More Than 50 Shades: Adding Luscious Color to Your Metal Jewelry with Patinas

  "And the Day Came..." by Lexi Erickson, patinated handcrafted jewelry pendant
"And the Day Came…" by Lexi Erickson

By now, we are all used to the price of silver and gold and the way it has escalated over the past 5 years. With precious metals, we count out our grams or pennyweights of metal and calculate the prices at which to sell our jewelry.

When dealing with grams, it's hard to believe that another of the great metals, which many of us love, is actually sold by the pound. Yep. Copper is traded on the international markets by the pound, and 51% of the world's copper comes from Chile. It too, has risen in price, as we see copper pipe stripped from empty buildings and sold at record prices. Yet as a jewelry designer, it has sometimes been difficult to get our customers to like or even accept copper. What could we do to change their opinion?

How about changing how we work with my favorite metal? Nothing takes a patina like copper, and it moves so beautifully under the strokes of a hammer. Nothing warms up the coolness of silver like the addition of some copper. How do we change our customers' minds and get them to flock to copper? Let's add some gorgeous color.

David Huang egg vessel  

That baby dragon just escaped from his egg. He must be hiding in the house . . . This gorgeous vessel is by David Huang. It just glows!

When I ask my students about patinas, they usually just know about liver of sulfur (LoS). Frankly, I'm tired of leaving class or my studio smelling of Eau de Sulfur, as I call it. Though some vivid colors can be achieved and sometimes preserved on silver with LoS, most jewelers use it to "antique" the silver or copper, and you have a choice of light, medium or dark gray, and certainly not the infamous "more shades." If we are really lucky, we may get a purplish grey. We soon tire of just light, medium, and dark.

Is there anything out there that's so gorgeous that it makes people stop and stare openmouthed and say, "That's copper?" Yes there is.

I have admitted, as I wrote on my personal blog several years ago, that I love David Huang's vessels, what he calls "Luminous Relics"–and they are certainly that. Additionally, he's a pretty nice guy, too. I have purchased several of his pieces, and they are magnificent works of art. They will become heirlooms that I will pass down to my grandchildren.

As my grandchildren are still very young, I let them gently hold the "Luminous Relics" as I tell bedtime stories about the vessels. One is a goblet for the Celtic King Killian, and one is an egg from which a baby dragon just escaped. Kind of like a J.K. Rowling story, with props! This not only teaches the appreciation of beautiful artwork at a young age but creates a bond with my grandchildren, which I hope they will pass on to their children. David's pieces are sturdy enough, and that allows my grandchildren to hold them as they gaze into their incredible, other-worldly, glowing interiors. The magic behind David's pieces–in addition to his unbelievable chasing and repoussé technique used in each piece–is the mystical use of patinas that uniquely color each vessel.

  Goblet for a Celtic King by David Huang
Goblet for a Celtic King is another exquisite piece from master artist David Huang.

David uses our friend, the most unappreciated copper, for his vessels. This isn't a surprise since copper takes a patina so beautifully. They are lined with gold, and each has a carefully hammered silver rim. Unlike David's treasures, my own jewelry is beat up to look ancient and archaeological. I like to use patinas to enhance that effect. So a patina can add elegance or age to your work–the choice is yours.

Creating Patinas on Metal

My friend Mary Sharp Davis, a fabulous potter from Albuquerque, shared this neat tip: Coppers can take on some gorgeous greens quite naturally, especially if you bury a piece outside for a year or two. But if you're trying to get ready for an art festival and you've waited to the last minute, like me, try some Modern Masters Green Aging Solution. You don't have to use it over the Reactive Metallic Paints that sometimes accompanies it in the kit. Since you already have a copper base, use it straight from the bottle. Paint a layer on, let it dry, and then paint another layer. It may take three coats, but you will soon have a rich verdigris copper finish, the look of Old European antique copper water fountains.

patinas on copper  

Top to bottom: Cupric and ferric nitrate, cobalt nitrate mixed with ferric nitrate, and my favorite tooled leather cowgirl look, ferric nitrate–all on copper.

cupric nitrate and silver nitrate patinas on metal

L: cupric nitrate, R: silver nitrate

various patinas on bronze and copper

Top to bottom: cupric on bronze, cupric and ferric on copper, copper sulfide with ammonia chloride

Personally, I like it better than anything else on the market. After it has dried, a light spray finish of clear Rust-Oleum top coat will protect its finish. There is also a rust effect patina and a blue. All of them give really unique finishes on copper. Just follow the label instructions.

Baroque Art Gilders Paste is also available to color metal, with a number of greens, reds, bronzes and even purples. A small tin has lasted me a long time and will cover up to 30 square feet. That's a lot of jewelry. It will add vivid or subtle color to your favorite designs, plus a lot of depth.

But I have to admit, my favorite techniques are what David taught me and how he uses chemicals to achieve his patinas. While I won't give away his secrets, I will share with you a huge hint. Go to and click on "chemicals." It will give you 32 patina recipes! Hint: David uses cupric nitrate for his luscious greens, so choose one of the several green recipes offered. Some of the patinas are cold solutions, some are warm, and the site offers directions on how to apply each patina. After I get the color I wish, I let the patina dry overnight and then coat it with a layer of Johnson's Paste Wax. That will seal it indefinitely.

Now, be considerate and please don't call The Science Company to ask how to use the chemicals; the instructions are very easy. But guess what? They ship their chemicals all over the continental U.S., so they can be delivered right to your doorstep. It doesn't get easier than that. Tell 'em Lexi sent you.

So if you want that ethereal look to your jewelry, one that makes your eyeballs pop out and say, "WOW!"–then think copper and patinas. Have fun learning about patinas, but always follow the directions, be safe, wear gloves when needed, always use eye protection, and eat your broccoli. (Whoops, sorry. That last one just slipped out. Yes, I'm a mom.)

Colorfully yours,

Learn more about gorgeous patinas in Patina: 300+ Coloration Effects for Jewelers and Metalsmiths by Matthew Runfola.

Other Resources:
Modern Masters Green Aging Solution, 
Baroque Art Gilders Paste, 
The Science Company, 


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