Metals That Tarnish (And Why)

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Maintaining jewelry and keeping it lustrous and reflective can be difficult depending on the metals it’s made of. Some metals are highly resistant to tarnish, corrosion and rust and will not dull or discolor, whereas others easily acquire tarnish and need frequent maintenance to keep them lustrous.

Let’s take a look at which metals will tarnish, which may tarnish, and which metals will not tarnish.

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  • Definitions:
  • Metals That Will Tarnish
  • Metals That May Tarnish
  • Metals That Will Not Tarnish
  • Wrapping Up
  • Definitions:

  • Alloy: This refers to metals made by combining two or more metallic elements to enhance the strength and durability of the metal.
  • Tarnish: When certain metals are exposed to air and moisture, their outermost layer undergoes a chemical reaction, which causes a thin, dull layer of corrosion to develop over the surface. This can dull and discolor the metal. Tarnish can be removed with appropriate cleaning and maintenance.
  • Patina: Developing over a long period of time, patina can be natural or intentionally applied onto metals. It typically appears in green, gray or brown hues (depending on the metal). Jewelry that has patina is described as an ‘oxidized finish’.
  • Metals That Will Tarnish

  • Copper: A highly popular metal in jewelry, copper and its alloys are prone to tarnish when exposed to air and moisture, taking on a blue-green patina over time. Pure copper, which is orange red in color, acquires a reddish tarnish. This is caused by oxidization. Copper is one of the main causes of tarnish in most jewelry metals because it’s widely used in a variety of alloys.
  • Sterling Silver: This is a silver alloy comprising 92.5% by weight of silver and 7.5% by weight of other metals, typically copper, zinc and nickel. It tarnishes easily because of the copper content in the alloy which oxidizes when exposed to air and moisture. This can also turn your skin green. However, sterling silver can easily be polished and its luster restored.
  • Brass: Brass is a bright gold-colored alloy made of copper and zinc, commonly used in costume jewelry. Brass develops a green patina over time if left unmaintained and can also turn your skin green. It tarnishes quickly when exposed to moisture and air. Brass is sometimes treated with a lacquer coating to prevent it from such exposure.
  • Bronze: Bronze is an extremely durable copper alloy, made typically of copper and tin. Like all copper alloys, bronze also tarnishes easily when it reacts to moisture and air. It turns green if left unmaintained and can turn your skin green when in contact.
  • Metals That May Tarnish

  • Gold Plating/Gold Filled/Vermeil: Jewelry with surface gold plating may tarnish depending on the base metal. If the base metal contains nickel, copper, brass or bronze, it will be exposed when the plating wears off and will begin to tarnish.
  • Pure Silver: Also called fine silver, pure silver contains 99.9% pure silver and less than .01% trace elements, typically copper. This tiny amount of copper is why pure silver may tarnish, but at a much slower rate than sterling silver.
  • Stainless Steel: Although the view that stainless steel doesn’t tarnish is prevalent, it can tarnish with time. However, it’s highly resistant to corrosion and oxidization but it’s not exactly ‘stainless’.
  • Metals That Will Not Tarnish

  • Gold: One of the least reactive metals, gold in its pure form isn’t prone to tarnish. Pure gold stays shiny and lustrous without discoloration or tarnishing. However, because most jewelry is made from alloyed gold (14k, 12k, 9k and so on), there is the possibility that it will tarnish. Higher gold purity, usually 18k and above, doesn’t tarnish.
  • Niobium: This metal doesn’t tarnish and is an inert/non-reactive metal. When exposed to water and air, niobium remains non-reactive, which keeps it lustrous, shiny and tarnish-free.
  • Titanium: Another non-reactive metal, titanium is highly resistant to tarnish, corrosion and rust. It doesn’t react to water or air and remains lustrous and shiny, requiring minimal maintenance.
  • Tungsten: Considered the hardest metal used in jewelry, the tungsten grade used in jewelry does not rust, tarnish or develop a patina. However, industrial grade tungsten will tarnish and rust, because it’s cheaper and of lower quality.  
  • Platinum: While platinum doesn’t tarnish, it will develop a patina over time. This, however, is caused by dents and nicks in the metal, rather than by oxidization. Some people like the look of platinum patina and carefully maintain this when it occurs.
  • Palladium: Extremely tarnish resistant, palladium remains lustrous and shiny for a long time. Palladium isn’t plated like white gold, for example, and the color it exhibits is its natural hue.
  • Cobalt: A naturally hard metal, cobalt doesn’t tarnish. It doesn’t require any plating, as its color is natural, and will not discolor, rust, corrode or fade.
  • Aluminum: When aluminum reacts to air and moisture, it creates a protective layer of Aluminum Oxide which keeps it from acquiring tarnish. The layer appears in the form of a hard, whitish surface skin, and while it protects the metal, it also causes aluminum corrosion, which can reduce the luster and attractiveness of jewelry.
  • Wrapping Up

    Having an understanding of the metals that do and do not tarnish will help you to take appropriate care of your jewelry. However, note that cleaning tarnish isn’t difficult and can easily be done with the right products.

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