Why Does Jewelry Tarnish?

What causes jewelry to tarnish?  You may think that faulty manufacturing or under karating might be the problem when a piece of jewelry “turns”, blackens or discolors the skin, clothing or even the jewelry itself.  However, that is not the case.

The most common reason for this to happen is metallic abrasion; it is caused by makeup on the skin or clothing.  Cosmetics often contain compounds harder than the jewelry itself, which wear or rub off very tiny particles.  Very finely divided metal always appears black rather than metallic, so it looks like a jet black dust.  When this dust comes into contact with absorbent surfaces such as skin or clothing, it sticks, forming a black smudge which turns your favorite sweater into a polishing cloth turning it black as the jewelry slides back and forth.  To prevent this you should try switching cosmetics.  If this is not possible, we recommend that you remove rings and other jewelry while applying them or using a towel or cape to cover your clothing while applying makeup and clean the skin areas that come into contact with the jewelry with soap and water.

Another cause is actual corrosion of the metals.  Gold itself does not corrode, but its primary base-metal alloys of silver or copper will do so, forming very dark chemical compounds under moist or wet conditions.

When you perspire, fats and fatty acids released can cause corrosion of 14 karat gold, especially when exposed to warmth and air.  This problem can be worse on the sea-cost and semi-tropical areas, where chlorides combine with perspiration to form a corrosive element that discolors skin.  Smog fumes gradually attack jewelry and are evident as a tarnish that rubs off on the skin.

We suggest you remove your jewelry often and use an absorbent powder, free of abrasives, on the skin that comes into contact with jewelry.

Even the design of jewelry can be a cause.  Wide shanks have more surface area to come in contact with abrasives and or corrosives.  Concave surfaces inside a shank form collection points that trap moisture and contaminants, also causing a type of dermatitis.

You should remove all rings before using soaps, cleaning compounds or detergents.  If you are in a public place and you can’t safely remove your jewelry, try and remember to dry under the ring as soon as possible to avoid irritation.  Have your rings cleaned frequently.  As well as helping with the problem, you will be amazed at how much better your rings will look!

jewelry tarnish cleanerThere are many products out there that can help with tarnish, such as a cleaning clot. One side is treated with a compound that will safely remove tarnish on silver jewelry and even gold items.  Always be sure to wipe off any residue that might remain on the jewelry with a clean, soft cloth.  There are liquid cleaners that can be used at home as well. For sterling silver, we created a quick and easy cleaning video here on our YouTube channel.

If you have severe tarnishing, a trip to the jeweler might be the best solution.

Author: Shawn

Indiana University Alumni GIA Graduate Gemologist Student

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