How do I care for sterling silver jewelry?
November 17, 2009 10:36 AM   Subscribe

How do I take care of sterling silver jewelry?

I feel dumb that I don't know how to do this, but I have no idea how to take care of jewelry. My family does not wear any for religious reasons, so I've never seen how it's supposed to be stored or cleaned.

I mostly own costume jewelry, but I have a number of pieces of sterling silver jewelry, most of which is from Some of the pieces are tarnished and dirty, but not all of them, and there's no rhyme or reason--it's not the pieces I wear the most that look tarnished, nor the pieces I wear the least. Some of the pieces are just as bright and shiny as the day I bought them.

All the pieces are less than five years old. I keep all my jewelry in a clean old makeup case which was never used for storing makeup, so doesn't have any residue in it. I never wear the jewelry swimming or in the shower and don't sleep in it. I hang the necklaces so they don't get tangled, and toss rings and earrings into the box of the case, which is lined with cloth. It is open to the air, so could be getting dusty, I suppose. The room is not especially humid nor especially dry.

I used an aluminum foil/baking soda/hot water mixture to clean and brighten some of the pieces a few weeks ago, which made a difference but some of them still look just, well, old and dirty. I've done some reading online about how to care for jewelry, but I'm looking for realistic advice--I'm not going to wipe down my jewelry with a special cloth every time I take it off, or store it in a special jewelry chest with velvet linings or anything like that. That's not really how people live, right?

So. Am I being unrealistic and sterling silver jewelry really does need that level of care? Or are the pieces with the problems more likely just junk? Or am I doing something else wrong?
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Get some Flitz polish. It works on everything, but it's exceptionally good on silver.

Basically, it has a grey toothpaste like consistency, take a small quantity, gently coat the surface with a thin layer and let it sit for a couple of seconds, then use a paper towel and begin to rub it off. At first it will seem a little brighter and then another wipe with a clean towel will produce a mirror finish.

To give an example, I just made a ring out of a 1964 silver quarter by hammering it into shape. At different points in the process, I polished it using just Flitz to see my progress. On a surface that had only been treated with a hammer and anvil, it was able to create a mirror finish.

It's good stuff.

Don't use anything as coarse as Scotch Bright pads if you can avoid it. They work by removing the top layer of the metal and you can almost always accomplish a good cleaning with just polish (Scouring pads are good for removing scratches though, I just don't suggest them for general cleaning.)
posted by quin at 10:46 AM on November 17, 2009

The absolutely easiest and most effective method for cleaning silver jewelry is to dip it in this. It's cheap (under $5, I believe), readily available at discount and drug stores, and couldn't be any simpler. You literally do nothing more than dip the piece in, rinse it off, and dry it. For really large and unwieldy pieces, a cotton ball or q-tip soaked in the solution works just fine. It's magic! And no, I don't work for the company. I just love this stuff.
posted by DrGail at 10:59 AM on November 17, 2009

Tarnish is the result of the metals reacting with sulfer and other things in the air. The pieces that you wear the most will not look tarnished because your body oils are protecting them if you ear them a lot. This, of course, depends upon how frequently you wear these pieces and what's in the air around you.

To store your pieces, keep them in small ziplock bags with no holes. Get the smallest bags you can find. If the piece comes in a tiny bag, keep it until it wears out. Ziplock makes snack size bags which can hold several pieces at once. If you find a hole in a bag, get another one. This reduces the exposure of your jewelry to the compounds which cause tarnish and will reduce the amount of polishing you'll have to do.

Polishing your silver will remove the tarnish. You can use a liquid on most silver jewelry. With the liquid, you dip in your jewelry, swirl, remove and rinse. Follow the directions. If it says do not use it on a piece with a stone in it, then don't. It could damage your stone. By keeping your pieces in their bags, you may find you only need this for a good annual cleaning or to take off a really thick layer of tarnish.

You can also look for a polishing cloth. I use my polish cloth for regular touch ups just before I put on a piece I don't wear often. I also use them for pieces which cannot be subjected to the liquid.
posted by onhazier at 10:59 AM on November 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm not going to wipe down my jewelry with a special cloth every time I take it off, or store it in a special jewelry chest with velvet linings or anything like that. That's not really how people live, right?

