How to Care for Your Metal Jewelry

Care of Metal Jewelry

As metal jewelry ages, it tarnishes, or oxidizes. This is often refered to as a patina. Many metals gain a beautiful, rich patina, giving the piece of jewelry an aged, or antiqued, appearance that hints at a history. That this is a piece that has stood the test of time. Oxidation can be caused by any number of things. Most often it is due to the metal being exposed to air, humidity, other elements or even the wearer's skin.

Occasionally, a jewelry designer may intentionally oxidize a piece, or parts of a piece. This is done for any number of reasons, such as to gain that antiqued look without having to wait for time or to set off certain design elements in a particular piece.

With a little bit of time and care, that new,bright, shiny look can be maintined. An intentional patina can be perserved, or a natural oxidation can be kept beautiful. The following metals are those that I use in many of my pieces and the ways that I have found to be successful at cleaning and preserving my pieces. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me using the information on the "Contact" page.


Though it's not really cleaning, a little prevention can save you a lot of work! Store your jewelry in a cool, dark place. Air, and especially humidity, are main causes of tarnish. So PLEASE, do NOT keep your jewelry in the bathroom. Zip-lock baggies work pretty good and something pretty much everyone already has in their drawers. If you want to make a little bit of an investment (and it is just a little bit) there are online suppliers that carry anti-tarnish strips. These strips can be cut to any size. Slips them in a baggie with your piece to prevent tarnishing. It's not 100%, you will still have to do some cleaning, but they do slow down the process. Also available are anti-tarnish baggies and cloth.

A simple Google search can net you any number of homemade cleaning solutions for various metals. While I have tried many - some even successfully! - my favorite still involves just a little elbow grease.

Polishing cloths are available almost anywhere that sells jewelry, from your local jeweler to online supply stores, I've even caught sight of them at Wal-Mart (you might even be able to get one from me if you ask me nicely! LOL). There are several different varieties and most come with some kind of instructions for use.

My all time favorite is the tumbler. If you want to go all out, tumblers are readily available and some are relatively inexpensive (if you'd like a suggestion of where to go, send me an email and I can point you in the right direction). Some are sold exclusively for jewelry, but the ones advertised for rock tumbling serve the same purpose. A tumbler and some polishing media and you are ready to go! If you have a good bit of metal jewelry and you like that bright and shiny look, you may seriously want to consider this option. You can also make your own tumbler. All you need is a sealed container, like a jar, and something to tumble your jewelry with. The most popular suggestions I've seen for tumbling media are rice and sometimes beans. Put your piece in the jar with just enough rice to cover and surround the piece. You want there to be plenty of space in the jar for easy movement. Seal the jar and start shaking and rolling! That's all there is to it, just be prepared to be at it awhile. Tumbling media that you can buy, like walnut shells or steel shot can be used as well if you want to spend a little money but not go all out for the tumbler too.

One note on tumbers: Know what materials your jewelry are made of before you tumble! Some gemstones are soft, porous or may be chemically treated or dyed. Some metals should be tumbled only in a certain manner. Some facetted, set stones should not be tumbled with certain media because it could fracture the stone (even diamonds, believe it or not). Tumbling is safe and effective for most all jewelry, just be knowledgeable about what it is you have and what tumbling method is appropriate for your piece.

Chemical metal cleaners are very effective. I prefer to use more homemade methods (that Google search I mentioned will get you recipes), but the store bought ones work just fine. As with the tumbling, a word of caution, know what materials you have before you use a chemical. Not all silver metal is sterling and may react badly to cleaner meant for sterling. Some gemstones may not like chemical cleaners either. As I said before, some designers intentionally oxidize parts of a piece to gain a certain effect or some metal beads have blackened parts to set off a design (think of the sterling, cube letter beads. The black in the letters that allows them to show up so well is oxidation). Where a tumbler will most often leave the oxidation in creases and indentations, chemical cleaners, especially the dips, will take ALL the oxidation off.


