Polymer clay has become wildly popular in jewelry making over the past several years. If you love experimenting and playing with clay, this may be the technique for you. Polymer clay is relatively affordable compared to similar materials (like metal clay), and it can be "fired" in your kitchen oven - it does not require a kiln.
Polymer clay can be used for making patterned beads, pendants, connectors and more with just about any surface finish you can think of. One of my favorite aspects of this material is its ability to pick up image transfers. Amazing designs can be created by using other items (like stamps and buttons) to create imprints and molds.
You can get started with polymer clay without spending a fortune, and you can even use the clay itself to create forming equipment later on.
Metal clay is a relatively new medium which is used to create intricate, solid pure silver beads, pendants, findings, and components without the need for casting with molten metal. Like polymer clay, metal clay components can be made using rubber stamps and other interesting items to achieve wonderful designs and textures.
Because the clay shrinks when it's fired, metal clay designs tend to have a slightly rugged, handmade look to them. You will probably not achieve the exact lines and smoothness of a cast silver piece.
Unlike polymer clay, metal clay must be fired in a kiln or, for very small items, with a torch. This means that you'll need to invest in some real equipment in order to get started. Another potential drawback is the cost of the clay itself, which tends to be pricey. This may not be a problem once you're an expert at your craft, but it can be a little daunting for beginners, who tend to make a lot of mistakes before becoming happy with their work.
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Chris Franchetti Michaels is a writer and jewelry artisan specializing in beaded designs, wire work, and metal fabrication. She is the author of the books Teach Yourself Visually: Jewelry Making and Beading, Beading Quick Tips, and Wire Jewelry Quick Tips. Visit her website BeadJewelry.net for more jewelry-making help and inspiration.