Sterling Silver Jewelry Care
The Good, the Bad, and How To Deal with the Ugly
Sterling Silver’s Durability
Silver is a precious metal that is exceptionally ductile and malleable. These properties make it well suited for jewelry because it can be easily shaped and formed by the artist. Those same properties also present a drawback since silver in its pure form is extremely susceptible to damage. A piece of jewelry made from pure silver would soon lose its beauty during the course of normal wear. Why? Because jewelry items can easily come in contact with other items that can nick, bump, or scratch their surface; this is especially true when rings and bracelets are worn.
The Silver Alloy
There is a solution, called metal alloying, that is used to make silver more resistant to unavoidable contact damage while at the same time allowing the silver to retain the bright beautiful white shine that it’s known and valued for. The concept behind alloying is simple, take two metallic elements and combine them together to produce a metal that is superior in terms of strength, hardness, ductility or other desired property. Alloying is exactly what’s done in order to produce sterling silver.
Sterling silver is a metal alloy that is commonly produced by adding a small amount of copper to pure silver. The small amount of copper is all that’s needed in order to make silver jewelry durable enough to withstand everyday wear. The percentage of copper in sterling silver is very small, only 7.5%, but that’s all it takes to harden the silver while at the same time preserving the ductility of the metal. Pure silver, properly called bullion silver, is 999/1000 parts silver by mass and typically referred to as .999 silver. Sterling silver in comparison is 925/1000 parts silver by mass and 075/1000 parts copper by mass, this combination it is commonly referred to as .925 silver.
While adding a small amount of copper will strengthen silver, it will also increase the silver’s susceptibility to oxidation which results in tarnish. Tarnish will cause the silver’s beautiful bright finish to dull and discolor. Oxidation, the process that causes tarnish, is a chemical reaction that usually occurs when the metal is exposed to air. It is usually a slow process that gradually degrades the appearance of silver over a period of months or even years, depending on the environmental conditions. Silver that is exposed to harsh conditions will tarnish much sooner and the silver’s finish will be much more difficult to restore if the tarnish isn't removed right away.
Silver’s Enemies are Oxidizing Agents
Silver will not oxidize rapidly if exposed to air alone. Oxidation accelerates when the silver is exposed to air that contains chemical contaminates, known as oxidizing agents. Oxidation can also occur when the silver comes into contact with a material that contains one or more oxidizing agents. The worst of these oxidizing agents are sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur compounds and chloride salts.
The bad news is these chemicals are quite common and are present in most environments. They are present in air pollution, cigarette smoke, furnace fumes as well as some foods such as egg yolks, mustard, table salt, vinegar, olives, and salad dressing. Other sources include perspiration, rubber floor coverings, rubber bands, and some synthetic household detergents. Even latex paints will sometimes contain rubber and will have these adverse chemicals present. In fact one of the common ways that silversmiths and artisans intentionally give a darkened antique look, called a patina, to silver is by applying the compound “liver of sulfur” directly to the surface of the silver.
How To Deal with the Ugly
Limit Your Silver Jewelry's Exposure to Oxidizing Agents
You may not be able to completely eliminate your silver jewelry’s exposure to these oxidizing agents, but there are some things you can do to help prevent their excessive exposure.
- Do not apply hair color or permanent solutions while wearing you silver jewelry.
- Do no shower or go swimming while wearing your silver jewelry.
- Prevent your jewelry from coming in contact with body lotions, hair spray, suntan lotions, or oils of any kind.
- Do not wear your silver jewelry while exercising or anytime when your jewelry could be exposed to perspiration.
- Do not wear your jewelry all of the time, avoid the habit of never removing your jewelry.
Properly Store Your Silver Jewelry
When storing silver jewelry you need to provide an environment that will prevent or retard oxidation, this will lessen or even eliminate tarnish. One method of protecting silver from sulfur is to wrap the jewelry in acid-free tissue then store the jewelry in a tarnish resistant cloth or polyethylene bag. If you try this method use caution to avoid trapping moisture in the polyethylene bag before sealing it. You must also prevent the polyethylene bags from coming into direct contact with the silver. You can also put anti-tarnish strips in the bags. However you must not allow the strips to touch the jewelry in any way, and the strips must be changed at regular 3 to 6 month intervals. The interval between changes will depend on where you live and how fast tarnish builds up on the silver. If the strips aren’t changed there is a good possibility they could re-deposit the sulfur they absorbed back onto the silver.
An alternative is to use ordinary blackboard chalk in place of the no-tarnish strips. Add a single piece of white chalk to the storage bag. White chalk is reported to prevent tarnish.
Cleaning Silver Jewelry with Stone Settings
Silver is a soft metal and you must use care when cleaning it. Abrasive polish is not recommended due to the potential damage it can cause to certain stones. Be aware that if abrasives are used some silver will be removed. Rubbing with a soft cloth even causes some wear.
- Clean with soap (not detergent), water, and a very soft toothbrush.
- Avoid scrubbing the rear of the stone setting since it could loosen the stone from its setting.
- Rinse and polish with soft cloth or felt (tissue is not recommended).
- Dry the silver jewelry very well before storage to prevent residual water stains.
