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Last Edited: August 7, 2012, 9:52 pm
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Using Tarnish to Your Advantage
Article © MAIL User: WaistedSpace
Ag: sterling silver
AA: anodized aluminum
BA: bright aluminum
EC: enameled copper
FS: fine silver
NS: nickel silver
RB: red brass
SS: stainless steel
YB: yellow brass
Copper and its alloys bronze, yellow and red brass, and nickel silver are the tarnishable metals most frequently used in chainmaille. It is from this perspective that I base my experience and suggestions, though anyone working in these metals may find it useful. The particular alloys I’m discussing in this article are 226, 260, 510, and 752. Sterling silver is also mentioned.
People often shy away from copper jewelry because it becomes dirty (a result of neglect in my opinion) and sometimes causes allergic reactions. My goal here is to try and put some perspective on the drawbacks, and highlight the advantages of working with these metals. At the time of writing this, gold and silver have recently cracked $1000 and $20/oz, and are expected to keep rising. The more they rise the more attractive alternative metals become, and copper alloys are very attractive and easy metals to work with.
Keep in mind that your local climate directly affects how you must care for copper jewelry, and how quickly you will see it tarnish. Living in Denver I’m in a very dry climate, and tarnish occurs much slower than in the midwest or coastal and southern regions of the U.S. What this means is that some of the fantastic effects I see here might not occur in St. Louis with the same piece of jewelry, because they change too quickly.
Some weaves are more durable than others, and the same applies to metals. Cu and RB tend to be softer, whereas Bz, NS and YB are stronger and should be used more often in high AR’s. If Cu must be used in weaker areas of the piece for design sake, try to spread the stress over as many rings as possible and support them with harder metals.
These five metals fall into a narrow range of reds and golds, and can be hard to separate with the eye. For example, Bz and Cu look great together, but are close enough in appearance that they are difficult to distinguish from one another without a neutral buffer (such as NS or SS). NS and YB is a favorite of mine, but designs can be hard to see until they tarnish.
Experiment as much as you can with color combinations and you’ll find some very interesting and attractive looks. RB for example, pairs as well with Ni as Ag does. Raw (un-anodized) Ti looks especially good with copper that has turned fiery red, as it has here:
These metals do cause allergic reactions in some people and can be severe in rare cases. Knowing your previous history is your best guide to how you’ll react. If giving and especially if selling your jewelry, take precautions and make sure the person wearing it is aware that copper alloys can cause allergic reactions, especially NS. There’s no need to scare them of course - as long as they’re aware of their body’s reactions they’ll be fine. Remember, these are metals we use every day (nickel is in lots of things, including our pocket change).
Jewelry is of particular concern here because it’s in constant contact with the skin, particularly in sensitive areas like the ears (don’t use NS for ear wires). Ti and Ni are hypo-allergenic (raw or ano’d), and I’ve never heard of any reactions from AA or EC. If you’re worried but want to use copper alloys nonetheless, consider using captive weaves like CIR more often. Dragonscale’s inner rings don’t touch the skin either.
Display and Photography:
When photographing or displaying for sale copper jewelry it’s best to use the whitest light you can. Yellow (house) lights tend to overwhelm the subtle color differences. If you have a camera with saturation functions, play around with them to see what looks best. Use a light box or some other means of diffusing the light (an overcast day works quite well too). I’ve found that digital cameras are extremely finicky when trying to photograph many different metals at once. I generally must use photoshop to correct the color afterward, and the more colors there are the more difficult the task is. The Selective Color tool is particularly useful, and can sometimes be boosted with Auto Contrast.
Copper is very soft and easy to work with, but it's also easy to scratch and gouge. It tarnishes very quickly, especially in humid climates. If you live in a very dry climate however, (like say Denver) you can watch the metal age and go through a beautiful and wide array of colors. There is a particularly special time (after about 2-3 weeks for me) that the tarnish is just heavy enough to deepen the color to a brilliant, fiery red! When buying copper wire for mailling, make sure you buy full hard temper. Many craft stores, brick or online, typically sell dead soft. EC is only available dead soft.
