All little girls dream of sparkling tiaras, dangling earrings, and glittering necklaces. Unfortunately, little girls cannot afford expensive jewelry, and cheaper jewelry is made of materials that tarnish more quickly.
The Internet is loaded with ideas and hacks for preventing cheaper, or costume, jewelry from tarnishing. One of these is painting a thin layer of clear nail polish on the jewelry. Believe it or not, this method actually does work.
But what is tarnish? Are there other ways to prevent it? What happens when a piece is already tarnished? Can I use this same method on fine jewelry? These are the questions that help us to understand the importance of caring for both expensive and inexpensive jewelry.
What Is Tarnish?
Tarnish is what happens to the metal of jewelry when it is exposed to air, water, and chemicals. This minor erosion of the metal causes a dark layer around the ring, earring, or necklace. More precious metals will darken and lose their luster, while sterling silver will gain a golden hue. You may also notice that a green mark is left behind on your skin.
The truth is that nearly all jewelry contains copper or another metal that will tarnish. Only pure silver and pure gold will not tarnish. This is why so many of those Ancient Egyptian artifact’s glitter even thousands of years later. These pure metals also do not rust because of their low reactivity levels. So, anything below 24K gold will tarnish over time. For instance, 18K gold is made of only 75% pure gold and 25% of other metal alloys that will tarnish. Even sterling silver is made of only 92.5% silver and 7.5% other alloys. Remember, only 24K is pure gold and fine silver (or 999) is pure silver.
The green you find left behind on your skin after wearing cheaper jewelry is from the patina the copper leaves behind when it oxidizes. Every notice those old green statues, like the Statue of Liberty? That’s because copper was used for many old busts and statues, and then tarnish (or patina) over time. This if very common with rings, since these rub against the skin more than most other jewelry. It also comes into contact any chemicals- like lotions, perfumes, and soaps- that you use on your hands. This is why you will often be given the advice to remove rings before washing your hands or putting on lotion.
How Does Nail Polish Work?
It may seem pretty obvious, but using a very fine layer of clear nail polish protects the metal from external elements. When putting a covered ring on your finger, you’ll find that it stays brighter longer and does not turn your finger green.
However, as anyone who uses nail polish will tell you, it chips over time. This means that every few months (depending on how often you use that piece of jewelry), you’ll need to reapply another thin layer of nail polish. You must also be careful not to make the layer too thick or it will be visible.
Another added benefit of clear nail polish (besides it’s affordability) is that it will create a barrier between the items and your skin, which helps anyone with nickel allergies. As mentioned before, the nail polish will wear off, so if you have a severe allergy, you will need to be extra careful about when you need to reapply the polish.
So, you’ve already used the clear nail polish method, but you don’t want to overdo the layers of polish. Can you remove the polish with acetone, aka nail polish remover? Most nail polish remover is not 100% acetone; however, it is still not recommended that you use this product on your jewelry- costume or fine.
Many household products (as you’ll see below) can harm gemstones and soft metals beyond repair. Even if the scratches are minor, they become more obvious over time. It’s best to avoid such a harsh chemical. If it is a piece of costume jewelry that you don’t care too much about, try diluting the acetone with water only as a last resort.
So, what do you do when you already have nail polish on your ring? One surprising method can be to use the nail polish, again. The chemical makeup of nail polish is such that it can remove itself when laid atop another layer. Using the clear, since it is safest, simply run a coat over the jewelry, leave for ten seconds and wipe with a gentle cloth to remove. It may be tacky, so be prepared for a battle of wills, but eventually, the polish will be gone and ready for a fresh coat.
Other Hacks to Protect Jewelry
- Many companies create jewelry protectant, which is similar to clear nail polish. You can purchase this if you are concerned about the effectiveness of the clear polish.
- When you purchase shoes and purses, you’ll find those small silica bags that say, “Do not eat.” While this is great advice in general about odd items found in purses, you can repurpose these by putting them in your jewelry box. They will help keep moisture from the air away from your pieces.
- Expensive jewelry tends to come in boxes or cloth bags. These are not just for transportation. Be sure to put jewelry back in these containers, since they will prevent air and water from getting to them.
- Along with using the boxes and bags that fine jewelry comes with, you can use sealable sandwich bags to keep them from the elements.
- Keep jewelry in your jewelry boxes and cabinets. Hang them on the hooks and slots provided to keep necklaces and bracelets from getting tangled and interacting with already tarnished materials.
- Do not wear jewelry when swimming, showering, sleeping, or working out. Sweat can also cause the metals to oxidize.
Cleaning Tarnished Jewelry Hacks: Do They Work?
There are several methods for cleaning jewelry, but some are better than others. Be sure to dig deeper on what works for each particular metal and gemstone to prevent damage to your jewelry. Always use caution with home cleaning methods.
- Many Internet hacks suggest using toothpaste as a gentle abrasive to remove the tarnish and dirt. However, this is not a good choice. The abrasive materials in the toothpaste can scratch precious stones and metals. While some of these scratches can be undetectable, they will provide an added surface for tarnish to occur. This will make those scratches stand out starkly.
- Another method that does work is the tin foil trick. There are a few recipes available around the Internet, but the easiest includes only baking soda. Line a bowl with tin foil – shiny side up – and mix three tablespoons of baking soda to one tablespoon of water (increase this 3:1 ratio for the quantity you need). Once the baking soda has dissolved, soak your bracelets and such for about ten minutes. Then rinse and dry. Other recipes include vinegar and salt. These can be more abrasive, so be careful with gemstones.
- The method that is easiest to use is warm water and a drop or two of dish soap. This is typically mild enough to clean dirt from jewelry without damaging any gemstones. While this likely won’t remove all tarnish, soaking pieces for a few moments and then rubbing it with a soft cloth will remove enough debris to make your earrings sparkle. Be sure to rinse the jewelry with water and place on a towel to air dry.
- A polishing cloth is an excellent cleaning method for several reasons. These are often provided by jewelers when buying fine jewelry. If not, they are easy to find and purchase. Anti-tarnishing agents are built right into these soft cloths. They are very satisfying to use because as you stroke the metals, you’ll see the tarnish coming off onto the cloth. This is the only version where you’ll see the tarnish leaving the ring or necklace and remaining behind.
- Store-bought jewelry cleaner can be difficult to use. Many times, you are unsure of what goes into these chemicals, and you’ll find that they can be too strong for costume jewelry and precious gemstones. They can discolor pearls and dull the shine of gems. Be sure that when you use these products, you make sure that they are meant to be used on stones and pearls.
- The acid trick is another method that works great for cleaning copper and brass jewelry. Again, there are multiple recipes online for this method, such as using ketchup, vinegar, and lemons to clean and treat the metals. Of course, a simple vinegar bath will work too. Just drop your jewelry in a non-metal bowl for 10-20 minutes, then rinse clean. As with many methods, this can damage gemstones.
Note: Many items, such as rings, have several elements to them. You may have a rose and white gold braided ring with a pearl and small diamond chips, so how would you clean this? It’s best to look up each individual material’s cleaning recommendations, and use the method for cleaning the most finicky material. In this case, the pearl is the most delicate, so you’ll want to focus on those instructions to protect the whole piece.