Why is my silver jewelry turning strange colours? It’s a question I get asked a lot. I recently had a customer complain about a necklace “tarnishing” just a few weeks after purchase. His wife decided to use the polishing cloth to give the sterling silver a wipe, and was aghast when it came away black.
So he wrote me to express his surprise that his new necklace would discolour so quickly. It made me realize it’s probably a great education opportunity.
When silver tarnishes, it’s a surface discolouration caused by the interaction of oxygen (air) with the silver. As the British Assay Office explains it, “silver naturally interacts with oxygen and sulphur-bearing pollutants to create silver sulphide, resulting in a visible discoloration of the metal’s surface. Silver tarnishes in environments containing various sulphuric gases, even in very low concentration. The amount of tarnishing is determined by the relative humidity, ambient temperature, gas concentration, and the length of time the silver is exposed to the gases.”
With sterling silver this process is normal, natural, expected, and yes, it can occur relatively quickly.
Many things can speed tarnish; air pollution, the minerals in your water (and as such wearing your silver jewelry in the shower can speed this process too), living or working near a chemical, electric or manufacturing plant are all things that can cause discolouration more quickly.
Recent studies have shown tarnish develops microscopically within hours of being cleaned and exposed to air again. You may not see it on the piece for several days or weeks, but it’s there, and will show up as a black residue on a polishing cloth. A great way to keep seldom worn jewelry clean (and silverware if you have it), is to store sterling silver in a ziplock bag with all the air squeezed or rolled out of it. You can wrap it in a soft cloth first too. Oxygen and thus tarnish may still seep in and can still cause blackening especially if the pieces are stores for long periods of time, but it should keep things to a minimum.
Coincidentally at the same time as this customer contacted me, I had a friend show me some rings I’d made for her. The shiny sterling silver had turned a deep, dark black. This was no tarnish effect, and she admitted she’d immersed her baubles in some household cleaner (Lysol) to spruce them up. Instead, they’d become instantly and deeply chemically oxidized.
Now, she actually liked this look and referred to it as ‘edgy’, so she’s leaving them as they are for now. If she did want them restored it should be a relatively simple process of buffing the chemical scarring off the surface layer, and exposing clean shiny silver beneath. But this also serves as a leaning moment; only soap and water, silver polish or a silver polishing cloth should be used to clean silver. Many household cleaners and chemicals can alter your precious silver. In fact, I once had a ring turn bronze after accidentally spritzing window cleaner on it, and had other silver turn grey by getting baking soda onto it. That too buffed out, but you’ll want to be careful with your jewelry.
How to Remove Tarnish-> Get this Inexpensive Polishing Cloth
If you do find some discolouration of your silver, you can remove it with a silver cloth (brand names include Sunshine Cloth, which is available inexpensively from me, HERE or HERE). If that won’t work, stop while you’re ahead and take it to a pro for professional help.
A Note about Grocery Store Silver Cleanser
I’ve purchased cleansers from grocery stores that just don’t work. If you’re going to get a cleanser from somewhere other than a jewelry professional, test it first on a small area. If the cleaner doesn’t remove tarnish instantly, it’s not working. Proper liquid silver cleaners will remove all tarnish in about 3 seconds. If you need to soak, or scrub, stop using it, rinse your silver, and return the cleaner to where you bought it and get your money back. (Keep your receipt!)
And for the jewelry ‘geeks’, the Government of Canada has written a helpful article about how to best care for your silver. Read it here.
Have you got a horror story – or a home remedy for tarnish? Post your comments below!
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