Sterling Silver (92.5%): Sterling silver is an alloy in which at least 92.5% must be pure silver. The remaining 7.5% can be any number of metals, but is usually copper. This is why jewelry made with sterling will somewhere have a .925 stamp on it. I've read about a process that uses water and baking soda mixed in one of those aluminum baking pans. I've never tried it myself, but I've heard good things about it. A warm solution of white vinegar and a couple pinches of salt cleans very well also. It does not, however, polish and can leave a somewhat dull finish. You will still need a polishing cloth to get the shine. If there are no intentionally oxidized parts, chemical cleaners are fine. I have used Tarnex with good results. My all time favorite, as I've said before, is tumbling. I prefer to use my tumbler with stainless steel shot, a drop of Dawn and a little water.

Fine Silver: Fine silver is different from sterling in that it is 99.9% pure silver. Fine silver is widely available and most Thai silver, Hill Tribes silver and Bali silver are fine. For the consumer, there is not much difference between fine and sterling silver. They have much the same appearance. The biggest difference is that it tarnishes at a MUCH slower rate. This is because of the higher content of silver. The same cleaning methods that work for sterling will work for fine silver as well.

Argentium Stelring Silver: Like regular sterling, Argentium silver is an alloy. However, rather than using copper, the remaining 7.5% is mostly made up of germanium. While this metal has certain properties that make it attractive to jewelry designers, for the consumer, the greatest benefit is that it is virtually non-tarnishing. Notice I did say "virtually". If you regularly leave it in the bathroom where people shower everyday, it will tarnish! LOL Or, more innocently, if it's your favorite piece and you wear it often, it will show. For the times that it actually does need cleaning, all the same rules for sterling and fine silver work for Argentium as well.

Copper: The beautiful red-gold of copper turnes a soft, rich coppery-brown as it ages (yup, think of an old penny). On it's own, copper will not get that blue-green patina. That is the result of exposure to other elements, not just the natural process of air. As the presence of copper in the sterling silver alloy makes it more prone to tarnishing, it seems to make sense that copper would tarnish fairly easily. Luckily, it is also very easy to clean. Tumbling, polishing cloths and the warm vinegar and salt mixture all work very well. With copper, and acidic household product works as a cleaner as well. I've had great success with a lemon juice dip and ketchup spread as a paste.

Bronze: This is possibly my favorite metal! I love the way it works, I love the color of new, raw bronze, I love the color as it ages! Bronze is also an alloy, consisting of copper with tin as the usual additive. It reacts to cleaning much the way copper does, so the same procedures can be used.

Brass: I do not have as much experience with brass as other metals. I've been told cleaners such as Brasso work well on jewelry brass. I generally turn to my favorites, tumbling or the polishing cloth! But I have to say, I really love the "old gold" look that brass gets as it ages!

Bright Aluminum: Luckily bright aluminum is nearly non-tarnishing. It does, however, loose it's shine. BA does NOT like tumbling with stainless steel shot, water and Dawn! It gets a very ugly, dull grey finish that is all but impossible to get rid of! What does work well is a dry tumble with plain, white rice. Polishing cloths work as does a simple wash of soap and water.

Andondized Aluminum: AA is aluminum that has been coated with a color through some kind of scientific process that is completely beyond me! :) Okay, so AA obviously won't tarnish, but it can get dirty or dull. The best cleaning is soap and water or a polishing cloth. Most cloths have a cleaning side and a polishing side, all you need is the polishing side. You can use the dry rice tumble, but carefully and not for long. Though that scientific process that is beyond me creates a long-lasting finish, it can be scratched. Never clean with anything abrasive, for just that reason.

Finally, if you like the look of an aged metal, but you want the shine rather than the more satiny sheen, it is possible! The best way is with the polishing side of a cloth. It is possible to use the tumbler as well. I would recommend using the dry rice rather than any harder medium, and check it often. The great thing is, if you happen to over do it, time will correct your mistake! That, or you could just leave it in that warm, humid bathroom! :) Good luck and enjoy your metals!!