Bronze tarnishes just as quickly as copper, and the two are nearly indistinguishable when freshly polished. As it tarnishes it changes from bright orange to a salmon color, then gradually browns. It is one of the harder copper alloys, and at least 3/16" wide flat nose pliers must be used on 18 swg or heavier rings to keep from damaging the pliers.
If you plan to regularly polish your jewelry I think the oranges and browns of Bz go nicely with the golden hues of RB. Once it tarnishes however, the two look almost alike. Heavily tarnished Bz looks especially good with SS. Another combination I like is Bz+Cu+NS. Weaves like JPL really show how well the three compliment each other.
The neutral, slightly golden color of this metal makes it the most versatile of all the copper alloys. It is more pale than YB, and has a cool hue throughout. It matches well with every metal (especially Cu, RB and/or YB), and it makes a beautiful background or highlight color. It is slightly harder and more springy than bronze, and is accordingly more difficult to scratch as well as work with - 14 SWG NS can be as difficult to work as SS.
It tarnishes more slowly than the others, taking on a darker almost burned color. In the right light the color straddles the lines between yellows, browns and even greens. It contains 18% nickel, which is the jewelry metal most frequently associated with skin allergies, so be cautious of how you design with it.
Also known as jewelry brass, when freshly polished this metal looks very much like gold. The only thing that separates it from yellow brass is 15% zinc, but that 15% completely changes its color and working properties. It’s soft - slightly harder than copper - and tarnishes a little more slowly. It's particularly beautiful in high gauges (20g or thinner), and when paired with slightly tarnished Bz or NS, or even Ni.
RB is a high-maintenance metal because it tends to be dirty when very tarnished. It also doesn't look much different from Bz once tarnished heavily, so it looks its best when freshly polished. Store your rings and jewelry with anti-tarnish strips to reduce how often you clean them.
Striking in color, this bright yellow metal has a sparkle that outlasts all the others. It is 30% zinc, as opposed to 15% in RB. It is almost as hard as NS and ages with more luster than any of the other copper alloys. It slowly turns golden and the color gets richer with time, and does it much more cleanly than Cu Bz or RB. When freshly polished it gives a bright look to summer jewelry. Once tarnished its color takes on hues of fall. Its shiny cool yellow color also makes YB a hard match with the other metals, all in warmer tones (except NS). I use it most often with NS and/or SS but occasionally I’ll pair it with Bz.
Ag is an alloy of 92.5% silver, and usually copper. Copper’s presence means that it will tarnish. Ag right out of the tumbler is a true thing of beauty, and is a perfect compliment to most any metal you can work with. For maille purposes, the harder the better. Many places sell it, but more often than not the temper is dead soft so look around. Half-hard is the standard for maille, and it hardens up considerably in the tumbler.
Argentium is traditional sterling that has also been alloyed with the element germanium, making it tarnish and firescale resistant (not proof). I have found personally that it is also harder and stronger than traditional sterling. The germanium forms an oxide layer over the sterling, forming a protective barrier from the elements. The oxide occurs naturally before the others can tarnish and is self-healing, so the copper and silver are actually exposed for only short periods of time. It’s like an anti-tarnish strip built right into the metal! I find it a pleasure to work with, and have found it to be a little harder. Personally I think it makes traditional sterling obsolete and fine silver (99.9%) unnecessary in maille applications. Visit [url=http://www.argentiumsilver.com/intro.html
]this website[/url] for more information.
There are 3 methods for cleaning copper jewelry. Keep in mind that this doesn’t always apply to pieces that contain other metals as well. Anodized metals such as Ti, Ni, and AA can’t be tumbled indefinitely like solid metals, though Ti and Ni take a long time to show wear (I’ve yet to dull them in my tumbler). Chemical cleaners should not be used on non-tarnishable metals like SS. When designing your piece, consider how difficult it will be to clean and keep clean. Will you need to remove pieces like glass beads, or can you just toss it in?
