Silver Tarnish

CLKCC10webWhy Does Silver Tarnish?

In order to understand this phenomenon , you have to learn a little background on alloys, and what goes into creating sterling silver.


Just as there are many different ways to make a grilled cheese sandwich, there are a many different ways in which fine natural metals are made into a workable long lasting material usable for jewelry.

Fine, pure silver is naturally a lustrous bright white color which will never tarnish over time. Fine silver, as it comes out of the earth is usually far too soft for most jewelry. Sterling silver is an alloy composed of mostly fine silver, but with a small amount of copper and sometimes other metals to strengthen and harden the naturally very soft and fragile pure silver. An alloy is generally a homogeneous mixture of two or more metals smelted together.  Fine silver doesn’t naturally tarnish, but sterling silver does only because of the other metals in the alloy reacting with other natural elements in our surroundings.

In my opinion, some silver tarnish can add character to a piece, darkening the craters and crevices of a design, making details pop and become more noticeable. Although, eventually the silver tarnish may overtake a piece of jewelry entirely making it turn completely black, splotchy, and dull; Tarnished silver jewelry may even leave a dark residue against your skin if not taken care of properly. Tarnish will go through many colors of silver tarnish much like a seasoned bruise in reverse, starting with yellow and ending in black.

Chemical Breakdown

When your silver tarnishes, itÂ’s actually a natural chemical reaction sterling silver has with our all surrounding life giving Why Does Silver Tarnish?AIR!

There are many chemicals and elements composing our air that help to achieve this tarnishing process. Some airborne elements and pollutants exist in most of the air we breathe, such as sulfur and hydrogen, creating hydrogen sulfide which is most responsible for turning your grandmother’s antique silver spoons black and blue. This harmless chemical reaction creates a substance called silver sulfate on the very surface of your jewelry; this is the silver tarnish you can visibly see both on your jewelry and sometimes on your skin.

Hydrogen sulfide (the tarnish culprit) is naturally present in our natural body oils. The more often you wear a piece of sterling silver jewelry; the quicker its going to tarnish. My best example of this is when faint dark tarnish fingerprints can be seen on the surface of really old jewelry. That is the hydrogen sulfide in the oils of your fingertips directly leaving tiny amounts of the tarnishing agent onto the surface of your jewelry.


There is no way to completely prevent sterling silver from tarnishing unless you remove it from oxygen all together; this is essentially impossible.

Some people have coated their jewelry with clear nail polish, this process works temporarily using an extremely fine coat, but doing this will also kill the luster and beautiful shine of your jewelry, as well as add streaks and texture to the surface of the metal. NO THANK YOU!

Although you cannot completely prevent your jewelry from tarnishing, it is possible to slow the process by following any one of these steps.Why Does Silver Tarnish?

*When you are not wearing your jewelry it is important to store it in a clean dry place with little to no airflow such as a small Jewelry box or even a Ziploc bag. This will also keep most air pollutants from reaching your jewels and causing more damage than it does to your lungs. Some chemically treated surfaces and products can also have a drastic darkening effect on your jewelry after some time, so make sure it is in a protected and clean place.

*You can also purchase anti tarnishing strips to store alongside your jewelry to help reduce the tarnishing process. You can order these from most jewelry supply stores such as Rio grande

*It never hurts to also throw a couple silica packs into your jewelry box to absorb any chemical carrying moisture circulating in the air. Usually you can find these in mailing packages to keep moisture from ruining the contents in shipping. I’ve even found them in shoe boxes and some food products. You really shouldnÂ’t have to ever buy these.

Sometimes just a little bit of “elbow grease” and a polishing cloth every so often will be your best bet and it will  have to do the job.

(Please read my post on “How To Clean Silver Jewelry“)

Cleaning Silver Jewelry

Many of my clients hand over their old tarnished, once treasured family heirlooms for me to work my magic upon. After only moments, their eyes grow wide at the finished product as if it were brand new. I giggle and say “your welcome” and allow them to think that I’m a miracle worker. If only they knew how easy it is be to begin cleaning silver jewelry by themselves!!

Cleaning Silver Jewelry

I personally like a little tarnish on a loved piece of jewelry, it adds character, definition, and makes detail pop.

Tarnish can eventually overtake a piece entirely depending on the acidity of your skin and can eventually turn your skin black where the metal is in contact.

To minimize the tarnish and begin cleaning silver jewelry, first you need to identify whether or not your jewelry is INDEED sterling silver. There are many marks that can identify this alloy, the most common stamps will read .925, or written clearly “sterling silver”. If it isn’t marked it is difficult to tell whether or not it is in fact sterling silver without knowing the metals characteristics. you may take this to a professional jeweler and they should be able to tell you in a heartbeat.

How To Begin Cleaning Silver Jewelry

Access the toll time has taken on your sterling silver piece.  If its only tarnish you have to fear, no worries! A very simple polish cloth will do the trick for you.  I highly recommend “Sunshine Cloths” which can be ordered through Rio-grande or other professional jewelry suppliers. They are like magic and i couldn’t imagine a life as a jeweler without them!!! The soft yellow cloths are impregnated with a fine polishing compound that will bring your sterling silver piece back to its original high polish in minutes.

If you don’t have a polishing cloth or don’t feel like going out and ordering one, you can also make your own jewelry cleaner! Just add a little drop of dish detergent and a teaspoon or so of baking soda into a warm damp cloth and scrub the piece lightly in a figure eight pattern until tarnish is dissolved. Et voila!

There area wide variety of chemical tarnish removers out there that seem to “magically” remove the tarnish after submersing your piece in the liquid. These work wonderful if you want to remove the tarnish entirely.

Cleaning Silver Jewelry

If your piece of jewelry has dirt and “gunk” in the crevices and behind stones making them dull and dark; dirt that you are unable to remove with a polishing cloth, a toothbrush with the same baking soda mixture as i mentioned above should do the trick. If you are still having trouble cleaning your sterling silver jewelry,  most jewelers or jewelry stores are more than happy to drop your jewelry into an ultrasonic cleaner and have the ultrasonic vibrations wiggle the dirt lose for you. This should take less than 5 minutes! and maybe if you bat your eyelashes they might even take your piece to their buffing wheel for you for some extra added shine! Some Jewelers may charge you a little bit but it shouldn’t be any skin off anyone’s back.