Tarnish Happens

Tarnish Happens

Published On: 10-01-2014 04:42pm

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Category: Jewelry Care

I get a lot of questions about coping with tarnish, and my stock answer has become that it is easier to deal with tarnish BEFORE it occurs. Being proactive in protecting your jewelry, especially pieces that can be difficult to polish, is easier than repeatedly cleaning.

Depending on what methods you use, polishing removes a thin layer of metal, which is especially detrimental to anything that is plated (thin coating of a precious metal over a base or different metal). I accidentally stripped the plating off a pair of hoop earrings that were thought to be sterling. Even using a very mild micro-abrasive pad, the plating came off quickly and exposed the copper core.

So, you may ask, how can you protect your jewelry from tarnishing? It helps if you understand what tarnish is. When metal tarnishes, it is responding to its environment and trying to form a protective barrier. Oxygen and sulfur dioxide are prime culprits in the development of tarnish, as well as moisture. How to avoid them? The best approach is to store jewelry in a way that limits its exposure to air and humidity. As unglamorous as it seems, I store most of my jewelry inventory and many personal pieces in plastic bags. Snack bags are a great size for this purpose.

Hint: You know those little packets of silica that come in purses or luggage, or cylinders that are included in vitamin bottles? Those can be reused in jewelry boxes or bags to help absorb moisture. They’ll last a few months, similar to their intended use in the original item.


Both the reading I’ve done and my personal experiences prove that metals react differently. Sterling and fine (99.9%) silver actually hold their shine better when worn, though of course rough treatment will create surface scratches that affect the polished surface. But for resisting tarnish, these metals prefer to be worn rather than to sit around.

Copper responds much more quickly to surface moisture, skin oils, chemicals, and other aspects of the environment. I have had water spots form on copper pieces I fabricated and let sit overnight before putting on an antiqued finish. For my skin, it’s also quite obvious that perspiration will turn copper and bronze within a day while otherwise I can wear some pieces for weeks without the same level of discoloration. Especially for copper, bronze, or brass—wipe down your jewelry with a soft cloth after wearing.

Because copper works so hard to form a protective layer, I usually add an aged finish then put a (temporary) protection on that finish. Adding a desired antiqued look seems to stabilize the metal so it then turns more slowly. Many people enjoy the patina that copper, bronze or brass takes on over time and simply let the pieces do what they will. The choice is yours.

The properties of gold make it highly tarnish-resistant though it can still lose its polish from wear and tear. Purity below 14k (which will likely have a higher copper content) will tarnish more quickly. It’s recommended both for the metal and any stones/pearls used that exposure to chemicals be limited. Wiping down your jewelry with a soft cloth and storing in an air-resistant container are simple actions to protect the gold. A rule of thumb is to put on your jewelry after using hair care products, makeup, and cologne/perfume.

Sealing metal with wax, polish, or other barriers can help slow the tarnishing but will not prevent it. The longest-lasting barrier is spray lacquer but I do not prefer to use it because of environmental effects and because it eventually flakes. After experimentation, I use the micro-crystalline Renaissance Wax, sort of a standard for jewelry makers, or a heavier environmentally friendly protective wax I have recently found. Some people recommend using a neutral shoe wax or a carnauba-based car wax, which you might already have around the house. Wearing gloves to shield your skin as you apply the wax is a good idea no matter what method you use.

Once tarnish happens, what do you do? I rely mostly on foam micro-polishing pads though that will not always reach into details of the jewelry. Many natural methods are available for cleaning jewelry, and are not as harsh on jewelry as are chemical dips (which I stopped using years ago). I’ve included some references below but have not tried them all, so I’m not advocating one over another. The foil and baking soda method for cleaning silver is one I’ve read quite a bit about and will try soon. The reported bonus is that this method reverses the effects of sulfur rather than removing the outer layer of metal.


If you have a particularly difficult piece to polish, an ultrasonic or ionic cleaner can do wonders to remove surface contaminants from jewelry with fine details or crevices. I use my ultrasonic cleaner for very difficult pieces. Be sure to read manufacturer’s instructions for use of the cleaner, as they are intended to be used on water-resistant items. Note: Not all stones or pearls are suited to use in this type of equipment and stones have been reported to jiggle loose or shatter. I do most of my polishing by hand and using a tumbler so I’m simply mentioning the other cleaners available.

With most purchases of jewelry, I include both an anti-tarnish square that can be used in a storage box, bag, or jewelry roll for travel. Except for some gold-filled or purposely antiqued items, I also include a small micro-polish pad that is better to use on jewelry than harsher abrasives sold for general polishing. The difference is that pads/cloths made for jewelry have a finer abrasive and will not remove as much metal. I also offer full-size jewelry polishing cloths and anti-corrosion pouches.

Tarnish happens! It’s just a fact of life. However, there are things you can do to contend with oxidation on metals…both before and after it happens. The saved time, expense, and environmental impact of cleaning makes it well work taking a few steps to slow unwanted tarnish on your metal jewelry.

Here’s an interesting article on copper jewelry and natural cleaning methods:


Discussion of silver and a scientific explanation of the foil/baking soda approach to silver:



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