As far as I know, the only metal buttons made in quantity in Australia were uniform buttons, made by die-sinkers, medal and badge makers such as Stokes and Sons, Amor, A. J. Parkes and Sheridan, etc. These buttons have been made of copper, brass, white metal*, anodised** aluminium, and they have been gilt and silver-plated. A smaller quantity of fashion buttons were made by jewellers in metals such as gold and silver. These were often given as gifts in boxed sets.
* White metal is a descriptive term that can include alloys of antimony, tin, lead, cadmium, bismuth, and zinc. In Stokes case, it was probably nickle-silver, as the company quoted using this for some of its buttons.
**Anodising is a process of using electricity to form a corrosion resistant outer layer that can allow colouring.
A bewildering list of metals/alloys have been used throughout history to make or decorate buttons with. Some passed out of favour quickly, as the quality of button produced was not high. These include:
- Aluminium. Used in Australia for uniform buttons from 1953.
- Biddery. Used in India. An alloy of copper, zinc, lead and sometimes tin. Like pewter in appearance.
- Brass. An alloy of copper and zinc.
- Britannia. An alloy of tin and antimony used in the 18th century in Britain. Similar in appearance to hard pewter.
- Gold. Most commonly as a plating (gilding).
- Iron. Usually painted, lacquered or tinned.
- Pinchbeck. Used in the 19th century. An alloy of copper and zinc used as a cheap gold substitute.
- Pewter. An alloy of tin, antimony, bismuth, copper, sometimes silver, and in the past , lead. It was in common use in the late 17th to 18th centuries until replaced for the most part by the use of brass.
- Plumbago. An alloy containing mostly lead. Used in the late 19th to early 20th century.
- Semilor. Used in the 19th century, as a cheap gold substitute. A yellowish alloy of zinc and copper.
- Silver. Solid or as a coating.
- Steel. Iron with a small proportion of carbon.
- Tin. Mostly used as a coating to prevent rusting, also for decoration (e.g. ‘crystallised’ tin).
- Tombac. Used in the 18th century. An alloy of copper and zinc with a soft grey-white-yellow gleam.
- Zinc. Mostly used in alloys, but has been used for button making as rolled or sheet zinc with a protective coating against corrosion, also as rims or liners on buttons.