Why does my silver jewelry tarnish and how do I clean it?
September 08 2015

Since people have often asked me this question, I thought I’d do a quick to-the-point post about the topic. Given that there are many well written, in-depth articles regarding silver tarnish and how to clean it, I’m not going to get into great details. I’ll only hit the highlights and what works for me.

All silver tarnishes, whether it’s fine silver, aka “pure” silver (99.9% silver), or sterling silver (92.5% silver + 7.5% alloy, e.g., copper, germanium, zinc). Some may turn black (oxidize or tarnish) more slowly than others, but they will turn. What is tarnish? Simply put, it is a chemical reaction between a metal and non-metal compound.

Most common culprits are: 

Oxygen and sulfur dioxide
Your body chemistry, e.g., sweat
Cosmetics, lotion and perfume
Household cleaners
Certain foods
(By the way, if you want to turn your silver piece black, chop up a boiled egg and put
the egg and silver in a closed container for a period of time.)


So how do you clean tarnished silver jewelry? That depends. For a simple silver piece (e.g., my Silver Petal Necklace) where the entire surface is meant to be “silvery,” I usually massage it (using fingers or cloth) with a dab of plain toothpaste and rinse. I’ve been cleaning silver this way since, well, forever. I also use this method with pearls and gemstones set in silver. I am extra gentle around the pearls and make sure that the pearls have minimal contact with the toothpaste and water. When cleaning silver chains, I usually just massage it with toothpaste, but you can use a soft toothbrush to brush the links and get into the tiny spaces.

Below are before and after using this method to clean the pendant. I didn't clean the chain and left it black. 

Tarnished Silver Necklace     Removed Tarnish Necklace

 Sometimes, a designer will intentionally oxidize a piece of jewelry (e.g. my Infinity Petal necklace). This is done to highlight details, give it character or just to make it look aged. In this case, I use a polishing cloth to maintain the shine and keep the black areas black. These cloths are usually two-ply with one side that’s been chemically treated to gently remove tarnish and the other side for polishing to maintain the luster. They are inexpensive and when used regularly, they will stave off the dull grey that can appear on oxidized or “antiqued” jewelry. You can, of course, use the cloth on non-oxidized pieces too. I really like the cloth and love the shine it leaves. When the jewelry is not in use, I usually store it in a Ziploc bag or in a box. This does not prevent tarnish from happening but it will slow down the process.  

So there you have it. You don’t have to be dismayed by the natural oxidation process called tarnishing. There are simple ways to get rid of it and keep your silver jewelry beautiful.

For more unconventional silver-cleaning methods, check out this Readers Digestpost: http://www.rd.com/slideshows/how-to-clean-silver/#slideshow