Tarnish Happens

The customer looks at me– wide eyed. "Will it tarnish?" "How should I polish it?" She looks almost frightened.

Those of us who work in silver have encountered this scenario many times. And I think we can understand our customer's fear– she has found a piece that she really loves, and doesn't want to have it change or need to labor over its care.

So what about that devil Tarnish? What is it, what causes it, can it be prevented? How about the question of polishing?

I decided to title this article Tarnish Happens because that was the first surprising thing I learned when doing my research. I work a great deal with Precious Metal Clay (PMC). PMC is fine silver, or 99.9% pure silver. There is a widespread belief that pure silver doesn't tarnish. The story goes like this: sterling silver is an alloy. It is 92.5% pure silver, and the remainder of the alloy contains some copper. Copper tarnishes easily; hence, sterling silver tarnishes because of the copper in it. Fine silver– on the other hand– being pure, contains no copper and therefore doesn't tarnish.

Ahh, but then I polled some of my fellow Etsy MetalClay Team members about their experiences with tarnish. Some were telling me they've had PMC pieces tarnish! What's up with that??? I was confused.

I learned that ALL silver tarnishes. When silver combines with sulfur, it forms something called silver sulfide. Silver sulfide is black. This oxidizing process is what we call tarnish. Yes, copper tarnishes more readily, causing sterling silver to tarnish more quickly. But depending on the circumstances, fine silver tarnishes only slightly less readily.

PMC pieces that have been sitting around for about 5 years. The chain is sterling shown as a comparison.

The circumstances I alluded to are the ingredients in the tarnish recipe. Turns out there are many, and they can be mixed in various proportions. You really only need one of these ingredients for tarnishing to happen. Here they are:

The environment Things in the water like chlorine and magnesium sulfates or like gases in the air (sulfur dioxide air pollution).

The climate Elevated temperatures, increased humidity and poor air circulation

Everyday products Cosmetics, hair sprays, household bleach, phosphate detergents, fossil fuels, latex (as in paints or latex gloves).

Crazy stuff Wool, rubber bands, eggs, onions, even certain people's own body chemistry... haven't we all encountered the customer who tells us she can't wear silver because it turns color on her immediately? Well, it's true!

So how can tarnish be prevented? There are some steps that can be taken. You can probably guess after having read some of the causes of tarnish that a good preventative measure is to keep your silver sealed in a plastic bag when not being used. This is one of the best measures to take. Another would be not to wear your silver jewelry when applying make-up, cleaning or gardening. Seems obvious but is not always done. A good rule of thumb is "last on, first off"; meaning put your jewelry on last– after make-up, hair spray, etc. and take it off first before doing things like dishwashing.

One of my EMC Teammates suggested being sure to store your silver away from gas appliances. This is not something most people would think of, but makes sense because sulfur is added to natural gas for its odor as a safety precaution. And we now know, sulfur is a big culprit in the tarnishing process.

Another handy suggestion is to save those little "anti-dessicant" packs we get in new purses or the box containing new shoes. Store them with your silver to help keep moisture away. Chalkboard chalk can do this, too. Or, if you really want to, commercial "tarnish tabs" (treated pieces of paper) can be stored with your jewelry. They are made by 3M.

Last we have the maintenance question. First, keep your jewelry clean. It can be washed occasionally, in soap (make sure it's phosphate-free) and water. Dry it well. Commercial polishing cloths are an excellent way to clean your silver jewelry. Some more aggressive methods of cleaning tarnish off would be to clean with a paste made of baking soda and water, or to use the silver cleaning method of simmering the piece in an aluminum pan filled with baking soda and water (instructions can be found on the internet). Use caution with these methods if your piece has an oxidized finish on it that was put there by the artist. You could potentially remove this effect. Chemical dips and liquid polishes are not recommended for jewelry for many reasons relating to their harshness.

I'd like to end by telling you how I feel about tarnish. I'm one of the above-mentioned artists who oxidizes many of my pieces. I happen to love the antique, time-worn mellow patina that silver can have. May I make the radical suggestion of learning to accept the tarnishing process as part of the beauty of owning silver? Store your jewelry in a plastic bag, take it out and love it and wear it! With minimal care it will be a thing of beauty for a long time.

I'd like to thank the following EMC Team members for their insight which contributed to this article: Zoe Nelson, Lorena Angulo, Janice Doner, Judy Gordon, Beverly Gallerani, Jennifer Smith-Righter, and Jane Font.

Also, I thank Tim McCreight for answering all my questions on this (much more complicated than I anticipated!) topic.

Article written by Evelyn


Spirited Earth said...

this was a really good post.
i love old silver and feel the patina is a large part of the beauty.
i wear a bracelet everyday that belonged to my grandmother..it's at least as old as myself.( not going there) and i never polish it. regular wear has kept the repousse high areas light ,leaving a lovely darkness in the recessed areas..
it seems to me that keeping silver totally shiney is like trying to keep a plant exactly the same.

Evelyn said...

Thank you, too, Catherine Witherell for contributing the great photos to this article!

Unknown said...

I've been working with PMC+ for over three years, and in the last week I've had two customers come back to me with severely tarnished jewellery. They are both recent orders, and one customer is telling me it is tarnishing within a day (while wearing it). I have supplied both with polishing pads and cloths but the tarnish has reappeared. Obviously they aren't too happy, and I'm not sure what I can do/suggest to fix it! Any help would be greatly appreciated! I make fingerprint jewellery and the PMC+ has been antiqued with liver of sulphur.... Many thanks, Hannah

Lora Hart said...

Hanna, As you can read in the post above, tarnish happens for a variety of reasons, and frankly there's nothing you can do about it. There is no sealer that will work forever. A woman's personal body chemistry, the beauty products she wears, the atmosphere (smog, humidity, etc.) and just plain wear and tear all work against a bright, white, finish lasting. The reason that commercial goods tend not to tarnish as fast is that many of them have a rhodium or other white metal coating over the sterling or white gold. All metal tarnishes. Some more easily than others. Although fine silver, left in a drawer, only mellows to a golden hue and doesn't blacken as sterling does - add in the contributing factors listed above and natural oxidation takes place. While living in California - I did not wear my own jewelry during the summer because it was completely black by the end of the day.

One can combat tarnish by storing silver with a piece of regular old chalk, taking jewelry off before showering, bathing, and swimming, and polishing at at the end of the day. Recommend that your customers never use Tarnex or a similar product on jewelry (or really fine silverware either), as the chemicals cause microscopic pits and damage that actually promote tarnish to re appear.

Good luck with your customer. Unfortunately - this is not a battle we can ultimately win. It just has to be handled on a day to day basis.

Creativity Happens on Etsy said...

Great post! Thank you!

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