Dear Professor Pearl,
Years ago my mother gave me a wonderful sterling silver pendant, and it’s still my favourite piece of jewellery. However, lately I’ve noticed that it’s starting to change colour slightly, and parts of it are becoming a sort of brownish yellow. What can I do to restore it’s naturally beauty, and how can I take care of it to avoid this in the future?
If treated properly, sterling silver jewellery can last a lifetime or even several. After all, there’s very little that can be done to destroy sterling silver or cause irreparable damage that a pro sterling silver restorer can’t undo. Scratches can be buffed out, tarnish can be removed, and lustre can be restored to your favourite sterling silver chain, sterling silver bracelet or any sterling silver jewellery piece . Despite this virtual indestructibility, it is all too common for sterling silver to fall into a state of disrepair. With a little bit of tender loving care, however, your sterling silver will maintain all of its wonderful brilliance and never be in need of professional attention.
What is Tarnish?
Tarnish is a layer of corrosion, like a film, that forms on the surface of some metals as they oxidize. In that sense it is a bit like rust, but happens more gradually and affects a different family of metals. In its early stages tarnish takes the form of a yellow or brown colour, and it will continue to darken until it approaches a dark grey or black. The sooner tarnished sterling silver is taken care of, the easier it is to clean. Fortunately, taking care of sterling silver can be easy, convenient, and free. It’s worthy of some emphasis to point out that tarnish is not unhealthy or necessarily bad; it’s a totally natural and inevitable process that sterling silver goes through. Depending on what kind of sterling silver you have and what sort of look you are going for, you may want your sterling silver to appear tarnished in the crevices or elsewhere; the effect of tarnished sterling silver , with bright relief or accents, is commonly known as “antique silver.” This is a very desirable effect that offers a different kind of aesthetic. In fact, many jewellery designers prefer this “antique silver” effect and create it artificially by using a sterling silver blackener. The blackened sterling silver is then “relieved” by buffing with a scouring pad or steel wool, depending on the amount and type of desired highlights.
If you do want to keep your sterling silver gleaming , on the other hand, or if you’re just interested in what tarnish is and how to control it to your advantage, then read on…
Sterling silver tarnish can be caused by a myriad of different everyday substances, but most common are light and airborne chemicals- namely sulfur. Sulfur is sterling silver’s arch nemesis, and while trace amounts of it are widespread in the air we breathe, there are also significant amounts in much of the food we eat- especially eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, and broccoli. This doesn’t mean much for jewellery, but it explains the tarnish seen on fine silver flatware.
Other threats you may not suspect include fluorescent light, felt, rubber bands, latex gloves, finger oils, hairspray, and perfume. It’s true- tarnish-causing agents are everywhere!
Storage and Prevention
Storing your sterling silver properly is crucial, and will mainly consist of recognizing the causes of tarnish and trying your best to protect your accessories from ever having any contact with them. For starters, never store your sterling silver in contact with rubber bands, cardboard, or wood (oak is especially bad for sterling silver). You also want it in a relatively airtight, dark space- especially protected from ultra-violet light. I recommend wrapping your sterling silver jewellery in acid-free tissue paper, and then storing each piece in a zip lock bag in a cupboard or drawer. For long term storage, this method should do the trick. If you wear your sterling silver too often to make that method viable, you can simply keep it in an airtight drawer on a layer of tissue (to keep it from contacting the bare wood). There are a number of products available to store with jewellery so that it tarnishes at a slower rate, such as 3M’s Anti-Tarnish Strips. If you don’t want to spend money, white chalk has frequently been suggested as a surprisingly effective and inexpensive substitute.
Plastic wrap is a slightly controversial storage medium. We here at Stones and Findings have found that wrapping up our sterling silver in plastic wrap and keeping it out of the light keeps sterling silver tarnish-free for ages. Others suggest that there is a crucial difference between plastic that zip lock bags are made of- and thin stretchy plastic cling wrap, which is allegedly inadvisable for sterling silver storage. It’s probably okay, but if in doubt, leave cling wrap out. And whatever you do, don’t use rubber bands. These will cause a black band of tarnish to develop rapidly, even through a layer of plastic, without direct contact.
Proper storage really goes a long way in tarnish prevention, but it’s not the only measure you can take. Remember, also, that if you wear hairspray, perfume, moisturizers, or anything of the sort, is always best to apply those products before you put on your sterling silver to minimize contact. However, these products will still likely tarnish the surfaces of the sterling silver it comes in contact with. Likewise, the chemical makeup of the wearer’s skin, whether high in iron or acidity, will have an effect on the rate at which the sterling silver jewellery pieces tarnish. Regular cleaning and maintenance will be still be necessary.
Finally, don’t forget to clean your sterling silver accessories on a regular basis… preferably before they start to tarnish! As prevention, this can simply mean rubbing the oils off your pieces with a cotton cloth after wear.
Remember- tarnish in its early stages (the likes of which Suzie has described) is easy to remove with gentle cleaning and readily available household supplies. The longer it goes untreated, the more severe it will look (eventually turning dark grey or black) and the more difficult it will be to get rid of.
For mild cases, simply follow these instructions: using a gentle solution of Comet or Ajax and warm water; lather the crevices of your accessory and let sit for 30 seconds. Then rinse thoroughly before patting dry completely with cotton cloth or paper towel. That’s it! Repeat if necessary. Keep in mind that if your sterling silver article is set with gemstones or pearls, you may need to carefully clean around those features, trying only to touch the sterling silver parts- this goes for polishing too.
As mentioned, some people prefer to keep the crevices a little bit tarnished so their sterling silver will appear more classic and aged. Feel free to experiment, and if youäó»re ever unsure, simply do a small test sample on a less conspicuous part of the item.
When tarnish gets really extreme and begins to blacken, a professional sterling silver restorer may be required. They will typically use heavy duty chemical sterling silver dips to solve the problem. These are inadvisable for regular use, as they are highly toxic and actually degrade the surface of the sterling silver over time. In other words, prevention is definitely the best bet.
If you’ve decided that cleaning isn’t enough, and you want to take your sterling silver’s radiance to the next level by using polish, remember to use as little as possible. It really doesn’t take much, and too much will actually wear down the surface finish. Always use straight, broad strokes when polishing or drying your pieces; never use a circular motion or you could end up with unwanted surface smudging.
Thanks for writing, Suzie! Hopefully you now have all the info you need to maintain a healthy and loving relationship with your sterling silver ornaments. If you’re good to them, they will be good to you and yours for generations to come.
Write to Professor Pearl with any questions you have about gemstones, precious metals, jewellery making techniques, or the accessory industry: firstname.lastname@example.org