The ABCs of Oxidizing Jewelry

The ABCs of Oxidizing Jewelry

I don’t remember when I first became aware of sterling silver jewelry that was purposely NOT shiny. When I think of the hours I’ve spent over the years trying to shine up my sterling pieces! I bought every chemical, every cloth, every dip I saw that promised my jewelry would come out looking like new.

At some point, though, I realized that my taste was shifting more toward appreciating antiquities, and jewelry that looked as though it had just been unearthed. The aging process adds a natural patina that gives old pieces a warmth and a depth that just isn’t there on new, shiny jewelry. Not everyone agrees, I know. Every time I show my latest creation to my sister, she says, “Mmmm, nice. I’d like it better if it were shiny.”

But, I’m not alone in my love of that aged look. It’s so popular that there are products you can buy to oxidize silver, adding the darkened patina of age in the blink of an eye. There is also an all-natural trick that will do the same thing, albeit a little more slowly. 

Solutions such as Black Max will blacken a piece of silver instantly. Once it’s rinsed and dried, use a small piece of fine steel wool, or a 3M pad to polish away some of the oxidization on the high parts of the piece, leaving the recessed areas of the design dark.

Tumbling the piece in a rotary tumbler with steel shot will really bring back the shine on the high points, but still leave the black in the crevices. It’s the contrast between the shiny and the dark that really gives a piece depth and character.

Liver of sulfur is the standard, most commonly used chemical for oxidizing silver. It comes in a liquid form and a solid form (chunks), and works best if either the solution or the piece of jewelry is hot. The fabulous thing about liver of sulfur is that it can create an array of colors on your metal. If you experiment with the temperature of the solution, the temperature of your piece and the length of time you leave your piece submerged, you can come out with vivid shades of violet, peacock blue, and teal! Ultimately, though, if you leave it in long enough, you will get that deep grey/black color. Again, it will need to be rinsed and dried and polished to get the full effect.

For those of you who prefer an all-natural process, you can oxidize silver with a hard boiled egg! Yes, it’s true. Cut a hard boiled egg in half, or in pieces, and throw it into a plastic bag with your piece of jewelry. After a day (perhaps two), the sulfur in the egg will darken your silver.

So that’s all there is to it . . . nothing mysterious, not difficult. But don’t tell anyone, let them just think you’re wearing ancient, priceless jewelry!

By the way, all of these techniques will also work on copper, though the darkness of copper makes the contrast not quite as striking.

Check out the Spring 2009 issue of Step by Step Wire Jewelry or subscribe to Step by Step Wire Jewelry today for two beautiful necklace projects that use oxidizing to enhance the wirework–Convertible Steampunk Necklace by Deborah Gray-Wurz and See Lantern Necklace by Gaea Cannaday.   You'll also find step-by-step photos of the oxidizing process with liver of sulphur in my book, Wire Style.

Denise Peck is editor in chief of Step by Step Wire Jewelry magazine, senior editor of Jewelry Artist, and author of the new book, Wire Style. An editor by trade and a lifelong lover of jewelry, she was able to pursue both when she joined Lapidary Journal in 2004. Denise has a bench jeweler's certificate from Studio Jeweler's Ltd.


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