Sterling silver jewelry is awesome. The shine and purity of a brand new sterling silver jewelry piece makes it a welcome addition to your jewelry collection. But over time, you may notice that brilliant shine is beginning to dull. The purity of the silver starts becoming marred with the appearance of a brownish film over the well worn surface of the piece. Eventually, over a period of time, that brownish film turns to a coating of dark gray.
That coating my friend is tarnish…otherwise known as silver sulfide, and it’s the bane of sterling silver.
If you love wearing sterling silver jewelry, you’re probably pretty familiar with tarnish and how it can make your favorite silver jewelry pieces look unattractive. Fortunately, getting rid of tarnish and keeping it off your jewelry can be fairly easy with a few simple techniques. In this blog post we’ll find out what causes tarnish, how you can remove it, and how to keep your jewelry tarnish-free in the future.
So What is Tarnish Exactly?
Tarnish is actually a form of corrosion. Basically, it’s a chemical reaction that occurs when certain metals comes in contact with certain substances in the air…like oxygen, moisture, sulfur, etc.
Pure silver (metals that contain 99.9% silver are considered pure) rarely tarnishes. It’s also a pretty soft metal, so any items made of pure silver will be fairly easy to scratch and dent. Enter sterling silver.
Sterling silver is an alloy or mixture of 92.5% silver and 7.5% of some other type metal like copper, platinum, and zinc. The addition of the second metal makes sterling silver stronger and makes it more suitable to use in things like silverware, serving dishes, and of course, jewelry.
Because copper is relatively cheaper than metals like platinum and zinc, it’s the traditional choice for making sterling silver. Unfortunately, copper is also more prone to react to certain types of chemicals in the air…and it’s the copper in sterling silver that causes the tarnish.
The biggest tarnish causing culprit is contact with sulfur. Sulfur in the air, or from contact on the skin, or from contact with substances on the skin like lotion, hairspray, or perfume can trigger tarnishing. Exposure to food that contains sulfur like eggs can also encourage the formation of tarnish.
There are other silver alloys available that are not as prone to tarnishing. A popular one you may have heard of is Argentium silver, which is made by replacing some of the copper with a metal called germanium. But Argentium silver is more expensive than traditional sterling silver. So cost is also a factor when it comes to the popularity of traditional sterling silver.
Okay, So How Do You Get Rid of It?
Since tarnish is basically corrosion, sulfur combines with the surface of the silver to create silver sulfide, the most common way to remove it is to strip away that layer of tarnish to expose the untarnished silver underneath. Items like polishing cloths and silver polish contains a small amount of abrasive material that strips away the thin layer of tarnish and buffs the untarnished metal underneath to bring back the shine.
Another way to remove light tarnish from sterling silver is to do it electro-chemically. All you need is an aluminum foil pan or a glass dish covered with aluminum foil, salt, baking soda, white vinegar, and hot water. This process unbinds the sulfur from that top layer of silver and transfers it to the aluminum foil. The great thing about this process is that you’re getting rid of the tarnish without removing any of the silver.
You can see the entire process in a recent Facebook Live tutorial I did below:
The removal method you use will depend on how severe the tarnish is and how intricately made your silver piece is. The electro-chemical method is great for lightly tarnished pieces and for pieces that have a lot crevices. A polishing cloth or silver polish works well on heavily tarnished pieces.
How to Keep It From Coming Back
It’s much easier to prevent tarnish from forming in the first place than it is to remove it. So here’s a 8 simple tips on how to protect your most loved sterling silver pieces.
1. Put your silver jewelry on after you applied lotion, makeup, perfume, and hairsprays. This will minimize contact with chemicals that encourage tarnish.
2. Keep your jewelry away from food and drinks. This will keep it from coming in contact with foods that contain sulfur.
3. Avoid wearing silver jewelry in the shower, while doing household chores with cleaners, or while swimming. And avoid using soap to clean your jewelry as it can make silver look dull.
4. Wipe your silver jewelry down with a soft cloth after you take it off and before putting it away in your jewelry box. This will help to remove potential tarnish triggering chemicals or body oils from your jewelry.
5. By the way, you should store your silver jewelry in a box or a bag that can be closed as opposed to a jewelry dish, an open jewelry rack, or simply laid out on a tabletop. Open exposure to the air increases the chance that the piece will tarnish.
6. Use anti-tarnish products when storing your jewelry. You can buy anti tarnish strips to put in your jewelry box. You can also store your jewelry in pouches made with anti-tarnish cloth or jewelry boxes lined with anti-tarnish cloth. Anti-tarnish products contains compounds that absorb sulfur, which will help prevent tarnish from forming on your jewelry.
7. If you don’t have access to anti-tarnish products, consider storing your silver jewelry in plastic resealable bags. First, thoroughly clean your pieces, and then use a plastic resealable bag to store them. This limits how much contact your jewelry has with potential tarnish triggering chemicals in the air.
8. Store your jewelry with a piece of chalk. Ordinary chalkboard chalk also has some sulfur absorbing properties.
So there you have it! Follow these steps and you’ll be able to enjoy your sterling silver jewelry for years to come.