in different sizes, shapes, colors, and finishes. As soon as I finish designing one bead unit, I move on to the adjacent unit or units, looking at the collective visual rhythm and flow as the design grows.
Designing in a Spiral
Planning a design for a memory wire bracelet with multiple coils can be a challenge, especially if the wearer does not have very slim wrists. Wherever there is a tall bead, the beads directly above and below it on the adjacent coils need to be shorter, and vice versa, for the beaded coils to remain parallel when the bracelet is worn. In the photo, you can see how the large beads are staggered in my memory wire coil bracelet design.
After you have strung all the beads for your bracelet on the memory wire, your next design choice is how you want to finish the ends.
Memory Wire End Caps look like small metal beads, except that the hole doesn't go all the way through. There are also some that, instead of a hole partway through the bead, have a slim tube extending from one side that slides over the wire. However, those can be more difficult to use, since there is less room for glue, and it can be more difficult to slide the end of the wire into the slender tube than into a bead hole. Both styles of end caps provide a clean, subtle finish to memory wire jewelry that neither adds to, nor detracts from, the overall design.
After all the beads have been strung on the memory wire, slide them down toward the main wire coil (the part without any beads). Use the tip of a toothpick to place a very small dot of two-part epoxy adhesive inside the hole in the end cap and immediately slide the cut end of the memory wire into the glue-filled hole. Try to avoid getting epoxy on the outside of the end cap. Maintain pressure between the wire and the end cap until the epoxy dries, then prop the bracelet and wire coil so that the cut end with the glued end cap is facing un and the beads are not touching it, and allow the epoxy to cure fully, according to the manufacturer's directions. After the epoxy has fully cured, use sandpaper or a needle file to carefully remove any excess epoxy from the wire next to the end cap, if necessary.
Slide the beads down the coil so they are somewhat snug, but not tight, against the glued end cap. Then, wrap the beaded coil around your wrist, snugging the beads toward the glued end, if necessary, to avoid any noticeable gaps. Use a permanent marker to mark the wire about 1/3" past the last bead. Remove the beaded coil from your wrist. Use memory wire cutters to cut the wire coil at the mark you just made, being careful not to let the beads slip off the end of the wire as you trim it. Then, glue on another memory wire end cap and allow it to cure fully, as before.
Plain Loops are the third option for finishing your memory wire bracelet ends. They don't look as nicely finished as either of the other two options, but they are a good alternative if you don't want (or have time) to buy memory wire end caps, and don't want to add dangles.
After stringing the beads, use a pair of sturdy looping pliers with a small mandrel size to turn a very small loop at the cut end of the memory wire. Measure and trim the wire as for the end cap option, but trim the wire further from the last bead to allow enough wire to make the second loop. (I usually allow more length than I need and trim the excess wire just before finishing the loop.)
Loops With Beaded Dangles can add movement and visual interest to memory wire jewelry designs. Start by finishing the bracelet with plain loops. Then, attach simple beaded dangles to them. You will find step-by-step instructions with photos for making and attaching a beaded dangle with a wrapped wire loop in my Romantic Beaded Heart Earrings tutorial.
Only Use Tools Intended for Memory Wire to Avoid Ruining Your Jewelry Pliers and Cutters
If you cut memory wire with cutters designed for regular jewelry wire, you will ruin them! So, be sure to use memory wire cutters (which will cut the ends ends flush) or heavy-duty utility wire cutters for trimming your memory wire.
Similarly, I strongly recommend using memory wire looping pliers to turn your end loops. Regular jewelry looping pliers are not designed to stand up to the force required to turn a small loop in stiff, hardened memory wire and can easily be damaged if you use them for that unintended purpose.
Cagework or Tapestry Beading
Bead Embroidery With Very Fine Gauge Wire on Metal Filigree or Perforated Screen Findings
Ornate costume jewelry encrusted with hand-embroidered pearls, beads, rhinestones and other faux jewels was extremely popular and fashionable in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Pieces from top fashion jewelry designers such as Miriam Haskell, Stanley Hagler, Robert DeMario and Ian St. Gielar are extremely collectible among high-end costume jewelry connoisseurs.
These labor-intensive designs involve intricate bead embroidery done with very fine wire on stamped brass filigree components. Using 28-gauge gold-plated copper wire is a good compromise of thin diameter, strength, and ease of use. However, thinner 30-gauge or 32-gauge can also used and is less noticeable in the design, which is visually preferable. Plated copper wire is more flexible than plated brass wire, and less prone to kinking or breaking, although either can be used.
