March 13, 2023

Whether you’ve recently inherited family heirlooms made of silver, you’ve been given some beautiful silver jewellery, or you’ve finally bought that vintage set of silver flatware or the silver tea set you’ve always dreamed of having in your dining room, now is the time to learn how to take care of it.

Silver is a popular metal in all kinds of valuables. It’s used in silver jewellery, flatware, tea sets, antiques, and coins.

What you need to do to take care of your silver depends on how you want to use it and what you want to do with it down the road. This is your complete guide to silver tarnish, including why it tarnishes in the first place, how to prevent tarnish, and what to do when it does tarnish.

Why Does Silver Tarnish in the First Place?

Silver tarnishes when it’s exposed to sulfurous gases in the air, specifically hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide exists in small traces everywhere, and it can be found in abundance in foods like eggs, mustard, and mayonnaise (so you may want to skip the silverware if you’re serving up egg salad).

When hydrogen sulfide comes into contact with silver, there is a chemical reaction that creates a thin surface layer of silver sulfide on the object. This creates discolouration that darkens the surface of the subject. The thin layer creates colour interference that changes the colour of the object.

Does Tarnish Affect the Value of Silver?

You might be surprised to learn that tarnish does not affect the value of silver items. That includes jewellery, silverware, tea sets, coins, and just about every type of silver product. A professional silver buyer is not concerned about tarnish, and the price they offer will not be affected. In fact, given the risks that you could damage silver by removing tarnish, it’s usually recommended that you leave it alone.

If you are selling to a private individual instead of a professional buyer, they may offer a lower price for tarnished items, but you may want to rethink the sale if that’s the offer. Tarnished sterling silver items should not be an issue for a reliable, serious buyer most of the time.

How to Prevent Tarnish

While tarnish will not affect the value of your silver, many people prefer to keep it bright and polished for their own personal use. When you want to show off your silver, you want it to shine, so it makes perfect sense to keep silverware or high-quality silver jewellery polished. The best way to minimize the chance of damaging your valuables is to prevent tarnish in the first place. Here’s how you can, depending on the type of silver you have.

#1 Silver Jewellery

You can keep silver jewellery from tarnishing by making sure that it’s stored safely away from open air when you’re not wearing it. Store it in an airtight container or a plastic bag. You may also want to consider storing pieces individually to prevent them from scratching each other. Wrap each piece in acid-free tissue paper.

You can provide additional protection by using desiccated silica gel or activated charcoal in the container as well or wrap silver in tarnish-inhibiting cloth. These materials all react with natural sulfur in the air first, protecting the piece of jewellery.

#2 Silver Coins

Unless you have invested in your silver coin collection to put it on display, the best way to treat your silver coins is to keep them in airtight plastic containers (either individually or in stacks) and in a dark place. Plastic tubes or sleeves are perfect for the task. Individual sleeves can help if you want to be able to display or view your collection in a book. It also helps if they are stored in a dry environment.

Silver coins are the one type of silver where the value can be affected by tarnish, depending on what kind of coin they are. Junk silver and investment-grade bullion won’t be affected, but genuinely rare collectibles are graded by their condition. In the case of these coins, preventing tarnish in the first place is much safer than cleaning them.

A set of silver flatware with a silver platter and tea cup

#3 Silver Flatware & Tea Sets

Flatware and tea sets are some of the toughest to keep tarnish-free because they get used for food and drink. When there’s company over, and you want to impress, you bring out your best sets. This can make keeping tarnish away just a little bit more of a challenge.

There are two aspects to keep in mind: cleaning and storage.

Cleaning:After you use silver flatware, you want to clean it quickly. Use warm water and a soft, non-abrasive sponge, along with mild dish soap. Rinse the silver with water after cleaning and dry it off with a towel rather than let it air dry.

Storage:While it may be tempting to keep your best silverware on display, the best way to prevent tarnish from building up is to store it in a drawer or chest lined with acid-free tissue paper or tarnish-resistant cloth. Alternatively, you can also use unbleached cotton muslin or something called silver cloth, a cloth that contains microscopic silver and zinc particles which react with sulfur compounds before they get a chance to reach the flatware. You can also place flatware in an airtight plastic bag with these materials for extra protection.