Actually, the special box may be the only way to prevent tarnishing. It's not that big of a deal- my mom has a silver storage box that she picked up at a yard sale, and she keeps all her silver in it. Me, I'm cheap, so I just rub my silver with a $4 cleaning cloth whenever it looks dull. Takes like two minutes.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:01 AM on November 17, 2009

I use Tarn-X on my silver. Does the job well, and cheaply available at the drugstore.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:11 AM on November 17, 2009

A dab of toothpaste will take off tarnish in a pinch. Probably also abrades the top layer of metal, though.
posted by twistofrhyme at 11:55 AM on November 17, 2009

Best answer: I sell silver jewelry for a living, and I have a metalsmithing arts degree.

Don't use abrasives, especially if there are stones. Flitz is abrasive, it's for finishing a piece, not maintainance. No toothpaste either.

For heavy tarnish, the foil/salt thing is good. Just do it again, but clean it with soap first and don't touch it with your hands before it goes in.

Anyway, here is what we do: Windex, with ammonia and a toothbrush. It takes off minor tarnish, but it won't hurt stones or take out too much of the intentional tarnish in crevices. Also, keep it in a ziploc bag when you're not wearing it. Incidentally, tarnish comes from interaction with sulfur in the air. Silver sulfide is the smell of silver.

Also, keep in mind that some silver is meant to keep its patina with age, but that's really a matter of preference.
posted by cmoj at 12:21 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, and to answer your "That's not really how people live, right?" question, depends a lot on where you live. My mother lives in a very dry climate. She almost never has to polish her silver. My grandmother was able to polish her display of silver spoons only once a year. The items she kept in the silver box got polished less than that and they looked great. I live on the East Coast where it is much more humid. I buff my silver on a regular basis. Pieces I rarely wear may require more polishing if I've been careless and left them out of their bags.

Yes, people live like this if they want their silver nice and shiny instead of black and tarnished. I used to work for a silver store on the beach. I learned from them. When customers would come in the shop wearing tarnished pieces, we'd offer to clean it for them right then and there for free. It only takes a minute or two per piece if done regularly. I wear only silver and spend less time in one year polishing my silver than I do washing dishes in one week because I take the steps outlined above.
posted by onhazier at 12:25 PM on November 17, 2009

Keep it in zip-top plastic bags.
posted by jgirl at 1:45 PM on November 17, 2009

Dipping is by far the easiest and most effective method.

Then limit exposure to air.
posted by fire&wings at 2:07 PM on November 17, 2009

Best answer: Please please don't use the evil dip. It's harsher than it seems. Your jewelry will tarnish much faster after you use that stuff, even if you limit subsequent exposure to air. Also seconding that Flitz is not for basic upkeep.

Ziplock bags are great. A silver polishing cloth is good for pieces that have gotten a little manky. It's the exposure to air that is tarnishing your silver.

As for the inconsistency, the problem with some inexpensive silver is that the piece wasn't really finished all that great to begin with, so you have basically a slightly rough surface (more surface area to tarnish), even though it feels pretty smooth.

Some of us luck out in body chemistry -- the silver I wear more often stays the brightest. And then I have friends who tarnish a piece by looking at it and their skin eats through it at an alarming rate.

/have sold silver jewelry on and off for 16 years, high-end, low-end, you name it.
posted by desuetude at 2:24 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

You know those bags of silica gel that come in shoes and electronics? Throw them in your jewelry box to absorb moisture, which will reduce tarnishing. I have some silver polish and use it for occasionally cleaning really tarnished silver. I usually just use my fingers, to reduce abrasion.
posted by theora55 at 5:46 PM on November 17, 2009

I was taught to put a piece of chalk in with my silver jewelry to slow down the inevitable tarnish reaction - this is after the careful cleaning I was told to do after wearing it.
posted by Lynsey at 8:35 PM on November 17, 2009

925 silver tarnishes much faster than 999 silver. This may explain the randomness of your tarnish.
posted by Muirwylde at 10:49 PM on November 17, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone! Clearly, there IS more to taking care of jewelry than I thought, and those lined chests are not just designed to sucker men into buying something fancy for their significant others.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:14 AM on November 18, 2009

925 silver tarnishes much faster than 999 silver. This may explain the randomness of your tarnish.

It's unlikely that she has any 999 pieces. It's true that pure silver doesn't really tarnish the way sterling does, but it's also too soft for commercial jewelry production.
posted by desuetude at 8:36 AM on November 18, 2009

Some silver, called German silver, nickel silver, argentium, etc., while still .925 silver, is alloyed with nickel and/or zinc. It doesn't tarnish or very, very slowly. I guess it could be plated in fine silver too, but I don't think I've seen this.
posted by cmoj at 10:37 AM on December 1, 2009

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