Tarnish is a challenge for every jewelry lover. You go to put on your favorite jewelry pieces before heading out the door and find beloved treasures speckled with tarnish. UGH! What to do? Choose to wear a different piece, even though your first choice is perfect for your outfit and occasion, or stop and clean your jewelry…
I’ve heard many people mention that having to polish silver to remove tarnish is the reason they don’t have any silver jewelry in their collection. What a shame! I see tarnish everyday, ranging from mild to severe; it's really no big deal and should not be a detriment to your relationship with silver jewelry. There are so many amazing silver jewelry pieces available that to dismiss an entire precious metal category as worthy of collecting and enjoying because of something as easy to address as tarnish is a tragedy.
How to know if your jewelry is real silver or not?
Before I get into the truth about tarnish, it’s important to know if your jewelry is real silver or not as this will determine how best to clean your pieces. In order for silver jewelry to be legally sold within the United States it must be stamped with an appropriate quality mark. Sterling silver jewelry is always marked with the word “sterling” or with the decimal number .925. Sterling silver is 92.5% pure silver and the remaining 7.5% is an alloy of copper and phosphorus. These materials help give sterling silver its strength and make it ideal for jewelry. Fine silver is made from 99.9% pure silver and identified with .999 quality mark.
Quality marks are usually stamped on or near clasps, inside of ring bands and bracelets, and on earring backs. They are very tiny so you may need a magnifying glass and good lighting to find them. If you can’t find a quality mark that doesn’t necessarily mean that your piece isn’t silver. Quality marks can wear away over time, especially on antique jewelry. When in doubt, your local jeweler will be happy to try to find the quality mark for you.
The cause of tarnish
Tarnish forms as a chemical reaction between sulfur and silver. Silver that comes into contact with any substance that has sulfur will tarnish. The most common source of sulfur is air pollution. Sulfur can also be present in some household cleaners, personal care products and the water found in natural hot springs. Silver tarnishes faster in areas with higher levels of humidity and air pollution. This is why it’s ideal to store silver jewelry in air-restricted places such as jewelry boxes or home safes, not out in the open on top of your dresser.
Tarnish vs. Patina
Tarnish and patina are not the same thing. Tarnish is a dull film on metal. It progresses from yellowish, to sometimes blue, to black and usually covers the surface of the metal in uneven patterns.
Patina on silver is a gorgeous gray lustrous finish that evenly covers the metal. A patina develops over time or is intentionally applied in the jewelry making process. Jewelry made with a rich gray patina is often described as having an oxidized finish.
Tarnish is easiest to remove while it is still in the yellowish stage. Jewelry with more serious cases of tarnish will need a bit more effort and care, but, no matter how much tarnish a piece has a polishing cloth is the best and most gentle tool for cleaning your jewelry.
Polishing clothes come in two parts, one part for cleaning and one for polishing. The cleaning cloth is treated with a special chemical that makes the tarnish removal process faster and easier. Polishing clothes are available in different sizes and can be used on oxidized silver jewelry or bright silver pieces. I recommend using a large cloth at home and having a smaller one on hand for traveling with your jewelry.
When removing tarnish, don’t stress about getting every little speck, especially on pieces with lots of recessed areas or fine detail work. The tarnish “trapped” in the low spots will serve as a contrast to the shiny high areas that are free from tarnish, thus highlighting the intricate details of your jewelry beautifully.
Now that your jewelry is all clean and sparkling how do you keep it from tarnishing again? Wear it more often. Frequent handling and wearing dramatically reduces the development of tarnish. Pieces that are worn everyday rarely need polishing. If you decide your jewelry does need polishing, it will hardly require any time at all because you’re simply sprucing things up rather than taking on years or decades worth of tarnish build-up.
If you don’t think you’ll wear your silver jewelry often enough to prevent tarnish, store it properly in your jewelry box or in specially treated anti-tarnish silver pouches. These special pouches are available in a variety of sizes. Do not store your jewelry in plastic bags or wrap pieces in plastic wrap. Plastic breaks down over time and will fuse to metal, making it a nightmare to remove.
Speaking of good intentions that damage jewelry. There is a lot of misinformation out there on a variety of websites written by supposed jewelry-experts about coating your jewelry with clear nail polish, waxes, or clear spray paint as methods of preventing tarnish. These products are NOT designed for use on jewelry and will cause serious damage.
I once had a customer bring me a pearl necklace for repair and I noticed that a coating was flaking off the piece. At first glance I thought it was old hair-spray residue, but upon further examination the flakes were too thick to be hair spray. When I asked her about the coating, she said that she put clear spray paint on it so it wouldn’t tarnish. The spray paint had also coated the pearls. YIKES! The only way to remove spray paint is with abrasive scrubbing or aggressive chemical paint stripping products, both of which would permanently harm the pearls and damage the necklace even more. I had to tell her that a repair couldn’t be made until all the flaking spray paint wore away on it’s own because the paint removal process was too risky.
Jewelry is one of our most personal and treasured possessions. Knowing the truth about tarnish will help you keep your jewelry sparkling for generations to come. Want to know more about cleaning gemstone jewelry? Visit my Jewelry Care Tips page to learn more about caring for specific gemstones and birthstones.
Have a specific jewelry care question? Send me your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org and who knows; your question may be featured in a future journal post.