This is simple maintenance for daily wear pieces. The options you have in cleaners is endless, from lemon juice to ketchup and soap to toothpaste. Anything slightly acidic will do, however hand soap is my first choice. Whatever you use, the technique is the same - Simply scrub the piece with a soft toothbrush or your hands. Don’t be stingy on the cleaner, and be thorough. I liken it to washing your hands when they’re really dirty. Remember that body chemistry is unique to each person, and contributes to how often you need to clean your jewelry. The advantage of cleaning is that you shine up the piece without taking all the tarnish off.
I feel that any mailler who works in copper needs a tumbler, period. The investment is small - about $100 for 2 lbs of stainless steel shot and a good quality tumbler (the Lortone 3a is an excellent entry level tumbler). The only consumables you need are water and dish soap (the original blue colored Dawn is what I use and is most often recommended amongst maillers). The biggest argument for tumblers over other methods in my opinion is they polish and work-harden the metal. The hardening makes overall piece stronger and the rings more resistant to plier gouges. The polishing reduces the amount of tarnish that inevitably builds, allowing more subtle color effects to reveal themselves.
From a maintenance perspective tumbling generally removes all tarnish. If you are designing a piece that looks its best when partially tarnished consider how often it will need to be cleaned, and if you need to allow time for tarnish to build up again. Also the more the piece touches skin the more often it needs to be cleaned as it will lose its shine quickly with heavy handling. Rings and bracelets will not stay shiny for long but earrings, especially the dangly kind, don’t touch skin much at all. For a special occasion, knowing how your piece looks in different stages of tarnish will allow you to plan ahead and show it looking its best.
Tumbling gives maille jewelry a brilliant shine and slippery feel, enhancing the tactile appeal that makes it so irresistible. This can be achieved with rouges, polishing wheels and other methods, but none of them are as effective, clean or efficient as tumbling. Don’t waste your time with them. Stop reading this right now and go buy a tumbler if you haven’t already! Without one copper jewelry can become a burden, especially if you own many pieces - you’ll spend a lot of time cleaning them and they’ll never look as good. Tumbling is almost as quick as tossing your dishes in the dishwasher and walking away.
Tumblers can also be used to artificially tarnish your jewelry. You may have a piece in Ag, NS and YB, and they’re hard to distinguish with the eye right after polishing. NS and YB take a while to darken, so it may be a long time before it looks how you want it to if you go the natural route. The technique is simple: just put the piece in with something already tarnished and a smaller-than-usual amount of Dawn (to help evenly disperse the solution). If you want a subtle change you should only put a small piece of something already tarnished, but let the tumbler go for a few hours. Check it periodically to make sure you’re getting the desired results. If you have many pieces the water will be pretty black and opaque, particularly those in heavy gauges that have built up lots of tarnish. Above anything else, experiment and have fun with it.
There are a couple things to remember when using this method. Although close, it never quite looks the same as natural tarnishing. It’s also very unpredictable, so getting exactly the right look is difficult to achieve - it’s best to go for a range, rather than trying to match something exactly. If you let it go for a long time (I’ve left pieces in for 4 days before) you’ll find that they look as if they're covered in oil, taking on a translucent, refractory coloring. I’m not exactly sure what this is, but I suspect it’s just deeply embedded tarnish. It’s not necessarily undesirable, but only on rare occasions do I do it deliberately.
Stripping is done with chemical cleaners such as Brasso and Tarn-X. Stripping removes all tarnish from the piece and does it instantly. This is useful if you want to start from scratch and get a completely even tarnish on the piece, and it’s the only practical way to remove the oil-slicked effect.
Not too hard, right? Now go out and start weaving copper!
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