The real answer is neither soft enamel nor hard enamel is better, they are just different. Soft enamel has a textured finish and hard enamel has a smooth finish. This is a simplistic answer, but important none the less; because, when you understand the difference between the two enamel pin types, then you are prepared to decide which is better for your specific purpose.
So that said, before we get into the nitty gritty details of soft enamel and hard enamel pins, I want to clear up some confusion. People often misunderstand the terms “soft” and “hard” enamel. The first questions they always ask are “will it bend?” or “is it made of metal?”.
I’ve learned over the years that “soft” and “hard” are not very good descriptive words when describing enamel pin types. Both soft and hard enamel pins are hard, made of metal, use the same mold, and are both very durable. The difference is in how they treat the enamel.
All enamel pins are created from a die/mold. The die is pressed into the metal leaving raised ridges and recessed areas. The enamel is filled into the recessed areas and the ridges keep the different enamel colors separate.
As mentioned above soft enamel pins have a textured finish because of how they treat the enamel. The enamel is essentially air dried which causes it to settle ever so slightly. This settling effect leaves the metal ridges raised and the enamel recessed.
The true test of a soft enamel pin is to rub your finger across the surface of the pin and if you feel the raised ridges you know it is a soft enamel pin. These raised and recessed areas are visually noticeable as well. I like to describe soft enamel pins as having a dimensional look and feel.
Soft enamel pins can be used for any occasion, but there are some uses that it is best to choose soft enamel. If cost is important, soft enamel is the best choice.
Hard enamel pins use the same die/mold as soft enamel, and the enamel is added to the pin the exact same way. But, as mentioned above hard enamel pins have a smooth surface finish. This smooth finish is is created because on hard enamel pins the enamel is hardened by heat and then polished smooth. This process leaves the enamel flush with the metal borders.
The true test of a hard enamel pin is to rub your finger across the surface of the pin and if it feels smooth you know it is a hard enamel pin. Hard enamel pins have a more polished and jewelry quality look and feel to them.
Hard enamel pins can be used for any occasion, but there are some uses that it is best to choose hard enamel. If image and perception are important, hard enamel is the best choice.
The reality is, choosing between soft enamel and hard enamel comes down to preference as they are both good quality pins that will last forever. On rare occasions there will be a technical issue that require you to choose one or the other, but in most cases it is up to you.
Besides the texture difference between hard and soft enamel, the other major difference is with the plating. Plating refers to the overall finish of a pin: gold, silver, copper, black nickel, painted black metal. Hard and soft enamel can utilize any plating option with the exception of painted black metal. Painted black metal can only be done on soft enamel pins.
People often get confused between black nickel and black metal. So, let me explain.
Black nickel is an electromagnetic plating, which is a process used to attach metal to metal. That is how gold attaches to the base metal of brass or iron. Black nickel is a blackish, greyish finish with a shine.
Painted black metal (or black dye) is a powder coating that is sprayed over a pin to paint it black. Painted black metal is pure black and is not shiny. This process only works on soft enamel because it is done before the enamel is added to the pin. The other benefit of painted metal is many colors. It doesn’t have to be black, it can be green, red, yellow, white, etc. Painted metal gives a stark contrast to the enamel and is what gives a soft enamel pin a cartoonish look.