Silver Jewelry Care – How to Clean Tarnish

I love silver jewelry! From chains, to charms, to gorgeous Native American pieces, Sterling Silver makes the most elegant jewelry. If you’ve had problems with rashes from white gold, toss that gold/nickel piece and go for the luster and glow of silver!

Ugly black or gray tarnish is the enemy of the beauty of silver. What is tarnish? Simply put, it’s caused by the surface of the silver reacting with sulphurous fumes. Where does that sulphur come from? Somewhere in the environment, and I don’t like to think that it’s in the air, but it must be. Tarnish can also form on silver that’s been stored with rubber bands (why?), felt or wool.

The best way to keep your silver jewelry from tarnishing is to wear it frequently. Now that’s advice that’s easy to take! Frequent contact with your skin will help to retard tarnish formation. Clean the jewelry with a soft cloth after each wearing.

The next best way to stop tarnish from forming is proper storage. If you’re a collector, and you can’t wear all of your silver jewelry frequently, store it in individual zip-lock bags with an anti-tarnish strip. They’re inexpensive and available online through jewelry supplycompanies, and at fine jewelry stores. The strips are safe and non-toxic, and last about 6 months.

OK, you’ve got a beautiful piece of silver jewelry that’s been in a box somewhere, or you just bought it at an estate sale, and it’s black with tarnish. What to do?

An easy and eco-friendly way to clean silver is with soap and water, followed by a baking soda treatment.

First, wash the piece with soap and water to remove surface dirt, dust, oils, perfume or hair spray. (be sure to put the plug in the sink first!)

Next, line a pot with heavy duty aluminum foil, or use a disposable aluminum pie pan. Put the piece of jewelry in the pan, and cover it completely with baking soda. The piece should be in direct contact with the aluminum. Carefully pour boiling water over the baking soda so the piece of jewelry is covered. This is also an interesting science experiment, since you are creating a chemical reaction. The kids might want to watch.

Before long you’ll see tiny yellow or black flakes in the water, and the aluminum foil will be turning black. The sulphur in the tarnish likes aluminum better than it likes silver, so it’s attracted away from the silver and turns the aluminum black.

After a few minutes, lift the piece out of the water with tongs or a fork, and see how it’s doing. It shouldn’t be long before your silver jewelry is sparkling and tarnish-free. Once it’s clean, rinse it in clean water to remove all traces of the baking soda and dry it with a soft cloth. Rubbing with the cloth may remove any stubborn dark spots that remain. If the piece is severely tarnished, you may have to repeat the procedure.

I’ve seen baking soda paste used to clean silver, but this is not recommended for your fine jewelry pieces. The paste is an abrasive, and will leave tiny scratches on the surface of the silver. Not a good idea. Also, baking soda paste will be very difficult to get out from the settings around pearls or stones.

Toothpaste should never be used to clean silver. Some toothpastes contain baking soda or other ingredients that are much too abrasive and will scratch the piece.

A very easy way to clean slightly tarnished pieces is with a silver polishing cloth, available at jewelry stores and on line. I’ve used one for years, and it takes tarnish off with a little elbow grease. Chains are particularly easy to clean with the cloth – just wrap the chain in the cloth and run it up and down the chain. Black streaks appear on the cloth as the tarnish comes off the chain.

Once your silver jewelry is tarnish-free, wear it often, store it properly, and you’ll see very little tarnish adding its ugly color to your beautiful silver.