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