ou or evBecause we work primarily with sterling silver and Native American Indian jewelry, a question we are often asked is, “How do I clean my sterling silver jewelry?” The answer to this may not be as simple as you think. Certain cleaners work better than others and some can even be harmful to certain stones. Let's go over a few of options for cleaning your jewelry.
First of all, we must understand that sterling silver tarnishes. While pure silver does not tarnish, sterling is 92.5% silver and 7.5% other alloys, mostly copper. Pure silver does not work well in jewelry because it is too soft. With the addition of copper, sterling is much more durable for use in jewelry. However, if you've ever seen the Statue of Liberty, you'll know that copper oxidizes over time. It's this addition of copper that causes sterling silver to tarnish. This is a natural process and there is nothing wrong with your sterling silver. In most cases, you simply need to clean your jewelry a few times a year.
The best thing you can do to combat the tarnishing process is prevention. Simply wearing your jewelry on a regular basis helps to keep your pieces shiny. Tarnish causes your silver, or copper, brass, bronze and other metals to get dark and dull and just the natural friction of wearing your jewelry helps keep it polished. For instance, as you wear a ring your fingers rub against the metal which helps naturally polish it. Of course, we don't recommend that you wear your jewelry all the time. Take it off when you are showering, doing chores, and before going to bed at night. That will go a long way in keeping your jewelry scratch and dirt free. Because the air is what tarnishes sterling silver, put your jewelry in ziplock bags when you aren't wearing it. For even more protection, get a few anti-tarnish bags to put your jewelry in.
Another home remedy is to save those pesky silicone packets that you find when you buy new shoes or other items. They put those silicone packets in the boxes to draw out moisture and they work great in your jewelry bags to help prevent tarnish.
Even with preventative care, you will most likely need to polish your sterling silver eventually. The best way for an individual to remove tarnish and bring back that beautiful silver luster is simply using a polishing cloth. These have a compound called rouge embedded in the cloth. This is the same thing that professional jewelers use to shine silver. There are a number of products on the market but the one we sell at the Stagecoach is called a “Sunshine Cloth.” These also provide some resistance to future tarnishing.
When using a polishing cloth try to use a back and forth stroke rather than circular. This will help you from developing tiny scratches in the metal. Remember, silver is a soft metal and it can be scratched easily.
If you have the equipment, a polishing wheel on a buffing machine, flex shaft, or a tumbler work great for polishing jewelry. However, these machines are normally used by professionals so you likely won't have access to them.
Believe it or not, toothpaste is a common home remedy for tarnished silver. While this can work great for heavily tarnished pieces and hard to reach spots, it is not a good idea to use toothpaste as a long-term solution. Some modern-day toothpaste can actually react with metal and cause silver to discolor over time. You may have heard that a great substitute for toothpaste on your teeth is a combination of baking soda and water. This is actually a better home remedy for sterling silver then commercial grade toothpaste. Just use it with a soft-bristled toothbrush, rinse it off, and dry afterward, as you should with any cleaner.
There are other homemade cleaners that you can use that involve baking soda mixed with ingredients such as vinegar, salt, or olive oil. These may work fine on plain sterling silver jewelry but I wouldn’t use them if your jewelry contains stones. These mixtures can be harmful to certain stones, such as turquoise. Dry baking soda works great on liquid silver chains and jewelry. Just add the baking soda to a rag and gently rub it into the liquid
Chemical Silver Cleaning Dips
There are a lot of silver polishing chemical dips on the market. These are advertised as an easy solution to tarnished jewelry. However, we do not recommend using these on your jewelry for a variety of reasons. First, many of the dips have a rotten egg smell, and who wants to smell that? While these dips will get rid of tarnish, they may also remove certain patina that might be on the jewelry. A lot of silver, especially Native American jewelry, has a black patina in the recessed areas of the jewelry. This patina helps contrast and define the patterns of the jewelry. If this patina is gone, the only real way to get it back is to have a silversmith reapply it. Once again, these chemicals can be harmful to certain stones. I would never recommend using these on any genuine turquoise jewelry.
Chemical tarnish removers can actually cause silver to tarnish faster. You may have to clean your jewelry more often using these cleaners. The only time we ever use chemical dips at the Stagecoach is when we are shining fine delicate silver chains. This is sometimes the only way to clean these fragile chains without breaking them. If you do use a chemical dip, make sure and rinse the jewelry in baking soda after dipping it.
Ultrasonic machines can be used to clean some jewelry. These machines work by producing high-frequency sound waves that remove dirt and grime. One advantage of these machines is that they can clean in tiny crevices that we cannot reach ourselves. The drawback with ultrasonic machines is that they can harm your stones. Many stones, such as diamonds, are fine to use with an ultrasonic machine but other stones are not. As with some other cleaning methods, never using ultrasonic on turquoise jewelry. If you are going to use an ultrasonic cleaner, make certain that you know which stones are safe.
As you can see, many methods of cleaning sterling silver can be harmful to stones. Some stones such as turquoise, coral, and opal should never be treated with chemicals or ultrasonic machines. The safest and best way to clean your jewelry is to softly scrub with a soft-bristled toothbrush and soapy water. Then use a silver polishing cloth to remove tarnish and restore it to its original silver luster. While this may sound like a lot of work, it only takes a couple minutes to keep your wonderful sterling silver jewelry looking shiny and beautiful. If you follow these two simple steps a few times a year your jewelry can last for a very long time.