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Sizing Body Jewelry

When stretching a piercing from one size to the next, it’s obviously important to select the correct size jewelry. But when choosing what to buy, it’s important to know how body jewelry is measured.

The first thing to realize is that while the thickness of jewelry is measured in diameter, what your body feels is circumference. An excellent overview of this is included in issue #2 of Piercing Fans International Quarterly (PFIQ). Thanks to Jim Ward, you can download the article here.

The second is this: body jewelry is measured in several different systems, depending on its size and country of origin. This means there are slight deviations in size with different jewelry types. While slight variances in smaller sizes shouldn’t affect your ability to stretch too much, once you hit larger sizes this can make a big difference.

Here’s an overview of the different systems of measurement:

Brown and Sharpe (American Wire Gauge System)

Body jewelry manufactured in the United States is typically measured in the American Wire Gauge (AWG) System, also called the Brown and Sharpe measuring system. This wire gauge system has been used since 1857 (predominantly in the United States and Canada) for measuring the diameters of round, solid, and nonferrous (not iron-based alloys) electrical-conducting wire. This system is used for measuring the thickness of precious metals in the U.S. and was first used for making body jewelry by Jim Ward in the early years of The Gauntlet. He explains the choice in his book, Running the Gauntlet:

“The standard gauge system used for steel wire is different from the Brown & Sharpe gauge system used for gold and silver. For the sake of consistency and to eliminate the necessity for more sizes of piercing needles, I felt it was necessary to have all the stainless steel wire custom produced to corresponding thicknesses.”

To anyone who is not familiar with the Brown and Sharpe system, it may not make much sense. As the gauge number decreases, the thickness of the wire increases. In other words: 18 gauge is thinner than 16 gauge, which in turn is thinner than 14 gauge. This is because the number represents the number of operations used to produce a given gauge of wire, or the number of times a metal ingot must be pulled through a drawing die to make it smaller. Thinner wire requires more passes than thicker wire, hence the higher number for thinner material. Ever wondered why body jewelry gets thinner as the gauge number gets higher? This is the reason. Thus 2 gauge wire would need two passes through the die, 12 gauge will will need significantly more. Make sense?

Imperial Units (or Customary Units)

In the United States, we’ve fought hard against the adoption of the metric system. Unlike most of the rest of the world we still use a structure based on the imperial system, defined by the British Weights and Measures Act of 1824. When body jewelry sizes get larger than 00 gauge (or sometimes 000 gauge) it is too large to measure with a Brown and Sharpe measurement, and under the imperial system is typically measured in inches and/or fractions thereof: ½, 9/16,  ⅝, etc. Plugs for stretching manufactured in the U.S. are most commonly available in increments of 1/8 (or sometimes 1/16) of an inch.

The Metric System

Based on the system introduced in France in 1799, the metric system (or “SI” or the “International System of Units”; in French the “Système international d’unités”) is the official system of measurement in almost every country in the world—with the United States being a notable exception. (Currently, the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar are the only countries to not have officially adopted the metric system.)  Unlike the imperial system, the metric system uses interrelated base units and a standard set of prefixes in powers of ten. The system of measurement we’re concerned with for body jewelry is the one for length: meters, with the smaller division being centimeters and millimeters.

Why is this important?

When shopping for the right-sized jewelry, at Infinite we often advise our clients to think of it like buying shoes: Proper size is important, and no matter how much you want it, jewelry that doesn’t fit will not work. Nowhere is this more true than when selecting jewelry with which to stretch your piercing. Jewelry that is too small is a waste of money, while jewelry that is too large can damage your piercing.

But when I buy a piece of jewelry, the size is the size, isn’t it? The short answer is: not always.

Where the jewelry is made matters. For example, when you buy a plug that is sized at ½”, a U.S.-produced plug will, more likely than not, be exactly ½” (or 12.7mm), where one made elsewhere will most likely be 12mm (or maybe 12.5mm). Often, these sizes line up as a close approximation to each other—but not always. For example: If you’re buying 2-gauge glass plugs they will most likely be made from 6mm stock. (True 2 gauge is approximately 6.5mm.) Going up to 0g will mean jumping to 8.25mm, while many companies who sell jewelry manufactured in metric sizes will offer 7mm plugs—often sold as 1 gauge plugs—which will be a much more reasonable next size.

And remember: Your jewelry is measured by diameter, while your body feels the circumference. Jewelry measured in the Brown and Sharpe (gauge) system or imperial units (inches) can be especially problematic, as circumference measurements are often not incrementally consistent. This means while one size to the next may feel easy, while the next stretch can be incredibly difficult.

Confused? It can be daunting, but the point to take away is this: Educate yourself and pay attention to the size of the jewelry you are buying. When buying retail jewelry, find out where the jewelry is manufactured—or at the very least have them take calipers to the piece and tell you exactly what size you’ll be purchasing. Understand how the different sizing systems measure what you are buying; this can make the difference between buying jewelry that is too close to what you are currently wearing, jewelry too large, or something that is the perfect size. Just like the wrong-sized shoes can turn a easy walk through the city to a crippling ordeal, the correctly sized jewelry can be the difference between a happy piercing and an angry one.

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