The Price of Patina

Did you know that the tarnish on your old vintage Native American jewelry is actually very valuable? Metal jewelry develops a sheen called patina as it ages. Patina is caused by the oxidation of the metal when exposed to the air. So before you go cleaning your vintage jewelry, know that this darkened discoloration is worth big bucks.

old bead new bead

(Left) is a new professionally made Navajo pearl bead that has been oxidized with the chemical treatment using liver of sulfur, then polished in the center. (Right) A handmade bench bead from the 1970s that is naturally oxidizing and any polishing is do to rubbing and natural wear.

Natural patina is a sign of the history of the individual piece, having grown more beautiful and increased in worth with the passing of time. Natural patina forms slowly over a long period of time as parts of the jewelry are exposed to water in the atmosphere. Also, as a piece is naturally worn, parts of the metal come into contact with the skin and other surfaces. As the surfaces rub together the metal is naturally polished and stripped of the tarnished layer. This leaves a naturally aged piece darkened in the deep untouched areas and slightly polished in the parts that come into contact with rubbing. This is an aesthetically appealing look and most people who invest in vintage jewelry want to keep that mixed patina. Historians and jewelry appraisers also use this as one indicator when determining the age of a piece.

natural patina on bracelet

Natural patina formed on this bracelet over time. You can see that some of the silver beads and the inside of the band are shinny and have a slight polish from skin contacts and natural wear.

Often this patina look is so sought after that artists who want to make their jewelry have a vintage looking appearance replicate it. The darkened sheen can be reflected through intentional techniques such as chemical oxidization. Though it is almost impossible to exactly replicate the natural oxidation and wear polishing that is produced over time, a good artist can get pretty close.

poorly done chemical oxidation. you can see some of the splotchy inconsistencies

poorly done chemical oxidation. you can see some of the splotchy inconsistencies

When should you clean your vintage Native American jewelry?

Most of the time when people ask this question they are not aware of the value associated with the patina. Knowing that the darkened tarnished look is valuable may change your mind about polishing it, however consider another factor. What do you like? If you own a piece of jewelry, then it is yours to wear however you like it. If you do not like the patina look then don’t force yourself to keep it that way. It is your piece and you can do what you want with it. Silver and gold can easily be brought back to their glossy shine with proper cleaning and polishing techniques. Just remember, if you ever want to have your piece sold or appraised,  removing the patina greatly reduces its value.

1960s horned toad, Natural development around the piees such as in the silver flower. The toad still looks polished as it has been rubbed by its owner for good luck.

1960s horned toad, natural patina development around the piees such as in the silver flower. The toad still looks polished as it has been rubbed by its owner for good luck.