Daily Wire Tip June 30: Prevent and Remove Verdigris

By on June 30, 2011
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Daily Wire Jewelry Making Tip for
June 30, 2011

Question:

I have a question about verdigris. How can you clean old pieces of jewelry (copper, brass, sterling) that have this powdery blue/green substance on it? Why does it grow on some pieces and not others? Will it spread to other jewelry in close proximity?

-Teri in Granite Bay, California

Answer:

Yes, verdigris (the natural patina formed with the oxidization of copper) is not only a pain to clean, especially from intricate antique costume jewelry, but it is also a toxic substance. Verdigris is also a corrosive agent, meaning that this naturally-formed coating is actually eating away small bits of metal as long as it is allowed to remain untended for long periods of time. Verdigris forms as a result of oxygen, moisture and other pollutants the metal has come in contact with over the years. The pollutants also include body sweat and oils, make-up, perfumes, hair products, and lotions. This allows dust and small dirt particles to coat the jewelry, adding even more fertilizer to the formula. I think of this substance as a contagious disease to vintage jewelry because yes, it can spread amongst pieces that are stored together.

Verdigris grows on pure and alloy forms of copper, brass, and bronze, including items that may have once been plated with silver or gold. When a small amount of the plating has been removed or worn very thin, the surface is prepared for verdigris to germinate, especially if there is already a bit of it near the scar, chip, or nick, such as being stored with other items already infected.

Vintage, prong-set rhinestone jewelry in brass and rhodium plated settings. Private collection, Dale Armstrong

Vintage, prong-set rhinestone jewelry in brass and rhodium plated settings. Private collection, Dale Armstrong

From about age 9, I have been collecting vintage rhinestone costume jewelry and I have always used cheap toothpaste and a soft brush to clean any verdigis from the metals. Now, you cannot get this abrasive cleaner (most toothpastes contain pearlite – a form of volcanic glass) near any stones, especially if they are foil backed, or pearls – natural or manmade, and you need to keep both toothpaste and water away from any parts that may be glued. I begin by using a dental pic, toothpick, straight pin, and small scrap pieces of twisted jewelry wire to get as much of the crud off as carefully as possible. Then I have a go with a child-size soft toothbrush and toothpaste, always brushing in the direction of the metal. I rinse the piece off bit by bit using water dampened scraps of t-shirt and cotton swabs and when it has been cleaned enough for me (all of the verdigris gone but leaving some nondestructive patina), I store these pieces in a velvet lined box, each individually bagged in plastic – unless it has a natural pearl, those pieces are in little velvet bags. To clean the tops of any glass stones, I use a cotton swab dipped in ammonia, and then rinse with a clean swab and dry with another. No, none of the stones in the vintage jewelry that I personally collect are either foil-backed or glued.

There are many other ways that other folks clean antique costume jewelry. Some use vinegar, others swear by lemon juice, still others like to use either ketchup or Worcestershire sauce! Whatever you do, remember that after spending hours fastidiously cleaning these special pieces, make sure they are completely dry before storing them.

Answer contributed by Dale "Cougar" Armstrong

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6 Comments

  1. avatar

    Kathryn

    June 30, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Could you use baking soda?

    • avatar

      dalecgr

      June 30, 2011 at 9:29 pm

      Sometimes for only certain things Kathryn, due to the salt content.

  2. avatar

    cathy depasquale

    June 30, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    Hi I read yesterday that you wanted more ideas for subjects for the tips..todays info on verdigris was spot on. I make jewelry but collect vintage jewelry. It is difficult to know the materials used and what the stones are in vintage jewelry. How to date, the process used and why are they still shiny after all these years??. This type of info would be great from Dales prospective as a jewelry collector and creator. How ’bout some ideas for upcycling some of the fun pieces that are not really valuable but still in good shape…just an idea..like this website and blog very much. I have been receiving the tips for at least a year, just got jump start..been a stringer of beads for 6 years or so..and have my coffee right here beside me….good morning! and thanks Cathy

    • avatar

      dalecgr

      June 30, 2011 at 9:31 pm

      Hi Cathy, I am pleased to hear that my answer has given you some new things to think about. As you might imagine, I have an extensive library that includes all types of books on jewelry, geology, mineralogy, mythology, etc. Some of them have been out of print for years and do not have ISBN numbers as I either inherited them from my mother (the “original” rockhound in my family) or found them at yard and estate sales over the years while traveling all over the United States. WS does not focus on antique jewelry collecting, but because the hobby can tie into our jewelry designs, perhaps I will write a future article that shares my personal experiences. Thanks for the feedback!
      Dale/Cgr

  3. avatar

    sherry Moskowitz

    July 1, 2011 at 6:11 am

    I also used to have a huge vintage rhinestone jewelry collection. One thing I was told many years ago and it actually worked pretty good was using ketchup to clean away the verdigris. I believe its the acid in the vinegar that helps and the ketchup doesn’t scratch anything. Once again using a soft toothbrush. Rinsing well under warm water, pat dry with Viva paper towels (almost lint free and use in art class) and then air dry the rest of the way laid out on paper towels.

    Hope this helps :o)

    Sherry

    • avatar

      dalecgr

      July 1, 2011 at 9:06 am

      Cool Sherry – thanks! What happened to your collection (if I may ask)?

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