Should You Clean Tarnished Silver?

Even the most careful individuals will wind up seeing some tarnish on their silver eventually. The question is, should you clean it?

First and foremost, that depends on what you plan to do with it. Let’s take a tea set as an example. You have just inherited a silver tea set that you have no intention of using or keeping. For those who plan on selling silver tea sets, cleaning is not recommended, as you can actually do damage to the piece.

If you want to show off your new tea set at its best and put it to good use, you certainly can clean and polish it. Keep in mind that it may affect the resale value later, but if a polish helps you enjoy it more today, it can be worth it.

How to Clean Vintage and Antique Silver Flatware

Cleaning antique silver flatware is a task that should be done carefully. You want to remove tarnish without causing any damage to the pieces themselves. When it comes to very old pieces of silver, tarnish can get so bad that it’s turned brown or even black. Bringing them back to their former glory is a delicate process.

Avoid Store-Bought Silver Cleaning Products

You’ll find a number of store-bought silver cleaning products, but all of these should be used sparingly at best. The chemical components found in these cleaners can cause damage to your antique pieces through chemical reactions.

As a general rule, it’s safer to use pantry ingredients when you’re cleaning silver. They’re more natural and less likely to cause any damage.

Materials and Equipment

Here’s a list of what you will need before you begin:

  • Soft cloth
  • A ceramic or glass dish (not metal)
  • Aluminum foil
  • Boiling water
  • Salt
  • Baking soda
  • Vinegar (optional)

Step-by-Step Cleaning Instructions

#1 Prepare Your Dish

Start by wrapping your dish with aluminum foil so that it covers the whole surface. Once covered, fill it with boiling water.

#2 Add Baking Soda and Salt

You will need to add roughly ¼ cup of baking soda and two teaspoons of salt to the boiling water. You should see bubbles form as you stir the mixture together.

Some methods involve using ½ cup of vinegar and only one tablespoon of baking soda.

#3 Clean the Silver

Add your silverware to the mixture. The aluminum foil will react with the silver and remove the tarnish. It’s important not to let it sit for too long. Don’t leave silver pieces longer than 10 minutes for heavily tarnished items.

Remove the silver pieces and dry them off with your soft cloth.

A pair of oddly shaped silver earrings

How to Clean Silver Jewellery

When it comes to jewellery, you may need to take a different approach in order to deal with the unique designs and small surface areas. Cleaning your silver jewellery won’t take long as long as you have the right materials on hand and you take reasonable steps to prevent tarnishing in the first place.

There are five things you need to start cleaning silver jewellery:

  • Two small bowls
  • Warm water
  • Mild dish soap
  • Soft toothbrush
  • Soft cloth (not paper towel)

Stir in a couple of drops of mild dish soap into the warm water in the bowl. Very gently use the toothbrush to scrub away the tarnish, with an emphasis on the word gentle. While the bristles will help get into crevices in the jewellery, you do not want to scratch the silver.

Next, rinse off each piece in your second bowl with clean warm water. You run the risk of dropping the jewellery if you rinse it in the sink. Finally, dry each piece off with your cloth rather than let it air dry.

You can also use a silver polishing cloth, but these are cloths infused with chemical cleaners. It can be safer to use a chemical-free approach.

Before you clean your silver jewellery or heirlooms, remember that it can damage the piece. If you want your silver bright and polished for personal use, polishing it using more natural materials (rather than chemical-based cleaners) can restore it for your personal enjoyment. If you plan on selling your silver, hold off on cleaning it, as tarnish will not affect the price.

If you’re concerned that you have damaged your silver and still want to sell, Muzeum offers free in-person evaluations of all silver pieces. We pride ourselves on our transparency and always offer customers the best possible price for their precious metals.

The best way to take care of your silver is to prevent tarnishing in the first place. Keep it stored and sealed away from open air, and use cloths or materials that can help protect against tarnishing.

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