There are numerous metals (and other materials) available to work with in chainmaille, and due to budget constraints I have not had the pleasure of working with all of them. However, information on the pros and cons of each material is widely available through chainmaille suppliers, artists, and hobbyists. Materials can vary greatly in price, suitability, strength, and appropriateness for any given project, so it is important to understand your goals for a particular chainmaille piece when deciding on the materials you will use to construct it. Also, material aesthetics and characteristics can vary between suppliers, bright aluminum from one supplier may have a greater (or lesser) amount of shine than the 'same' material from another provider or one suppliers alloy may be softer than another's. It's up to you to decide which product appeals to you most. But, to get you started, here is a quick overview of some of the more common chainmaille metals and materials...
Regular Aluminum - This metal alloy is not suitable for most jewelry applications, but is used in some industrial applications or for anodizing (coloring). This metal has a habit of turning your hands, clothing, and anything else it comes in contact with black (1). Most of the suppliers that I use for my chainmaille jewelry do not offer this metal. Others, like The Ring Lord do offer these rings but they state that they are very 'dirty' to work with.
Bright Aluminum - This alloy of aluminum is very light and shiny, with little to no black 'rub off' as is found in regular aluminum. It is also inexpensive, making it a great metal for budget-conscious yet beautiful jewelry creations as well as your general chainmaille needs. This metal is easy to manipulate but this also makes it a bit lacking in the durability department when compared to some of the stiffer metals (2). Ultimately, this is a great beginner metal for some beautiful creations if you can't afford silver.
Anodized Aluminum - In layman's terms this is 'colored aluminum'. The colored rings are created by running an electrical current through aluminum rings and then dyeing them (3), creating a colored outer coating. These are the least expensive of the colored metal rings generally available on the market (3). The colors can be vibrant, but they can also vary across batches and between batches and the color can also be scratched, flake off, or fade with wear (3, 4). Depending on the supplier, the rings may be dyed before or after they are cut, so make sure you check as rings that are colored after they are cut have colored ends as well and (in my experience) the closures are less evident.
Copper - Copper is a lovely reddish colored metal that is fairly easy to work with and relatively inexpensive (3). However, it's a fairly weak (read: easily warped) metal and tends to tarnish fairly quickly. Copper pieces require frequent cleaning with lemon juice and/or storage in fairly air-tight containers to maintain their shine. Or, you can leave it tarnished and have a unique patina on each piece that some people find very attractive.
Enameled Copper - These rings are copper which has had a layer of color added to the surface. The colors can be very vivid, but the process of coating the wire makes the copper even softer than it was previously (3). This makes the rings exceptionally prone to warping if mishandled. The rings are often cut after the color is applied, leaving exposed copper ends that require focus to align in the finished piece. Some people also have a reaction to copper that can cause their skin to turn green if they come in contact with the metal (2). If handled properly, however, these rings can give you access to some unique and outstanding color variations.
Brass - Also known as Jewelry Brass, this is a wonderful golden-colored metal that can give your project a beautiful shine and weight. It does contain copper, so people that react to copper (as mentioned above) may also react to brass and the rings may develop a patina quickly (2). Any jewelry cleaner that states it's safe for brass can be used on these rings (but other metals may react to the cleaner, so do not use brass cleaner if the piece contains other materials). Although this is a harder metal than copper or aluminum, it is still fairly easy to work with so that beginners can benefit from its golden hues.
Bronze - This metal appears very similar to copper in color, but is harder and tends to be more expensive (2). It does contain copper, so people that react to copper (as mentioned above) may also react to brass and the rings may develop a patina quickly (2). Any cleaner that is safe for brass or copper can be used to remove the tarnish if desired, but the same caveat of mixing metals applies here as with brass. At the thicker gauges this metal may be a bit hard to work with, but it is very durable, often making it worth the effort.
Stainless Steel - The most durable of the base metals, with a nice weight and dark silvery color (2). However, that durability comes at an (economic and spiritual) price. This metal is can be extremely hard to work with, especially at the thicker gauges, and will probably reduce you to either tears or swearing when you first start dealing with it. Be aware that this metal contains nickel, which may cause an allergic reaction in some people (2). But unlike bronze and copper, this metal does not tarnish or rust (5).
Rubber/Silicone O-rings - These rings can be made of a variety of materials, including silicone, neoprene, and EPDM (3). They tend to be inexpensive and can give your chainmaille creation a nice dose of color and stretch. The amount of stretch and the long-term durability of the rings varies by manufacturer and material, so some trial and error may be necessary to find what works best for your individual projects. I would suggest looking for latex-free rings to avoid any potential allergy concerns.
Sterling Silver - Sterling silver is formed by the addition of copper to silver, creating a stronger metal than silver alone (3). It is a beautiful, shiny, weighty metal, but it is also very pricey currently. That may change if the price of silver declines, but for the foreseeable future this is a very expensive metal to work with. People who react to copper may react to sterling silver, so it is important to keep metal sensitivity in mind even for the precious metals.
Argentium Silver - This is an alloy of silver containing 92.5% fine silver. This metal is harder than standard sterling silver while also being tarnish resistant (6), making it a very popular low-maintenance precious metal for chainmaille jewelry.
Gold-fill - These rings are made by putting a layer of gold over another base metal, giving extra strength to the ring while providing the shine and prestige of gold. The gold layer is thicker than gold plate, so well made rings should not have flaking issues (3). But these rings can be very expensive, especially with the price of gold being fairly high currently. Allergies are generally not a problem with this metal, but some people that are highly sensitive to metals may still have a reaction. I myself react to gold-fill if I use it for earring wires. The only metals I can successfully use on myself for earring wires are niobium and (assumably) titanium, which are discussed next.
The process of anodizing does not drastically change the characteristics of the metal in niobium or titanium like it does for copper, so for brevity the anodized and unanodized versions of these metals are combined.
Niobium/Anodized Niobium - Niobium is a dull gray in its natural state, but the application of various voltages causes a plethora of beautiful and subtle color variations (3). This metal tends to be hypoallergenic and doesn't tarnish, as well as being one of the strongest available colored metals (3). However, it is very expensive, making it a risky choice for a beginner who may mar a lot of costly rings while perfecting their technique.
Titanium/Anodized Titanium - Like niobium, titanium is anodized by the application of electricity. The colors tend to be more muted than what is found in aluminum or niobium and can vary greatly from batch to batch (3) but this metal is as close to truly hypo-allergenic as you can often get. It is also VERY expensive, so although it is fairly easy to work with a beginner should think twice before using this metal to avoid a huge cash outflow.
This article only touches on the various materials that are available for your chainmaille experience. Rings made of glass, crystal, gemstones, wood, and other materials can be found on-line and at your local craft store. Don't be afraid to experiment with different materials to change the look of a piece and give it an individual style that is suited to you and your customers. For me, half of the joy I get from chainmaille is from the finished piece, the rest comes from the process of developing an idea and experimenting with the rings and materials that give it the personality that I envision. Take the first step on your metal-experience journey, and find out what elements speak to you...
3. Mojica, Rebeca. 2010. Chained: Create Gorgeous Chain Mail Jewelry One Ring at a Time. North Light Books, Cincinnati Ohio.
4. http://theringlord.com/cart/shopdisplayproducts.asp?id=174&cat=Anodized+Aluminum+ Jump+Rings+12g+to+14g
5. http://theringlord.com/cart/shopdisplayproducts.asp?id=29&cat=Machine+Cut+Stainless +Steel+Jump+Rings