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15 Facts, Tips and Tricks for Caring for and Cleaning Sterling Silver Jewellery

Posted on March 27, 2015 | 0 comments

Sterling silver has, for generations, been one of the most popular materials for jewellery design and giftware. We are all attracted by its shiny lustre and its versatility.

In recent years, sterling silver has grown in popularity and favour and has been increasingly combined in contemporary designs with other precious metals, such as gold, and with semi precious and precious stones.

Whilst the popularity of sterling silver has grown, the knowledge of how it should be cared for, clean and maintained has not grown to the same degree. Sterling silver is often, unintentionally, neglected and purchasers are often disappointed and surprised to see that their precious purchase has turned black or has tarnished.

15 Facts, Tips and Tricks for Sterling Silver:

  1. Firstly a few interesting industry facts:

    *  Sterling silver is an alloy of pure fine silver (99% silver) and contains 92.5% by mass of silver and 7.5% by mass of other metals, usually copper. The sterling silver standard therefore has a minimum silver "fineness" of 925. Therefore, sterling silver is often referred to as "925 silver" as this reflects the metal's purity. The purity of the metal will dictate how easily it will bend and be reshaped and also how easily it will tarnish. So, for example, 950 silver will need more care than 925 silver as it is "purer" so it will bend and also tarnish more quickly than 925 silver.

    *  Interestingly, pure fine silver (not 950 or 925 silver) is not very reactive chemically. It does not react with oxygen or water at day to day temperatures so does not form a silver oxide very easily. However, it is attacked by common pollution in the atmosphere such as sulphides. Silver sulphide slowly appears as a black tarnish during exposure to airborne compounds of sulphur. Additionally, pollutants from low level ozone will react to pure fine silver to form silver oxide.

    *  The problem of corrosion or tarnishing increases as the silver becomes less "pure" (i.e sterling 925 silver) because the other metals added to the pure fine silver to create 925 silver (such as copper), may react with oxygen in the air. For example,Sodium chloride or common table salt is well known to corrode the silver-copper alloy.

    *  Purchasers should take note of pieces of sterling silver jewellery that have been intentionally “oxidised”. Occasionally, a designer will "permit" a piece or part of a piece of jewellery to darken by oxidisation. This creates beautiful effects with some pieces allowing small details to stand out more. This detailing could be lost with excessive cleaning and polishing. So to avoid losing this intended oxidisation care and clean for such pieces separately.

  2. You can avoid or reduce tarnish by wearing your jewellery often! The oils in your skin will “clean” the silver and help keep it looking shiny.

  3. Do your best to avoid contact with day to day household chemicals, such as cleaning products, rubber, chlorinated water or any substances which contains sulphur (i.e mayonnaise, eggs, mustard, onions, latex, wool) as all of these will cause sterling silver to corrode and tarnish much quicker.

  4. Silly as it sounds (and this is a tricky one!), perspiration causes tarnish so don't sweat or, alternatively, remember to rinse your jewellery in warm water if you've inadvertently perspired on it! Remember to dry it thoroughly to avoid water spot damage.

  5. Direct sunlight also causes sterling silver to tarnish so be sure to take off your silver jewellery before sitting in the sun for any length of time.

  6. Lotions, cosmetics, hair products (including hair spray) and perfumes will also accelerate tarnishing. This can be rather inconvenient but there is a good reason why women for generations have been getting dressed with jewellery being the last item added as a finishing touch!

  7. Whilst not elegant, you could find some airtight containers or storage bags and try storing your sterling silver jewellery in these with anti-tarnish strips (available online).

  8. Alternatively, you could try the Anti tarnish Jewellery boxes available online, but as I haven't tried these I cannot pass comment one way or another.  Please let me know how you get on if you decide to try one of these or a similar.  I would be most interested in you feedback.

  9. Make sure you don’t store multiple jewellery pieces in the same bag or box without protecting each piece from contact with the other. Sterling Silver is a relatively soft metal so individual pieces can scratch each other. Link or chain bracelets should be kept unclasped or unhooked to prevent scratching as well.

