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Does Sterling Silver Tarnish?

Most people have experienced the feeling of a gorgeous piece of silver tarnishing. A lot of these precious possessions are quite expensive. Others are simply beautiful and meaningful, and when they tarnish it can be very upsetting. Whether it is sterling silver jewelry, gold, or tin, we want to make them last. It’s important to realize that color change is the most basic way to tell if your sterling silver is tarnishing.

Silver tarnish can be devastating and costly. That is why it is important to thoroughly understand everything about tarnish. Does sterling silver tarnish? Is there anything that we can do to prevent it? As you read on, we will explore these questions and many others in great depth.

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Does Sterling Silver Tarnish?

It is no secret that sterling silver tarnishes and depending on the environment could tarnish very quickly. Why does sterling silver tarnish? How does sterling silver tarnish? Understanding the science of silver tarnish and recognizing the early stages are both necessary for prevention. It is also necessary to understand the best polishing methods and to be aware of the environmental factors that cause silver to tarnish. There are appropriate lines of action worth knowing about which will help you better take care of your possessions.

Sterling silver tea set.
Sterling silver will tarnish, but luckily there are easy ways to remove it.

How Can You Tell if Silver is Tarnishing?

A layer of tarnish is formed when sterling silver is exposed to sulfur-containing gasses. The silver will then discolor, and its appearance will be ruined. The tarnish will also disfigure a silver object causing it to not work right or look horrible. Cleaning a silver object after it has been tarnished will still result in some silver loss. However, being aware of early signs of tarnish and properly polishing the silver can drastically increase its lifespan.

How Can You Keep Silver From Tarnishing?

Applying just a thin layer of polish can go a long way in preventing silver and other metals like aluminum, brass, copper, etc from tarnishing and making them look cleaner. Keeping your silver out of environments where harmful gasses are present will also help to prevent tarnish. If your silver does begin to tarnish, there are a few ways in which tarnish can be removed. Tools like steel wool, sandpaper, emery paper, baking soda, or a file are great for rubbing the surface and removing the tarnish on silver.

Sterling silver necklace.
It’s important to properly store your silver jewelry so as not to expose it to environments that could cause tarnishing over time.

Use Special Bags or Papers

There are special anti-tarnish bags that are designed to neutralize sulfur and other harmful gases. If you use this method of prevention you will not need to polish to keep your silver items in great shape. Even if you are opening your bag frequently, this material will still last around two years. Placing anti-tarnish papers between your silver objects and then placing them both in an airtight bag can be very helpful. Using these special papers can fight tarnish for up to six months.

Always Clean the Silver After Use

Making sure your silver is cleaned before putting it away is a must to protect it. Cleaning your silver with a polishing cloth is one of the best and safest ways to do this. You should never put silver in the dishwasher because repeated cycles could cause dulling of your items. Instead, clean sterling silver in water and make sure it is completely dry before storing away. After drying, using a polishing cloth is a great way to keep your silver shiny without damaging your silver.

Lacquering of Silver Objects

Lacquer is usually applied to metals or woods to create a hard and durable finish for the item. When silver is lacquered it is now protected from layers of corrosion or over-polishing which can damage it. This method is very beneficial for objects that are always on display and constantly exposed to air. Lacquer, or surface coating, is usually applied by professionals and will certainly work to stop or slow the tarnishing of air-exposed items.

What is the Science of Silver Tarnish and Its Cause?

Various chemical changes take place on the surface when metal is tarnishing. When oxygen reacts with sulfur dioxide, a metal vs. non-metal compound, tarnish is the product. When this reaction occurs, oxidation takes place, creating metal oxides. These metal oxides can react with water to produce hydroxide or with carbon dioxide to produce carbonate. Unlike rust, tarnish is limited to the outermost layers of the object while protecting the underlying layers.

Polishing cloth here comes the shine!

When silver is exposed to sulfur-containing gasses it changes form and creates a layer of tarnish. The compounds that are created from this exposure are silver sulfide and copper sulfide. When tarnished, silver will typically contain both these compounds and will sometimes contain hydrogen sulfate as well. Hydrogen sulfide is the most common sulfate-containing gas and comes from hard-boiled eggs. Tarnish can worsen and change colors at different rates.

There is a phenomenon called “thin-film interference” that plays a big role in the way silver may tarnish. This phenomenon is mainly responsible for how silver changes colors while it is tarnishing. When light shines on a piece of tarnishing silver, it splits, resulting in two different reflections. Part of the light will reflect off the layer of tarnish while some of it reflects off the silver itself. This light interference, depending on how thick the layer of tarnish is, drastically changes the color.

Many of the colors are lost after the top and bottom reflections recombine. The colors that remain after this interference are yellow, reddish-brown, blue, or black. When the thickness of the tarnish falls between 10 and 100 nanometers the colors are then yellow, reddish-brown, and blue. When the thickness is over 100 nm the tarnish turns to complete silver sulfide which is black. Sometimes tarnish will produce 3-dimensional whisker formations rather than colors, but the exact reason for this is unknown.

How Long Does It Take for Sterling Silver to Tarnish?

The rate that silver tarnishes is determined solely by the amount of sulfur-containing gas it is exposed to. This is measured by the gas’s relation to 1 trillion molecules of air. For example, if a dark layer of tarnish was to form in a museum setting, where the hydrogen sulfide content ranges anywhere from 86-600 parts per trillion, it will take months or even a year. Silver that is directly exposed to a hard-boiled egg will tarnish in minutes.

Silver can also tarnish if it is not stored in the proper environment. Humidity drastically affects the rate at which it will do this. When silver is exposed to an environment containing sulfur gasses as well as humidity, the rate of tarnish increases as the relative humidity of that environment increases. Conversely, as moisture lowers, the rate of tarnish will reduce as well. It is best to store silver in places that have a relative humidity level of 50% or less.

