Sterling Silver Jewelry: Top 5 Things You Should Know
If you've ever wondered what sterling silver is exactly, how it holds up to wear or how to clean it, we've got some answers for you. Here are the top 5 things that you should know about sterling silver jewelry.
1: What, exactly, is sterling silver?
Pure silver is too soft to use for most functional objects. Luckily, a smarty-pants back in the 12th century decided to mix pure silver with some other metal(s) to give it more strength. The resulting alloy is what we know today as sterling silver. Sterling is harder than pure silver ("Ag" on the table of elements) and more durable for jewelry.
Sterling silver is 92.5% pure silver and considered a precious metal. The remaining 7.5% of the alloy is usually copper, which adds strength while still preserving the ductility and appearance of the pure silver.
2: Why does sterling silver tarnish?
Chemically, silver is not very reactive. However, it is attacked by some of the things common in the atmosphere. When exposed to airborne compounds of sulfur, black tarnish will slowly start to appear. When exposed to low-level ozone, silver oxide forms. The good news is that solid sterling silver jewelry can easily be polished back up to remove tarnish and look good as new!
3: How do I care for my sterling silver jewelry?
I’ve personally had a few occasions when I looked at my sterling jewelry and couldn’t believe it had turned completely black!
One of the times, I quickly put the pieces together and realized that I’d been digging for clams at the beach with my son (with my rings on... oops) and that stinky smell I noticed deeper down in the sand was sulphur. As mentioned above, sulphur + silver = black tarnish (silver sulfide). When I got home, I pulled out my polish cloth and was able to pretty quickly remove the black and shine them back up.
The other time, I was a bit denser and it took me 2 trips to the hot tub and 2 black necklaces to realize that whatever was in the tub was having a chemical party with my silver jewelry. This time, the polish cloth didn’t work as well to take all the black off since the cloth doesn’t get inside the chain. But see below for some ways to clean that too!
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.
If it’s in an airtight container, it won’t have a chance to react and tarnish.
It may help to place silica gel bags and/or a container of activated charcoal in the storage area to help inhibit future tarnish.
There are lots of antitarnishing papers and bags on the market that can be used to discourage the tarnishing of your sterling silver jewelry.
4: How to clean or remove tarnish from sterling silver
Method 1: Like a Pro (home-made style)
Because I am a science nerd, my favorite black tarnish removal technique is to make a nontoxic electrochemical dip!
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 are resting on the foil (and touching each other), then watch the tarnish disappear, like magic… science magic!
Remove the silver when it appears 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: Elbow Grease (or in this case, finger grease)
You can hand polish your sterling silver jewelry with a soft cloth and precious metal cleaner. This technique also helps to preserve the unique patinas of older pieces. TIP: Be gentle! Harsh polishing and aggressive buffing can permanently damage and devalue a piece of silver.
Method 3: Polishing or Cleaning Products
Polish Cloth (with polish already in it): There's a simple polish cloth we love that's great for shining up silver—it's called a Sunshine Cloth. You might have gotten a little piece of one with your order. We throw one in with orders that won't react negatively to the "secret" polish in the soft yellow cloth, which removes tarnish surprisingly quickly and easily.
Polish Creams: There are a variety of polishing compounds designed specifically for cleaning sterling silver if method 1 looks like too much work (but seriously, it's fun). Most are creams that you rub on, then wipe off, and some have the added benefit of leaving behind some extra tarnish resistance. A few of our favorite brands are Blitz Silvershine (top choice because it's not hard on the environment), Herman's and Autosol.
5: How to Know if Something is Sterling Silver
If the piece is commercial, check the markings. Sterling silver is often stamped 925 or .925 on jewelry pieces. Sometimes the words "sterling," “sterling silver" or "ster" will be stamped, or the initials "ss."
Keep in mind that a lack of markings does not necessarily mean it’s not sterling. For example, smaller makers of handmade pieces might not stamp the items they make. You can perform a test by holding a magnet near the item; if the magnet attracts the item, then you likely don’t have sterling silver. It shouldn’t be magnetic.