Sterling Silver Guide | Does Sterling Silver Tarnish | GLDN
Does sterling silver tarnish? How does it hold up? How do I clean it? And what is sterling silver, exactly? We’ve got answers to all these questions (and more). Here are the top things to know about sterling silver jewelry.
What, exactly, is sterling silver?
Sterling silver’s meaning may seem complicated, but it’s actually quite simple! Sterling silver is an alloy (or mixture) of 92.5% pure silver—a precious metal—and 7.5% other metals (usually copper).
Pure silver is too soft to use for most functional objects, so a smarty-pants back in the 12th century decided to mix pure silver with some other metals to give it more strength, like the copper we mentioned above! Sterling is harder than pure silver ("Ag" on the table of elements) and more durable for jewelry.
So, what is sterling silver? It’s everything you love about pure silver with the added durability of other metals—AKA the perfect metal for everyday wear.
Does sterling silver tarnish?
You’ve found the sterling silver piece of your dreams. Now you’re wondering: Will sterling silver tarnish? The simple answer is yes, it can, but it’s easy to prevent—and easy to bring it back to its full icy glory.
How much and how often your sterling silver pieces will tarnish really depends on how you care for it. Tarnishing is more likely to happen when sterling silver comes in contact with beauty products (like shampoo or perfumes), sunscreen, cleaning products and chlorine. Depending on our body chemistry, even the chemicals in our sweat can tarnish silver jewelry.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though: regular sterling silver care can slow down or totally prevent tarnishing (unlike silver-plated jewelry which will deteriorate no matter what). If you spotted some tarnish on your sterling silver jewelry, don’t sweat—it isn’t permanent! A quick polish or spot clean will make it shiny and new.
What does “tarnish” mean?
Okay, let’s back up and define what we mean by sterling silver tarnish. You probably have an idea of tarnish—that brownish-black unsightly stuff on your jewelry—but do you know why it happens? It’s actually kind of interesting (if you’re a jewelry nerd like we are)!
Metals exposed to air undergo a chemical process called oxidation. This is why steel can rust, why silver can tarnish, why so many metals we interact with daily can, well, change. Our air is full of sulfur—from loads of everyday things, like organic decomposition and pollution—and creates silver sulfide, the chemical reaction that causes tarnish. So, basically, tarnish is just a thin film of silver sulfide on the surface of your sterling silver jewelry. This might show up differently depending on the piece. Larger sterling silver pieces, like platters or silverware, might develop a brown patina. Smaller jewelry pieces might become speckled with dark spots or discoloration.
Tarnish vs. Rust
We’ve covered tarnish…but does sterling silver rust? You can exhale—sterling silver doesn’t rust, thanks to the copper in the alloy! Tarnish and rust are both forms of corrosion, but with different causes. Tarnish is typically caused by oxidation (metal reacting with chemicals in the atmosphere) resulting in a thin, dark film on the metal’s surface. Rust, on the other hand, is a deterioration—literally the metal becoming brittle and chipping away. Rust can be caused by both exposure to oxygen or moisture, and it’s way more damaging than tarnish (which can be polished or cleaned away).
Why does sterling silver tarnish?
When sterling silver is exposed to airborne sulfur (from natural decomposition or pollution) or low-level ozone, it creates a compound known as silver sulfide, which creates a thin film of tarnish over the surface of the metal. The good news? Solid sterling silver jewelry can easily be polished or cleaned to remove tarnish and look good as new.
How Long Does It Take for Sterling Silver to Tarnish?
It really depends on how often the sterling silver is exposed to air, and how much sulfur the air contains. Other things can speed up oxidation and tarnish, from beauty products to the natural oils in our skin. If cared for properly, some sterling silver pieces may take years to tarnish…or barely tarnish at all! Typically, tarnish will slowly start building on sterling silver after a few months of reckless wear (AKA not removing it before applying sunscreen, wearing it to work out, etc.)! But, again, tarnish isn’t permanent and can be removed with a few simple steps.
How do I care for my sterling silver jewelry?
If you notice your sterling jewelry has gone completely black, don’t fret—I’ve personally been there many times, so it can happen to anyone! One time I’d been digging for clams at the beach with my son (with my sterling silver rings on 😅) and noticed a stinky smell in the sand, which I later learned was sulfur (AKA silver’s worst enemy). I was able to pretty quickly bring my sterling silver rings back to life with a polishing cloth at home, though.
My other silver tarnish nightmare happened after a few trips to the hot tub (and two totally black necklaces). My sterling silver chains did not like the chemicals in the water—so don’t wear your pieces in the hot tub like me! This time, my polishing cloth wouldn’t cut it; it took a deeper clean to remove the tarnish on my chains. See below for tips for cleaning your sterling silver like I did!
Care tips for storing sterling silver jewelry:
- Ideally, store it in a low-humidity environment.
- Keep the jewelry clean and dry when you’re not wearing it.
- Opt for an airtight container to prevent oxidation.
- Place silica gel bags or a container of activated charcoal in its storage container for extra tarnish prevention.
- Wrap with an anti-tarnishing paper or bag—they’re easy to find online and pretty inexpensive!
How to clean or remove tarnish from sterling silver
Method 1: Homemade cleaning solution
Need to know how to clean a sterling silver chain or heavily tarnished piece of silver? My favorite removal technique is using a nontoxic electrochemical dip (because I’m a science nerd, it’s easy to make and it works so well)!
- Line the bottom of a glass baking dish with a sheet of aluminum foil.
- Fill the foil-lined container with steaming hot water.
- Add 1 tsp. salt and 2 tsp. baking soda to the water.
- Drop the silver item(s) into the container so that they rest on the foil (and touch each other), then watch the tarnish disappear, like magic.
- Remove the silver when it looks clean. Leave heavily tarnished items in the solution for up to 5 minutes.
- Rinse the silver with water and dry with a soft towel.
Method 2: Premade metal cleaner
You can hand-polish your sterling silver jewelry with a soft cloth and precious metal cleaner. Even better, this technique also helps preserve the unique patinas of older pieces. Be gentle while polishing, though—harsh polishing and aggressive buffing can permanently damage and devalue a piece of silver.
Method 3: Polishing cloth
How to polish sterling silver the easiest way ever? Use the polishing cloth we included in your order, or try a silver-specific polishing cloth called a Sunshine Cloth. It removes tarnish surprisingly quickly and easily—no extra cleaning solution required.
If your polishing cloth isn’t quite cutting it (say, on a dainty chain or piece with grooves), try a polish cream: made to rub onto your piece, wipe off to clean and prevent future tarnish from occurring. A few of our favorite brands are Blitz Silvershine (top choice because it's kinder to the environment!), Herman's and Autosol.
How to know if something is sterling silver
There are a few ways to identify sterling silver. If the piece is commercial, check the markings. Sterling silver is often stamped with “925” or “.925” (to denote the piece is 92.5% pure silver). Sometimes you’ll also find the words "sterling” or “sterling silver" on the piece, or the abbreviation “ster” or “ss.”
That said, a lack of markings doesn’t mean the piece isn’t sterling silver. Smaller makers (like us!) and handmade pieces might not be stamped with anything, but here’s a quick trick: hold a magnet near the piece. If the magnet attracts the item, then you likely don’t have sterling silver. It shouldn’t be magnetic!