Silver and Commercial Polishes for Tarnish Removal
Silver polishes, solutions, and cloths formulated specifically to remove tarnish are available at specialty craft stores and even some hardware stores. But use extreme caution when using them and read their instructions thoroughly before attempting to remove tarnish. Take any settings that contain colored or other precious stones into consideration by avoiding contact with the tarnish remover unless specifically stated otherwise in the product instructions. Commercial products, rubbing and buffing removes tarnish, but always use the products with care to avoid damage to your jewelry. Above all else avoid polishing silver with any compounds containing abrasive. In some cases a paste of very fine precipitated chalk and denatured alcohol can be used as a relatively safe alternative.
After using any commercial polish, rinse the silver in water and polish dry with a soft cloth. Residues of some polish left on silver may cause silver to tarnish faster. Soap may dull silver if not thoroughly rinsed off. Detergents are never recommended for cleaning silver; those with phosphates may leave a permanent stain even when rinsed.
Silver dip is another product used to remove tarnish from silver. Although it may be effective, there are definite risks associated with its use. It is advised that extreme caution be used if you are considering the use of silver-dip. Silver-dip, although quick to use, can easily remove the dark decorative oxidation, or patina, used by artisans to give the antiqued effect to jewelry. Silver dip can also permanently damage some gemstones if they come in contact with it. Read the important information below before using silver dip on any of your jewelry.
IMPORTANT: Do not use silver dip on rhodium or rhodium-plated jewelry as this will damage the rhodium finish and is known to remove color and polish from certain gemstones, including turquoise and pearls. Although it may be acceptable to use silver dip on pieces that are not set with gemstones or finished with rhodium, the chemicals are extremely harsh and should be reserved for instances in which the item is completely tarnished, such as antique sterling silver items.
Using Ionic and Ultrasonic Cleaners with Silver Jewelry
Chemical electrolysis is another method used to clean jewelry. A simple method of electrolysis involves placing the silver in contact with aluminum and covering the piece with a dilute solution of soda and water (1 ounce soda and 2 quarts water). You may consult a professional jeweler before trying this since there is a risk of damage when this cleaning method is performed on some jewelry. Chemical electrolysis on jewelry which has oxidized areas (patina) as a part of the decoration, or on jewelry that has areas of plated silver, may result in damage to the piece. It is possible the patina will be removed and any silver plating could be stripped off. Electrolysis can also affect some finishes when adhesives are used in the piece. This may result in a hazy surface on some silver which then at a minimum will require re-polishing. Although this method may be easy it has the potential of leaving the surface dull.
However, when electrolysis is used on the proper type of jewelry by someone experienced with cleaning jewelry, it can both work well and be safe. In fact there are a number of companies that have relatively inexpensive electrolysis machines, called Ionic cleaners, available for sale. These Ionic cleaners use electrolysis along with their own special cleaning solution to effectively clean jewelry in as little as 30 seconds. Some are battery powered while others use house current. Typically a positive lead from the unit will be attached to a jewelry piece using an alligator clip, and then the jewelry piece is placed in the unit and submerged in the cleaning solution. Cleaning is accomplished due to difference in electrical polarity between the jewelry piece and the solution. A positive charge is given to the jewelry piece by way of the lead attached by the alligator clip; the solution being negatively charged and of the opposite polarity causes electrolysis to take place which effectively lifts the dirt and grease off the jewelry into the solution. This method is considered safer than ultra-sonic cleaning for some jewelry that has stones which are susceptible to shattering at ultrasonic frequencies. But again, before using any electrolysis method you should take into consideration your knowledge level and the potential risk to the jewelry you’re cleaning before trying this method.
Ultrasonic cleaners may not be as effective as Ionic cleaners, but they are safe to use on most jewelry with the exception of pieces containing delicate stones. The ultrasonic waves in these machines are actually very powerful and have been known to shatter some gemstones. If you’re not sure about the use of an ultrasonic cleaner with your jewelry it’s best to ask a professional jeweler beforehand. If you find they’re safe for use on your jewelry you can find inexpensive ultrasonic cleaners widely available in places like Harbor Freight, Lowes, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and many other stores as well as on the Internet.
Play it Safe and Ask a Professional
When consulting a professional about jewelry care for your items inquire about the use of Ionic jewelry cleaners and ultrasonic cleaners with your specific pieces. Most Ionic and ultrasonic cleaners are considered to be safe for all metals and stones. The main reasons Ionic jewelry cleaners are considered safe is because they do not use heat, sound waves, or abrasives. They do an excellent job of removing tarnish and dirt very quickly. Ultrasonic cleaner do use sound waves, but not heat or abrasives. But keep this in mind when considering the use of either machine. If your jewelry contains silver with a patina, or silver plated areas, the Ionic cleaner may not be appropriate to use with your jewelry. Along the same lines, if your jewelry contains stones with a delicate crystal structure, the ultrasonic cleaner may not be safe to use with your jewelry. Be safe and consult a professional before trying either one.
Silver Jewelry, Beauty that can Last for Generations
Always keep in mind that valuable silver items should be treated with care, carefully stored, and cared for by addressing any tarnish in the early stages while it is still easy to remove. If you don’t have experience with jewelry cleaning techniques consult a professional jeweler knowledgeable about silver, silver polishes and silver cleaning processes before attempting to clean valuable items yourself. If you care for your jewelry properly it will give you years of enjoyment and ultimately there is no reason the beauty you enjoy know couldn’t last for many generations to come.