When I began to learn the art of silver-smithing from Mara Grimm a few years ago, she was possibly the only active teacher of traditional enamel techniques in Melbourne, if not in the state of Victoria, Australia. Mara is somewhat of a hippie (she had the Kombi-van and everything), and amongst the many things she imparted to me was this curious “natural” way of polishing using a peculiar-looking nut.
I didn’t think much of it then, but as I was setting up my own studio little by little, I knew I’d like to throw as little harmful substance down the sink as possible. I had a good supply of these strange little nuts from a tiny shop in Melbourne where Mara told me I could find them, but I would be needing more — only then it occurred to me to see if I could find anything about these magic nuts. If there are ways to make the process of creating jewellery more environmentally-friendly, I want to know how.
It took about an hour of hunting online, but I finally found what I was looking for. In English, they are simply called “soap nuts”, or “soapberries”, and there’s even a Wikipedia entry for them.
Soap nuts are incredibly versatile, they are the ultimate general-purpose cleaning agent. These seems to be endless uses for them, anything from laundry detergent to household cleaner. But as a jeweller, notes like this are particularly interesting:
Soap nuts are used by Indian and Indonesian jewelers to polish and remove the tarnish from gold, silver, and other precious metals.
I’ve found almost nothing written about the technique online, so here’s what Mara taught me:
- Boil some water.
- Once boiled, pour the water into a pot or a container that can handle the heat, preferably with a cover. I’ve noticed the soap-solution is more effective if left to sit overnight, so you would want to keep this in a place where it stays clean and re-usable.
- Take a soap nut, and hold it up to a flame until the leather skin sizzles a bit and begins to turn black, until the skin starts coming away a little from the inner seed. You can do this any way that you deem safe; I’ve held a nut with long metal tweezers to a candle or a cigarette lighter.
- Drop the soap nut into the pot or container of boiled water. Sometimes, the skin will flake off into the water; this is perfectly okay, even desirable, seeing as the saponin (the soapy substance) is in the skin.
- Use a metal brush or polishing cloth, dip it into water and use the water to polish your silver or gold.
The shine you get from this “polish” will surprise you. It does get a little wet, so I keep an amply supply of drying cloths or paper towels around.
So, where can you get these? There are a number of shops online that sell soap nuts, though mostly for laundry purposes. I happen to live close to several grocery stores that sell Indian produce and decided to go and find out if any of them happens to stock these. Finally, in a narrow middle aisle in one of them, tucked under things like tumeric and ground cumin, I found a small packet of “Aritha”. I paid $2 for about 30 nuts or so. Cool, no?