Sunday, March 7, 2010

Cleaning Copper Jewelry

I fell in love with copper while I was taking an “introduction to metalsmithing” class at Parks and Rec in Tucson some 10 or so years ago. I was flipping through a Lapidary Journal and there it was. awesome cuff bracelet with a primitive looking sterling band and an organic shaped piece of turquoise. And soldered onto that sterling band was a blob of copper and a dollup of gold. Seeing this tiny picture of a cuff bracelet at the bottom of a page in my Lapidary Journal was the single most important event that steered my direction in metalsmithing designs. When I started to make beaded pieces to complement my cuff bracelets, I incorporated a little copper into some of the designs, but that was all that was available at the time…a little copper. There were a few sizes of round copper beads and a few gages of copper wire.

As copper became more available for jewelry making (ie wire, chain, decorative beads), I began using more and more in my creations. One of my longtime customers commented on how much she liked the copper, but did I treat it with something so it wouldn’t change color. Actually, I hadn’t really thought about it!! When I used copper on my cuff bracelets, I always cleaned my pieces with a Scotchbrite…I like a more satin finish and it brought up beautiful highlights while leaving the darker tones in the background. That wouldn’t be practical with chain, beads and wire wrapped pieces, such as my signature handmade clasps.

At the time, after listening to some customers’ comments, I decided that I didn’t want to treat the copper because some people preferred it as it “aged” and even some of my jewelry looked better with darker copper. But cleaning the chain, etc with a Sunshine cloth (polishing cloth with compound embedded in it) was very tedious and it never really gave it that bright, brand new copper look again.

One day a woman came into my studio and commented on how much she liked copper and my designs incorporating the metal with gemstone. She said she used a lot of copper in her small sculptural pieces. I said I loved it, too, but it was a pain to clean. She commented, “Oh, that’s easy…use Ketchup!” I looked at her and thought to myself, “Yah, right, and I bet you clean your aluminum hat with it, too!!” She went on to tell me that it was the Vinegar and Salt combination and I thought, “She doesn’t really sound crazy…could she be right!!??”

That night I went home and tried cleaning a small piece of copper chain that had darkened…it was like magic!!! I got a little braver and threw in a few odd gemstones and even a couple white freshwater pearls. The copper was like brand new and the gemstones and pearls were unharmed!!! Since then, I have been cleaning entire necklaces, gemstone, copper and all, with ketchup. I even buy the big 3 pack from Costco…75% is used for cleaning jewelry and 25% for hamburgers, etc.!!

Basically, these are the steps I follow when I clean my copper jewelry.

I put a few “squirts” of ketchup in a small bowl. If I am cleaning pieces with gemstone, I use my fingers and apply the ketchup to the copper areas. (You may want to wear latex gloves…your hands will smell like ketchup the rest of the day…makes me crave French fries!!!) Once I have applied ketchup to all the copper areas, I hold it under warm running water to rinse…make sure you move the piece around so the water runs into the cracks and crevices so no ketchup remains. Then I lay out a towel and place the pieces on it, fold the towel over the top of the pieces and “blot”. Then I get out the hairdryer (this is a very important step!) and run warm/hot air over the pieces, turning them occasionally. I make sure to concentrate some of the heat over the beads so that the wire or Softflex, or whatever it is strung on heats up and dries off, too. (Do not use ketchup on any porous stringing materials such as silk or nylon thread!!! You should test first on anything questionable, by using a scrap or an extra bead.)

If I am cleaning pieces such as a necklace that is all copper, or a ring or earrings, I put them right in the bowl with the ketchup (several pieces at a time!) and “massage” the ketchup into the pieces simultaneously. Then, again I hold each piece under warm running water, making sure to remove all of the ketchup, blot and blow dry.

Do not leave the pieces on the wet towel after using the hair dryer…move them to a table or some other dry surface and let them sit for a few minutes to cool down and finish drying.

This method seems to remove any discoloration, spotting or darkening on copper. It does not, however, remove “pitting”. I am told that this same method works on copper pots, etc, although I have not used it on anything other than jewelry. I have not used it on any treated copper or copper plated pieces, so cannot say if it would work in those cases. I am also told that you can use just vinegar and salt, but I can’t stand the smell, so I haven’t experimented with it.

Hope this tip helps!!!