We’ve all been there – wanting to wear a beloved piece of jewellery, and cursing the fact that it’s tarnished, or dull, or has weird spots on it. Often, we think this is a sign of a poor-quality piece but that’s not always the case. If you’ve ever wondered what causes jewellery to tarnish or change colour, and how to fix it - wonder no more, and read on!
What causes jewellery to tarnish or change colour?
How a piece of jewellery changes in colour over time will depend on what components or elements it’s made up of, and how it’s stored. Metals have different levels of reactivity to different things and will tarnish differently (or not) as a result. Pure silver and gold both have low reactivity and therefore will not usually tarnish. If your silver jewellery or gold jewellery has tarnished, it’s usually because it’s not pure. Other metals are often blended with these to make them stronger, less expensive, or to change their colour. If you have a piece of gold jewellery for example that has tarnished or discoloured, chances are it’s not real gold and may just be thinly plated instead. Other metals such as silver, copper or aluminium can be added to gold to make a gold alloy, increasing the final piece’s potential for tarnishing.
The main cause of tarnishing is exposure to moisture, acid, steam and various gases which can all change the surface appearance of a piece of jewellery. This is especially the case with jewellery that is worn against bare skin and therefore exposed to natural oils, sweat and cosmetics. Also, jewellery that is stored in the damp environment of a bathroom, or in an open container exposed to air and sunlight. Tarnish usually presents as a blackened or somewhat rusted appearance. It can be uniform or spotted.
Why does jewellery need cleaning?
The most obvious answer of course, is to make it look better. Constant exposure to external contaminants can dramatically change the appearance of your jewellery, so it’s important to clean it regularly (and learn how to store jewellery properly) to keep it in its best condition. Jewellery that is never or rarely cleaned will gradually diminish so much that it will become dull. It may become completely discoloured or even turn black. In some cases, tarnish or rust may rub off on clothing. For investment pieces, cleaning them regularly is essential to ensure they stay in optimum condition and retain their value.
How to clean jewellery
Of course, jewellery is made from a range of materials, not just silver and gold and alloys. The material a piece is made of will determine the type of cleaner to use. When cleaning jewellery be sure to use the appropriate cleaner for the material you are cleaning – a multipurpose cleaner will state on the back what it can be used for and may damage a material it’s not suited to. A chunky piece of brass jewellery can take a more abrasive clean than say a more delicate piece of soft silver jewellery. You’ll need a different cleaner for leather jewellery (leather cleaner or polish), than you would use for fabric jewellery (dishwashing liquid or fabric softener) and a single forged piece can be cleaned with much more vigorous rubbing than a piece containing small, handcrafted beads or precious stones.
There are of course commercial cleaners on the market such as Silvo, Barkeeper’s Friend and Brasso which all do the job well. To remove tarnish, simply dab a little of the relevant cleaner on to a soft cloth and rub gently in circular motions until the tarnish rubs away. Make sure you read the instructions on the back first to take proper care and match the right cleanser to your jewellery.
You could also go with some tried and tested home remedies that do the job just as well. A tiny dab of toothpaste and water on a toothbrush is a great solution for delicate pieces with lots of fine detail. Metallic pieces with no stones or additional pieces can be shined up simply by soaking them in a solution of baking soda and water. You can also make a paste with baking soda for a gentle polish. Pure brass jewellery loves to be soaked in lemon juice followed by a polish, give it a go.
Remember to always test a small patch on the piece itself with the tiniest bit of cleaner, before you attack the whole piece. You want to know that the cleaner you’ve selected will work but also that it won’t damage your beloved jewellery once applied.
Do you have a ‘family secret’ jewellery cleaning hack? How do you take care of your precious pieces?
Let us know in the comments below.