Pewter is a metal alloy which is traditionally about 90% tin, with the remaining 10% consisting of a varied mixture of copper, antimony, bismuth and occasionally small amounts of silver. There are different standards worldwide as to what proportions these elements must be used in for the alloy to legally be classed as pewter. Pewter alloys in Europe traditionally use less tin than alloys in Asia, which means that pewter in Asia is slightly softer than pewter in Europe. Because pewter is so malleable, it can easily be formed in to things like pewter beads and pendants which can be used in jewelry making. As well as being used for these beads, is also now in use for many other decorative objects, such as collectable figurines and aircraft models. In some sporting contests, pewter medals are given to the fourth place finisher, behind the bronze medal winner.
The earliest pieces of pewter were found in a tomb in ancient Egypt, but they were not in the form of pewter beads. Evidence shows that the use of pewter became more common in the 12th century as craftspeople began to work with it more often to create jewelry and “fine” tableware. It was highly sought after at the time. However, early variations of pewter would contain up to 15% lead. These types of pewter were heavier, darker in color and would tarnish more easily. The use of lead in pewter which was used for tableware and pewter beads was discontinued when scientists realized that lead could be harmful to human health. It is still possible to get pewter with lead in it, although you will not find it in the pewter which is used to make these beads.
These beads which you see at the jewelry shop may be plain pewter beads, or they may be plated pewter beads. It is not uncommon to find gold or silver plated of these types of beads. Plating regular pewter beads with gold or silver makes gold or silver beads more affordable and easier to work with than solid gold or silver beads.
Pewter beads are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes, because the alloy is so malleable. Because of the low melting point of pewter (around 338F – 446F depending on the alloy) it is much easier for amateur jewelry makers to work with than many other types of metal. At this temperature, it is much easier for amateur jewelry makers to try to cast their own beads, if they have the correct specialist equipment. However, care should still be taken when using any sort of heating equipment.