Tarnished Gold – What Causes It and How to Remove It

Tarnished Gold Ring

Does Real Gold Tarnish?

Pure gold is classed as a noble metal – meaning it resists chemical action – and it is the least reactive metal. This means that it shouldn’t ordinarily react with elements in the air leading it to tarnish. However, almost all gold jewelry is not made of 100% pure gold, therefore tarnished gold can be a problem.

When making jewelry gold is alloyed, meaning it is mixed with other metals. This is because pure gold is very soft and is difficult to work with. Therefore, goldsmiths combine other, harder metals, with the gold, the alloys, to create a piece of jewelry. This makes the material easier to shape and set stones into and ensures it will be durable for many, many years. We talk more about using alloys in jewelry making in our blog What is Sterling Silver?’.

So, whilst 100% pure gold won’t tarnish much (although it does a little), it is more the alloys used in gold jewelry items that react with the elements in air and cause tarnish. It is literally a chemical reaction with the elements in the atmosphere and, consequently, tarnish occurs only on the surface of the metal. It doesn’t harm the metal or penetrate it.

Tarnish on the surface of gold jewelry does take some considerable time to occur, though, especially compared to silver which tends to tarnish much more quickly than gold – try leaving a piece of silver out on the side and watch it tarnish and blacken sometimes within a few weeks.

Consequently the higher percentage of gold in the item of jewelry (ie the higher the gold carat) the least likely it is to tarnish – 9ct gold will tarnish more easily and quickly than 18ct or 22ct gold, because it has less gold content and a higher percentage of other metals.

What Is Tarnish?

So tarnish is where deposits are laid down on the surface of a metal. It results when an element in the metal reacts with an element in the air. This causes a dull, blackened, greyish appearance on the surface of the metal. 

Tarnish does not penetrate the metal though and will not harm it in any way. It simply lays on the surface and can easily be removed with the correct products.

What causes Tarnish on Gold?

Tarnish is caused by non-noble metals reacting with other non-metal elements like particles in the air, such as sulphur and oxygen. As mentioned earlier, it is the alloys used in the gold that react with these air particles. If you placed your article of jewelry in a sealed container it would not tarnish.

What Does Tarnished Gold Look Like?

Tarnished Gold Ring
A Tarnished Gold Ring

Tarnished gold seems to dull and deepen in colour. Sometimes tarnished yellow gold can look a little like rose gold. Occasionally you will slightly mottled, blackened patches. The image above is heavily tarnished and you will rarely see gold this tarnished.

Silver tarnish is very noticeable. Gold tarnish is less so. To the point that you may not even realise your gold jewelry is tarnished.

However, if you give your gold jewelry a clean you may be pleasantly surprised at how much brighter it is!

How to Remove Tarnish on Gold

gold ring before and after cleaning
Gold Ring Before and After Cleaning

Gold tarnish can be removed easily and simply by a number of methods.

Preparatory Gold Cleaner

Connoisseurs Jewellery Cleaner | Gold Jewellery Cleaning | 8oz Gold Polish for Necklaces, Rings & Precious Jewellery | Clean, Shine & Protect
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A gold cleaner like this one will safely and easily remove any surface tarnish from gold and bring it back to its full lustre and sparkle. You can also use this cleaner for pieces of jewellery that are set with semi and precious gemstones

Gentle Dishwater Cleaner

Another method to remove tarnish from gold is by soaking the item of tarnished gold jewelry in warm soapy water with a little gentle dishwasher detergent dissolved in the water. Then clean with your fingers, although a better way to get into the crevices is to use a soft make-up brush or a very soft babies toothbrush. Don’t use a toothbrush as it may scratch the surface of the gold. Then dry and buff with a soft, lint-free cloth.

Please never use toothpaste, which we know many people use, as it is too abrasive and will scratch your jewelry. 

Buff with a Gold Polishing Cloth

Connoisseurs Gold Jewellery Polishing Cloth | Ultrasoft Jewellery Cleaning Cloth to Clean, Buff & Restore Shine - 100% Cotton Fiber - 28 x 35cm
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How to Prevent Gold From Tarnishing

As with any jewelry, never allow chemicals to come into contact with your jewelry. Hairspray, perfume (especially), creams and lotions may all increase tarnishing on your gold jewelry. Even perspiration can cause tarnishing.

Some people notice skin reactions or a sudden tarnishing of their jewelry when they start taking a medication, which is causes a change in body chemistry. Keeping your jewelry clean will help this by preventing build up of products which may irritate your skin.

Put your jewelry on last when you are getting ready in the mornings, and remove your jewelry ideally when you get home after a day our and certainly before bed (please don’t sleep with your jewelry on!).

When you are not wearing your jewelry we recommend placing your jewelry back in its box or inside a zip-lock plastic bag to prevent the air coming into contact with it.

Rosenthal Collection Tarnish Prevention Bags & Tabs Set Perfect for Jewelry Storage 10 Bags and 25 1" x 1

To Sum Up …

Your gold jewelry will last for many years. We almost take for granted how our jewelry doesn’t perish over time. However, we do need to remember to take care of it.

When we are not wearing it we should store and protect it from being knocked or damaged, and from the elements – the air which has chemical elements which react with the alloys in our jewelry. We must also remember to protect our jewelry whilst wearing it, such as ensuring we don’t allow chemicals on the jewelry (wear rubber gloves if using chemicals).

If our gold jewelry which looks dull and lack-lustre, there is no need to despair. Tarnished gold will clean up beautifully again, easily and cheaply at home with gentle soap and water or a proprietary gold jewelry cleaner.

If you enjoy reading about gold, you may like our article on “What is Welsh Gold and Why Is It So Special?” or “44 Fun Facts About Gold”.


Bullion by Post

World Gold Council

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