  10. If you don't use airtight plastic bags, try to make sure that the storage area used has low humidity. Do this by placing a piece of chalk, a packet of activated charcoal or a sachet of silica gel in the storage area. This will help reduce tarnishing.

  11. Polishing sterling silver generally is enough to bring back its lustre when the tarnishing is not too severe. It’s also the best method for cleaning "oxidised" silver, as you can stay away from the intentionally "tarnished" areas. You could use a new microfibre cloth gently on the silver. DO NOT use paper towels or tissues as this will certainly scratch and will certainly be noticeable if the surfaces are flat. Always use gentle, sweeping back and forth movements and NOT circles as this will magnify any tiny scratches. Additionally, use fresh sections of the cloth regularly to avoid placing tarnish back on the silver. Ear buds are great for getting into the small areas.

  12. Very old, fragile, or valuable pieces should also be cleaned by a professional. 

  13.  Alternatively, if this is not sufficient, purchase a good quality, silver cloth such as those available at waitrose.com. This will do a far better job than trying to use a cloth with old fashioned silver cleaner which is practically impossible to get out of nooks and crannies!

  14. A good quality silver jewellery dip such as the Silver Jewellery Dip available from waitrose.com is another alternative. However, these need to be used with caution and the instructions followed very carefully. Jewellery dips give off potentially lethal vapours and many also require special hazardous waste disposal. Also, please remember that much of the sterling silver jewellery produced by good designers these days is treated with an anti-tarnish coating which can be stripped away with commercial silver dips.  After being dipped, silver may tarnish more quickly. Please also read the instructions carefully as silver dip may also strip gold and other plating and also damage precious and semi precious stones and pearls.  After using a cleaner, be sure to immediately and thoroughly rinse the piece of jewellery with running water ensuring you dry the it carefully to avoid water spot stains from forming.

  15. As an alternative to silver cloths and silver jewellery dips, you may wish to try one of these natural homemade cleaning methods below in the order shown:
*  Soap and water: This is your first port of call if a microfibre cloth fails to remove the tarnish. Use warm water and a mild, ammonia and phosphate free dishwashing soap.

*  Baking soda and water: If soap and water fails, you might try a pea sized amount of a baking soda and water paste with a clean microfibre cloth. A clean, soft-bristled toothbrush will help you get into the cracks and crevices. Run the silver piece or pieces under running warm water, and dry with a clean cloth.

*  Olive oil and lemon juice: Use this step if neither of the above 2 remedies work. Take a bowl and add 1/2 cup lemon juice with 1 teaspoon of olive oil.  Submerge a microfibre cloth in the solution and wring it out, then polish the silver, rinse, and dry thoroughly.

*  White vinegar and baking soda: This gentle but stronger cleaner should remove heavier tarnishing. Soak the tarnished piece in a solution of 1/2 cup white vinegar and 2 tablespoons of baking soda for two to three hours, then rinse and dry thoroughly.

*  Baking soda, salt, aluminum foil, and boiling water: To take advantage of a basic chemical reaction, line a glass roasting pan or other non metal flat oven proof container with aluminum foil (dull side facing down) and place your silver pieces on top of the aluminum foil. Pour boiling water over the pieces until covered and add 2 tablespoons each of baking soda and salt. Make sure you fully dissolve the baking powder granuals to ensure they don't scratch the silver. In about 5 to 10 minutes the tarnish will “magically” disappear from the jewellery. Using a fork or spoon to remove the jewellery (DO NOT use anything rubber as rubber causes tarnish!). Rinse in water, dry thoroughly and buff with a microfibre cloth.
Of course, there is one other alternative: just let your jewellery tarnish! Many vintage pieces of silverware would loose their value if their "patina" is removed so you could just decide to adapt the same stance! In fact, museums will often leave precious pieces of silverware to completely blacken.
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