Brass is a metal composed primarily of copper and zinc. Copper is the main component, and brass is usually classified as a copper alloy.
The color of brass varies from a dark reddish brown to a light silvery yellow depending on the amount of zinc present; the more zinc, the lighter the color.
Brass is stronger and harder than copper, but not as strong or hard as steel.
The earliest brass, called calamine brass, dates to Neolithic times; it was probably made by reduction of mixtures of zinc ores and copper ores. In ancient documents, such as the Bible, the term brass is often used to denote bronze, the alloy of copper with tin.
Ancient metalworkers in the area now known as Syria or eastern Turkey knew how to melt copper with tin to make a metal called bronze as early as 3000 B.C. Sometimes they also made brass without knowing it, because tin and zinc ore deposits are sometimes found together, and the two materials have similar colors and properties. By about 20 B.C.-A.D. 20, metalworkers around the Mediterranean Sea were able to distinguish zinc ores from those containing tin and began blending zinc with copper to make brass coins and other items. Starting in about 300 A.D., the brass metalworking industry flourished in what is now Germany and The Netherlands.
Although these early metalworkers could recognize the difference between zinc ore and tin ore, they still didn't understand that zinc was a metal. It wasn't until 1746 that a German scientist named Andreas Sigismund Marggraf identified zinc and determined its properties. The process for combining metallic copper and zinc to make brass was patented in England in 1781.
The ancient Romans used brass primarily in vessels, dress armour, jewelry, and brooches or clasps. Brass production declined after Rome withdrew from northern Europe but resumed during the Carolingian period. More malleable than bronze, brass was used to make ewers and basins, lamps, bowls, jugs, and numerous other household items.
From the 13th to the 17th century in Europe, monumental brasses were used to commemorate the dead. In the 16th century, before silver from the New World flooded Europe, brass basins and plates gained enormous popularity as decorative showpieces for the homes of the bourgeoisie. Such pieces were hammered and embossed with elaborate designs. When the silver and gold of the Americas supplanted brass as a decorative metal, it found other uses in the manufacture of utilitarian household wares and chandeliers, candlesticks, sundials, and clocks. In addition, brass became a major material for the manufacture of fine instruments for astronomy, surveying, navigation, and other scientific pursuits. Brass was often forged, cast, chased, and decorated with engraving.