Copper is an extremely versatile and durable metal that has been used for over 10,000 years. It’s malleability, attractive red-brown color and smooth sheen is one reason copper is so popular as a metal for jewelry.
However, over time, copper loses this luster and becomes tarnished. As it reacts with the elements, copper begins to corrode and develop what is known as copper ‘patina’. This is the green layer that coats the surface of the metal.
While this can sometimes be done deliberately to add dimension and beauty to a piece of copper jewelry, most times, it is undesirable.
There are some basic steps you can take to maintain your copper jewelry to keep it shining through the ages.
Seal Your Copper
Some copper jewelry is sealed with a polish or wax to protect the copper from tarnishing and corroding, as well as staining skin green. Sealed or lacquered copper jewelry does not tarnish but instead loses its shine and dulls over time. It is easier to restore to its original look, and simply using a polishing cloth is sufficient to bring back the luster of the lacquered copper.
Many copper jewelers sell already sealed copper items. If your copper hasn’t been sealed, you can buy a commercial copper sealer. You can also use nail polish or car wax as these work to lacquer copper and keep it from tarnishing. This can prevent or minimize the copper from developing a patina.
How to Clean Copper
It’s easy to clean copper at home using a few household ingredients. Naturally acidic ingredients such as vinegar, lemon and ketchup are perfect for getting rid of copper tarnish. While cleaning your copper is easy, it becomes a bit more complicated if your copper is set with gemstones. Acidic substances can damage your gemstone, so take this into account before you follow any of the methods below.
Here are some quick and easy ways to do restore the shine of your copper:
Method 1: Ingredients: Lemon juice, salt
Use the lemon juice to wet the copper then sprinkle some table salt on the surface of the copper. Using a soft cloth, rub the copper piece to remove the tarnish. A pro tip is to sprinkle the salt on the cut half of the lemon and then rub the copper with the lemon. After a few minutes, the copper is going to be shiny and lustrous. Rinse and dry.
Method 2: Baking soda, lemon juice
Make a paste by mixing baking soda and lemon juice in equal amounts. Rub this on your copper jewelry using your fingers or a cloth. For a deeper clean, use a soft toothbrush. This works very well on elaborate pieces with lots of crevices. Rinse the paste of thoroughly and dry.
Method 3: Ketchup
Regular ketchup works like a charm to get rid of copper tarnish due to the vinegar in the ketchup. Squeeze some ketchup onto the copper piece and rub until the tarnish is gone. You can use your fingers, a cloth or even a small soft toothbrush. Rinse well to get rid of all the ketchup.
Method 4: Vinegar dip
Pour vinegar into a glass or plastic bowl and submerge your copper jewelry in the vinegar. Add some salt for a deeper clean and leave the copper to soak for 15 to 20 minutes. When you take it out, your copper should be sparkling! Give it a good rinse to wash off all the vinegar and then dry it with a soft cloth.
If the copper piece has gemstones, then take care as soaking in acidic vinegar can damage the stone. In that case, it is best to skip both this method as well as the lemon juice dip, and try one of the others.
Method 5: Lemon juice dip
Squeeze the juice of one or two lemons into a cup and add some salt into it. Place the copper jewelry into the lemon juice and leave it for several minutes. If necessary, use a soft brush or cloth to rub the lemon to get rid of all the tarnihs. Rinse with water thoroughly and dry your copper jewelry.
Don’t use metal containers for this method. Always use glass, ceramic or plastic.
Method 6: Jewelry polishing cloth
This only works effectively on sealed pieces as they don’t tarnish much. As sealed pieces simply tend to dull with time, a good buff with the polishing cloth can remove the dullness and make the copper gleam again. However, you can slow down the tarnish on even non-lacquered pieces by giving them a quick polish with a jewelry polishing cloth before and after you wear it to keep it shiny and minimize tarnishing.
Method 5: Commercial copper cleaner
When buying a commercial cleaner, take care as these may be too harsh to be used on copper, and can scratch your copper rather than making it shine. It’s recommended to buy a cleaner that has been specifically made for use on copper.
Copper cleaners are ideal for highly tarnished pieces. Follow the instructions on the cleaner and rub the piece with a soft cloth until the copper gleams again.
Copper stains on skin
Sometimes, copper can turn your skin green due to the chemical reaction of the metal with your perspiration, creating what is called copper chelates. Although pure copper cannot be absorbed by the skin, copper chelates can. The human body only absorbs as much copper as it requires and the excess copper chelates that isn’t absorbed by the skin begins to turn your skin green.
On a side note, copper absorption isn’t harmful and is in fact necessary for the body. Because copper deficiency is a health issue, many people wear copper jewelry for their body to absorb copper as required. The skin turning green is an indication that this is working. Copper is also an antimicrobial and antifungal metal and does not harm or irritate the skin.
On the bright side, the green copper staining on your skin is not permanent and can be easily washed away with soap and water. Applying some clear nail polish on the parts of the copper jewelry that touches your skin will also prevent this from happening. Lacquered copper jewelry does not stain the skin as the copper has to directly touch your skin for that to happen.
How to store copper
Before storing your copper, make sure that the copper jewelry has been dried thoroughly. Because exposure to air and moisture is what causes copper to tarnish, always store copper in a cool, dry area. Place the copper jewelry in an airtight bag, such as a plastic Ziploc bag, as this will reduce the interaction of the copper with air, slowing down the rate of tarnish. If you can find some, wrap your copper jewelry in anti-tarnish paper before you seal it away.
Avoid wearing copper jewelry when exposed to chemicals such as chlorine in swimming pools, or household detergents. Even body oils can cause copper to tarnish over time, so wipe your copper jewelry and keep it clean.
While copper requires regular cleaning to keep it sparkling, it is very easy to restore your pieces and make them look as good as new.