The bead-embroidered filigree stampings are sewn onto a base, which can be either a perforated metal finding or a matching brass filigree, using the same or a slightly heavier fine-gauge wire. Often, the beaded stampings are added to the base in overlapping layers, similar to a collage piece.
Jewelry made with this technique, most often called cagework or tapestry beading, would be cost-prohibitive to produce commercially today.
This is a challenging, time-consuming, and often frustrating technique, because the very fine wire frequently kinks and can easily break as you embroider the beads and other components onto the metal backing and twist the ends together on the back of the embroidery, and also because pulling the thin wire with your fingertips over and over can be painful. But the results can be spectacular, and if you are extremely patient, you can create your own cagework beaded jewelry masterpiece.
5 Tips for Learning to Make Vintage Style Cagework Jewelry
Miriam Haskell is one of the best known designers of cagework jewelry. If you want to learn how to make jewelry with tapestry beading focal pieces, here's what I recommend:
- Start by looking carefully at the excellent photos of the backs of the jewelry in Cathy Gordon's and Sheila Pamfiloff's book Miriam Haskell Jewelry.
- If you can find a few pieces of broken vintage bead-embroidered pieces at flea markets, yard or estate sales, or on eBay that you can pick up inexpensively, and then carefully taking them apart, bit by bit, to see how they were constructed.
- Read Diane Fitzgerald's superb 2008 article in VintageStyle Jewelry, "Creating a Collage à la Miriam Haskell," which provides a high-level step-by-step of the entire process. It also shows you how to make your own perforated screen findings!
- Read the article "Cagework Assemblage: The Basics of Beads and Filigree on Wire" by Brenda Sue Lansdowne on the B'sue Boutiques blog.
- Watch the following video on this technique by Brenda Sue.
Vintage Haskell Style Beading, Cagework on Filigree
More of My Miriam Haskell Style Cagework Beaded Jewelry Designs
Easier Alternatives for Beginners
If you're not that ambitious or good with your hands, you may want to try one of the simpler techniques that simulate the look of cageworking. One is to thread beads on headpins, feed the wire ends through holes in the filigree base, and either twist the ends together or coil them tightly against the back of the filigree with round-nose pliers. Here's a very simple example from Bajuna Jewelry's Helpful Hint Blog.
I've also seen projects that involve sewing on the beads on with beading wire, beading thread or fishing line, all of which are far more forgiving than the very fine-gauge wire used in authentic cageworked jewelry.
AKA Assemblage Jewelry
Making vintage-inspired collage jewelry is a lot of fun, and if you use the right glue, it's hard to do it wrong. Most designers consider E-6000, despite its noxious odor and tendency to dry too fast sometimes, the glue of choice for assemblage jewelry. I recommend buying the small tubes, which can be used up before the glue dries up, becomes gummy and loses its stickiness.
Whether you use all authentic vintage brass or other metal stampings, beads and stones, all contemporary or reproduction vintage components, or as I usually do, a mixture of vintage, reproduction and contemporary materials, it's easy to create bold, glamorous jewelry that Hollywood starlets from decades ago might have worn.
Collage / Assembly Jewelry Demos, Tutorials and Projects from B'sue Boutiques
Brenda Sue Lansdowne of B'sue Boutiques loves making collage jewelry, and she's been making and selling it successfully for a long time. She's a fun lady and very generous about sharing her tips, tricks and techniques. Here are some videos she's posted on YouTube that will teach you how to make high-impact collage jewelry. Her methods are easy to follow, and there's nothing subtle about her impressive, "look at me!" designs. Her website also sells the brass bases and other components to make these types of designs.
Introduction to Collage Jewelry: The Glue to Use
Collaged Jewelry with Brass Stampings and Rhinestones, Part One
Collage Jewelry Part Two, Painted Brass Stampings, Pearlies and Rhinestones
More of My Vintage-Style Collage Jewelry Designs for Inspiration
Adding a Patina to Metal Jewelry Components
Adding a patina (AKA "patinating") can instantly transform new silver, brass, copper, or plated metal filigrees, chains, and other jewelry findings and components to give them an aged or antique finish suitable for vintage-style jewelry.
Remove Lacquer Coatings Before Applying a Patina
Most of these patinas only work on raw metals. If the metal already has been sealed with a lacquer or other protective coating to keep it shiny, you will need to remove that coating before a patina can be applied successfully. If the piece you wish to patinate does not contain any heat-sensitive materials, such as glue or heat-sensitive stones, you can drop it into a pot of saturated baking soda solution (water mixed with as much baking soda as can be dissolved in it) until the lacquer lifts off. Then rinse the piece thoroughly under running water. If the piece contains heat-sensitive elements, you will need to remove the lacquer with lacquer thinner. Lacquer thinner is a hazardous material that must be kept away from heat and used with caution! Be sure to read the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the solvent you are using and follow the safety precautions. Using it outdoors is best, ideally when there is a light breeze to carry away the noxious fumes.
