Making Copper Look Ancient

Ancient artifacts — forgotten treasures — remnants of a lost civilization. We obviously can’t incorporate these into our jewelry, but we can incorporate the romance of an archeological dig.

I’m going to describe how to make copper jewelry look like it had spent lost eons beneath the earth. I made a pair of earrings, but, of course, you can use the same techniques on anything you want.

A word of warning: The techniques I am about to describe work with metal clay. If you start off with metallic copper, they will only work if the copper has not been treated to prevent corrosion. Corrosion is what we want — it’s what makes copper look ancient!

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I began with a pair of Meso-American inspired earrings. Here they are in their greenware form, sanded but with no more preparation.

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Here they are after firing. I hand finished them instead of tumbling; tumbling makes the metal seem shiny and new, and I wanted the antique look. To hand finish, you sand with progressively finer grits of sandpaper, with each subsequent sanding going perpendicular to the one before. When do you stop? When you think the copper is shiny enough, of course!!

Before you attempt to age the copper, be sure to remove all finger oils. Noname brand patina prep is my favorite, but there are any number of enamel preps (or even plain old baking soda) that you could use. Just be sure to wash off the prep, and then to not get more finger oils on the copper! You can hold it by the edge or, if it has a hole in it, run a wire through the hole and hold it by that.

Now get ready for the magic of aging. There are many ways to age copper. There are commercial preparations, but they are expensive and often contain very noxious chemicals. I’m about to describe three methods for aging that involve only household products:

  • Measure enough vinegar to cover your jewelry. Mix it with an equal amount of salt. Stir until the salt dissolves. Submerge your jewelry in this mixture.
  • Dampen a paper towel with vinegar. Put it in a sealable container. Sprinkle salt onto the paper towel. Put your jewelry, face down, on the paper towel. Sprinkle a bit more salt on the top. Cover with another paper towel, dampened with vinegar. Close up the container. (This is the method I used for this example.)
  • Dampen a paper towel with non-sudsy ammonia. Put it in a sealable container. Dampen your jewelry with vinegar and sprinkle salt on it. Suspend your jewelry by a wire so it does not touch the paper towel. Seal the container, so the ammonia fumes cannot escape. Not only should you not breath ammonia fumes for any length of time, but the fumes are what will give the copper color.

In any of these methods, potassium chloride (a common salt substitute) can be substituted for salt — doing so will result in different colors. Not better, not worse, just different.

For any of these methods, let  your jewelry stay in place at least one hour. Then check it approximately once an hour to see if you are happy with the results. You probably want to get a bit more color than you want to end up with, since some of the color will come off in the subsequent steps.

Now for the most wonderful part of aging copper — you never know what sort of color you will get! It could be green, blue, turquoise, reddish orange — you just never know until you try! What if you don’t like the color you get? Just wipe off the patina and try again!

Once you decide the copper has enough color, remove it from the coloring solution. Be sure to dispose of the ammonia (if that’s what you used) in a safe manner. The earrings I made looked like this:

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The next step is to gently rinse the copper in running water. A small stream will do, because the patina will wash off.  Once I had done that, I thought that the Meso-American figures in the center weren’t visible enough, so I applied a tiny drop of Black Max brand patina. That brought out the imagery while leaving the patina. Just be sure, in cleaning up the Black Max (if you use it) that you don’t accidentally wipe away your patina.

You are almost done. The only problem is that the patina is somewhat fragile, and that copper can discolor skin or clothes. There are several ways to fix this. The easiest one is to spray the patinaed jewelry with the same protective spray that brass players use on their instruments. However, if you don’t have that, gently applied clear nail polish will get the same results.

After I had finished this, I added findings and the earrings were done. (The coin is for scale.)

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There is one last observation — it might be tempting, if you make earrings, to use copper ear wires to match the copper earrings. Don’t. Copper ear wires will discolor the skin. Niobium ear wires go well with copper jewelry, are hypo-allergenic, and will never discolor the skin.

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