by Cathy Douglas
Sterling silver is a popular metal for jewelry, and for a good reason: it’s beautiful, durable, and can be worked into all sorts of shapes and patterns. Silver’s only real downside is that it tarnishes. Tarnish happens when airborne sulfur combines with elemental silver, creating silver sulfide, which makes jewelry turn first dingy yellow, and then black. Silver jewelry usually needs a good cleaning once or twice a year, plus regular touch-ups. Some silver jewelry is rhodium-plated. This gives it a shiny finish without polishing, though if you wear the piece a lot the plating may wear off.
At the store, we use a chemical silver dip to do the heavy lifting, tarnish-wise. It works, but you may not want to use a noxious chemical like this at home. Chemical dip has has to stay away from food and pets, and mustn’t touch skin, eyes, etc. Even the fumes make some of us feel sick. Another downside to silver dip: the chemical reaction that does the cleaning releases sulfur back into the atmosphere. Yup, the very same element that causes tarnish in the first place. So if you dip, let your silver air out before putting it away. Also, be careful with gemstones. If dipped too frequently, finishing polishes used on lapis, onyx, malachite, and some other stones can degrade.
Fortunately, there are more convenient and less toxic ways to take care of silver at home. One the simple polishing cloth. We have single cloths for sale at the store for a dollar each, and one usually lasts a good long time. Variety stores often carry larger packages. These are simple to use, best for a quick surface wipe. Of course, they can’t get into the grooves of a chain, or completely clean three-dimensional decoration.
Both dips and silver cloths work by removing the black layer of silver sulfide that forms when the piece reacts to sulfur in the air, which is a byproduct of aging plant material and food. Unfortunately, these methods also remove a thin layer of silver every time. Here’s another method that removes only the sulfur, leaving 100% of the silver intact:
Find a pan big enough to lay your tarnished jewelry out flat, then cover the pan with aluminum foil. Lay the jewelry on top of the foil, so that as much silver as possible touches the aluminum. Boil enough water to cover all the jewelry, then mix in baking soda at a ratio of one cup soda per gallon of water. Pour the soda/water combination into the pan. (Careful, it may froth up a bit.) Light tarnish will disappear completely after soaking a couple minutes, though for really dirty pieces you may have to repeat the process. After a couple minutes, lay the jewelry out to dry. Then just brush off any excess baking soda with an old toothbrush or fuzzy cloth. That’s it! The aluminum foil is the magic ingredient; sulfur atoms like aluminum better than silver, which is why they’ll happily jump off your jewelry.
A few types of gemstones may degrade in boiling water. With biological stones like amber, copal and jet, it’s safer just to use a cloth.
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