Note: If you are not sure of the metal composition of your jewelry components, do this at your own risk!
Cleaning and Degreasing the Metal
Clean the metal to remove any grease or fingerprints that could interfere with the absorption of the patina. A bowl of water with a squirt of dish soap and a little household ammonia works well. Put on nitrile or rubber gloves, then swish the metal in this solution and scrub it gently with a soft toothbrush, such as a child's toothbrush or one for sensitive teeth. Then rinse the piece thoroughly under running water and place it on a few sheets of paper towel (or a fabric towel dedicated to craft use) to dry while you prepare your patina set-up.
Patina Options for Jewelry
You can use heat, or household chemicals, such as ammonia, vinegar and salt, or commercial products to produce different patina effects.
Tim McCreight has a marvelous page dedicated to Heat Patinas on the Brynmorgen Press site.
Liver of Sulfur Patina
One of my favorite options is liver of sulfur, which is mixed with water to create a weak solution It can produce a range of different patina colors on fine, Argentium or sterling silver, and brown-to-dark gray shades on copper, brass or bronze. It has little to no effect on high-karat gold, but may darken lower-karat gold alloys a bit.
A weak liver of sulfur solution can produce a range of different patina colors on fine, If you use a warm liver of sulfur solution with cold metal, or a cold solution with warm metal, you can dip your piece repeatedly and watch the color develop. As soon as you are happy with the color, immediately rinse the piece thoroughly in cold water.
Regular liver of sulfur has a short shelf life, and a very little goes a long way. I highly recommend getting a small, one-ounce bottle of extended-life liver of sulfur gel, which has a significantly longer shelf life and will make enough patina solution for many pieces of jewelry.
Fair warning: Liver of sulfur smells like rotten eggs, so work in a well ventilated environment!
I highly recommend Cool Tools' excellent article, "A Jewelry Artists Guide to Liver of Sulfur Patinas & Finishes" and Katherine Palochak's iridescent patina recipe, a liver of sulfur solution with ammonia and salt.
Non-Toxic Chemical Patinas
"Patination with Non-Toxic Solutions," a paper by a Master of Fine Arts degree candidate, describes numerous patina recipes and techniques using non-toxic household chemicals, such as salt and ammonia, as well as other non-toxic chemicals such as liver of sulfur, to create a range of effects.
Jewelry artist Christi Friesen developed the Swellegant line of metal coatings, dye oxides and patinas, which are water-based and non-toxic. Some of these products allow you to add a layer of metal to a non-metal surface that can then be patinated. All the products should be sealed to preserve the finish. Learn more about using them to color or patinate jewelry findings.
Baldwin's Patina gives a (usually) brownish patina on copper, brass, bronze and steel.
Other Commercial Patinas
Different chemicals are suitable for different metals, so be sure to read the packaging labels. Also, some of the chemicals can be dangerous, so be sure to read the MSDS for any product you are considering using and taking all recommended safety precautions. I recommend wearing nitrile gloves, eye protection, and a particulate mask suitable for filtering vapors when working with most of these chemicals; working in a very well ventilated area; and avoiding the more caustic chemicals, as there are much safer alternatives. Be sure to ask your local authorities about the proper way to dispose of the chemicals you are using.
Mark Nelson of Rio Grande created a helpful project sheet for Beads, Baubles and Jewels, "Oxidizing to Create 'Vintage' Components," that highlights the use of many of these formulas. Here are two commonly used products:
- Jax — Jax makes a range of patina and oxidizing products for various metals. These work extremely well, but are hazardous
- Midas Black Max Oxidizer — Black Max is one of the few products that will provide a true, dark black patina on silver (or a gray patina on gold alloys (e.g., 18K, 14K, 12K or 10K gold). I don't use it because it is contains tellurium compounds and hydrochloric acid, which are caustic and hazardous to touch or breathe. It is also expensive compared to some of the other options listed here. However, many professional jewelry artists swear by it. Be sure to take all the recommended safety precautions, including working in a well ventilated area and wearing chemical safety googles and neoprene or rubber gloves and apron.
Patina Recipes for Brass, Bronze and Copper
The Patina Formulas for Brass, Bronze and Copper page on The Science Company's website is an excellent collection of chemical patina recipes from a variety of sources and for different metals.