How Do You Polish Sterling Silver?

The most common ways to clean silver are to use polishing clothes or silver polish. With silver polish, we have the options of homemade or commercial polishes. Commercial polishes generally have tarnish inhibitors whereas homemade polishes usually lack them. Some key phrases which imply that a polish contains a tarnish inhibitor are:

  • “tarnish preventative”
  • “tarnish guard”
  • “anti-tarnish ingredient”
  • “tarnish retardant”
  • “prevents tarnish”
  • “chemical protectant”

Being aware of these key phrases when shopping for polishes will certainly help you find the best products. Tarnish inhibitors work as a protective mechanism to stop silver from tarnishing. They operate by attaching to the surface of the silver and creating a thin transparent layer. These wax-like organic molecules work to repel water and harmful gasses, and ultimately extend the life of your silver object.

Silver engraved bracelet.
Keeping your favorite jewelry pieces polished and shiny is a must.

Polishing Cloths

Polishing Cloth perfectly polish anything.

Polishing cloths can also contain a tarnish inhibitor and it is very important to purchase the ones that do. Champion Supplies offers a Polishing Cloth that contains a wax coating and a chemical protectant and works great for fighting tarnish. These clothes are continually gaining popularity due to their ability to be cut and provide great precision when polishing. Purchasing them will also help to save you money. Rather than spend it on things you have to re-buy, like metal and furniture polishes, you can re-use the cloth. They can remove dust or fingerprints too.

These silver polishing cloths can be used to polish sterling silver rings, necklaces, earrings, or bracelets too. Jewelry is typically not cheap, and it will benefit owners greatly to understand the importance of proper maintenance. Using a polishing cloth on jewelry outweighs other options, especially when working with a fragile object. Most jewelry is fragile, and the polishing cloth gives owners the ability to be precise when removing tarnish, but delicate and gentle as well.

Polishing with Precipitated Calcium Carbonate

Precipitated calcium carbonate is considered a mild polish because it doesn’t remove too much silver when used. This can be easy to make at your home and less abrasive than commercial polishes. Sometimes commercial polishes contain unknown additives that can be very damaging to the surface of your object. Precipitated calcium carbonate can be made and tested in minutes, cheaper than commercial products, and a great protectant and polishing tool for your silver.

How Can We Take the Best Care of Our Jewelry?

Rhodium plating is one of the best ways to protect and improve the appearance of your jewelry. From a fashion point of view, rhodium plated jewelry is very popular. For example, this type of plating makes diamond or silver rings appear bigger and better. Rhodium is also very expensive, so only a small amount is applied to reduce the amount of metal. By doing this, sterling silver rings, bracelets, and necklaces that are rhodium plated are also less expensive.

Besides making your ring, bracelet, or necklace cheaper and more gorgeous, rhodium is also one of the highest quality protectants. To wear sterling silver jewelry that is not plated could produce more work for you and cost you more money. Sterling silver jewelry that is rhodium plated will never tarnish and never need to be polished. Rhodium is a platinum metal that provides a durable, non-tarnish surface for any white gold, gemstone, diamond, or silver.

Silver ring with diamonds.
Purchasing silver jewelry plated with rhodium will ensure that the piece will remain in its original shiny state for years to come.

How Can We Tell If Sterling Silver Jewelry is Real or Fake?

A piece of jewelry is considered pure silver when it is at least .925% silver. Natural silver is too soft to build with and therefore needs additives such as copper and nickel. Sometimes an item can have a thin plate of pure silver that lies over another metal but is not considered pure silver. Over time this silver plating can be worn away and reveal the lesser-quality metal underneath. Pure silver will have marks on it such as 9.25, Sterling, Sterling 925, or S/S.

Silver heart necklace.
To make sure that your sterling silver piece is legitimate, look for tell-tale labels such as “Sterling 925” in the jewelry store before buying.

Why Do Sterling Silver Rings Tarnish?

We have discussed what causes sterling silver to tarnish and some tips to prevent it, but now let’s talk about how it applies to rings, necklaces, and bracelets. Jewelry undergoes the same surface chemical reactions as other sterling silver items when exposed to harmful gasses. When jewelry wears out, it can wear with a black discoloration, leaving skin with green or black marks. To make sterling silver rings last, it is important to regularly polish them with a polishing cloth.

Colorful silver rings.
Sterling silver rings may tarnish over time depending on the environments they are exposed to.

How to Choose the Right Jewelry to Wear?

Polishing cloth small cloth, huge results.

Picking out the right jewelry is heavily based on personal taste. It is important to also know the construction of the jewelry as well. There once was an unspoken rule that every piece of jewelry could only be made from one type of metal. We now know that mixed metal jewelry can drastically change the appearance and tarnish rate of a piece of metal. This innovative approach offers many more styles and versions of jewelry that suit all types of buyers’ needs.

Shiny silver bracelet.
Mixed metal jewelry has gained in popularity, and sterling silver jewelry is no exception.

Final Thoughts

When we understand answers to questions such as “does sterling silver tarnish?” or “how can we prevent silver from tarnishing?” we become more educated and savvier with our metals. Knowing polishing options, harmful environments, and warning signs can save us money and increase the lifespan of our precious metals. I encourage you to further extend your knowledge about tarnish and continue to reap the wonderful benefits of doing so.

Most importantly, if you’re an owner of sterling silver items, it is important to keep a quality sterling silver tarnish remover like the Champion Polishing Cloth close at hand. This will ensure that your precious sterling silver remains at its sparkling best at all times!

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