Polishing the High Points
In most cases, patina is used to emphasize texture by creating a contrast between lighter, raised areas and darker, recessed areas. Remove the patina from the high points of the metal by lightly rubbing just the raised surfaces with extremely fine, 1000- or 2000-grit automotive sandpaper, 3M polishing papers, or a commercial jewelry polishing cloth with a polishing abrasive embedded in the fabric (such as a Sunshine cloth).
To avoid accidentally removing the patina from the recessed areas, wrap the sandpaper, polishing paper or polishing cloth very tightly around a salon board (manicure nail board), keeping the material taut against the nail board and lightly rubbing away the color from just the raised surface areas.
Sealing the Patina
You may want to seal the metal afterward, depending on what type of patina you use. Whatever you use as a coating, it will alter the color somewhat. A matte sealer will affect the color less than a gloss coating.
I recommend making a few test pieces to see the effects of different coatings over your choice of patina. Here are a couple of options:
- Rub on a very thin film of Renaissance Wax with a soft cloth. Let the wax dry for a few minutes, then buff it off.
- Apply a thin, even coat of a clear liquid or spray lacquer, such ProtectaClear or Nikolas.
Other Metal Coloring Techniques
Color can add excitement to your vintage style jewelry designs. Here are a few ways to color metal components and findings.
Color Magic is a line of paints specifically for metal. It comes in a selection of transparent and opaque shades, along with a thinner and clear UV coating to prevent fading. Color Magic comes in small bottles with built-in brush applicators, very similar to nail polish, and is extremely easy to apply. I used several transparent shades to color the raw brass bracelet cuff blank, leaves and butterfly stamping for the purple collage bracelet shown above.
Pebeo Vitrea 160 are transparent, water-based glass paints that can also be used on clean metal. After applying these to your metal, the pieces need to air dry completely for 24 hours and then bake in a 325 °F oven for 40 minutes to heat-set the paint. These paints are not durable, so it's best to use them in areas where they are less apt to be rubbed or scratched, such as on drop earrings.
© 2017 Margaret Schindel
What Is Your Favorite Vintage Style Jewelry Type or Designer?
Margaret Schindel (author) from Massachusetts on April 06, 2018:
Larry, thanks so much for your kind words and for sharing your father's story. Undaunted by tragedy, he was determined to make a success of himself and he did so, thanks to his innate talent and a lot of hard work. He sounds like a remarkable man!
Larry W Fish from Raleigh on April 06, 2018:
I always read any article concerning jewelry, Margaret. My father got polio when he was only 19, After months in hospitals he was sent by the county to the Institute for the Crippled and Disabled in New York City. He learned to make sterling silver jewelry. He was famous in the Pocono Mountains area of Pennsylvania. People came from miles around to buy his jewelry. He made his jewelry in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Your designs are beautiful, stunning, really nice.
Margaret Schindel (author) from Massachusetts on April 02, 2018:
Thanks so much for the lovely compliment, Cynthia! I, too, love both authentic vintage and vintage-style jewelry, and being able to design and create my own pieces allows me to create unique styles.
Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on April 02, 2018:
I love vintage style jewelry and I enjoy crafts. The combination of beautiful jewelry and making something myself is a huge enticement for me. Your jewelry is gorgeous Margaret and quite an inspiration.
Claudia Drake on November 23, 2017:
Remarkable article; you’ve really captured it all. I’ve become addicted to Muriam Haskell and love the variety of her/their work. But it’s the cagework that I adore and want to continue to pursue. So, thanks for all the info.
Margaret Schindel (author) from Massachusetts on May 23, 2017:
Thank you so much, @bravewarrior! I used to sell my jewelry on my own website and at shows, but since I went back to the corporate world full-time last year, I've only had time to do custom commissions for existing clients or people they refer to me, and for people who admire my jewelry when I wear it and want me to design something for them to wear or give as a gift. When I retire, I'm hoping to have enough time to make more jewelry to sell. Thanks again for your wonderful compliment!
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on May 23, 2017:
Your jewelry is beautiful, Margaret! I admire anyone who has the patience for crafting. I'm one who has absolutely none. Where do you sell your jewelry?
Margaret Schindel (author) from Massachusetts on April 18, 2017:
Thanks very much, Kristen! As I mentioned, some of the techniques are easier to do than others. For example, every time I make a cagework beaded piece, my poor, sore fingertips make me swear I'll never do another. But the results of that technique are so gorgeous that I always come back to it! But something like the single-strand necklace example with the vintage coral glass beads or the coil bracelet are definitely easy enough for a beginner to make. Thanks again for your lovely feedback!
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 18, 2017:
Margaret, those designs are really stunning and wonderful to create from vintage jewelry. It sounds so simple and easy to do at home. Thanks for sharing your expertise on this clever project.