Care for Sterling Silver Jewelry

Here are some tips for making sure your sterling silver chainmaille  bracelet stays in top condition for years and years.

1. General cleaning
2. Light polishing – Gentle abrasive methods
3. Removing tarnish – Dipping solution method
4. Tumbling for jewelry store shine
5. Avoiding tarnish
6. Damage from stress
7. Repairs

1. General cleaning

All bracelets pick up sweat, skin oil, and dirt. Most of this can be removed with soap and water and a little light scrubbing. When I’m washing my hands while wearing my silver bracelet, I give my bracelet a quick wash, too. As such, my bracelet gets washed fairly frequently.

Liquid dish or hand soap works great for cleaning away grime. Make sure the soap has NO sulfides, which cause tarnish. You can also use a soft brush to gently scrub out the inside surfaces, though you probably won’t have to.

2. Light polishing – Gentle abrasive methods

After washing away any grime with soap and water, you can use light polishing to buff and shine the silver. This will remove light tarnishing, which is the most you’ll probably have. However, you will only be able to polish the outside surfaces with these methods. You must remove grime first because it may have large (relatively speaking) abrasive materials that will dull the shine of your silver.

a.   Dry cloth / paper towel method: You can polish sterling silver with a dry cloth. Rub the bracelet with a cloth repeatedly along its length. Paper towels work fine, too, but they are a bit more abrasive than most cloth.

b.   Polishing cloth method: Special polishing cloths are also available, and they work much better than ordinary cloth. I use the Fabulustre Jewelers’ Rouge Polishing Cloth. This type of polishing cloth is actually two cloths sewn together. The red side has jewelers’ rouge for heavy polishing and for removing any tarnish. The tan side is for final polishing. You should be able to find one for under $10. I highly recommend getting this type of polishing cloth.

c.   Polishing cream method: You can use various easy-to-find silver polishing creams and liquids. Rinse the bracelet afterwards to remove any residue. After washing the bracelet, give it a final polish with a dry cloth. On the other hand, I don’t recommend this method, mainly because the chemicals can be pretty harsh. Also, they are pretty messy when used on chain jewelry.

3. Removing tarnish – Dipping solution

Pay close attention here: Don’t use store-bought chemical dipping solutions (for example Tarn-X) to remove tarnish. They are bad, nasty chemicals that are dangerous to your health and damaging to your jewelry. And they are totally unnecessary.

Do this instead: Make your own tarnish-removing bath. It’s pretty simple.

  1. Line a baking dish with aluminum foil.
  2. Pour in boiling water.
  3. Add at least a couple of tablespoons of baking soda. More water = more baking soda.  (You can add salt to speed up the process, but salt is corrosive, so don’t add much.)
  4. Drop in your silver jewelry. Make sure the silver is touching the aluminum foil and the liquid is covering the jewelry.
  5. Leave the jewelry in the bath for a few minutes.  (You can flip the jewelry over after a minute or so, but it’s not really necessary.) The tarnish should be gone.
  6. Throw away the aluminum foil, and pour the liquids down the drain.
  7. Rinse the jewelry well, and dry it with a soft cloth.

Without going into all the chemistry, here’s what is happening. The sulfides causing the tarnish are more attracted to aluminum than to silver. This “dip” helps the sulfides leave the silver and attach themselves to the aluminum foil. Want proof? See the video on this page.

Abrasive methods of removing tarnish will remove the silver, too. If you use them on silver-plated items frequently over a long period of time, the silver plating will eventually wear away. This dipping method doesn’t remove any silver and will be safe for plated jewelry.

Two cautions: (1) Assuming you don’t drink the liquids, the only “dangerous” aspect of this process is the risk of burning yourself with the hot water. (2) Use ventilation, not because the fumes are dangerous but because you will be releasing sulfur and sulfur smells bad, rotten egg bad.

4. Tumbling for jewelry store shine

After making a piece of sterling silver jewelry, I polish it in a tumbler with steel shot. If you need heavy-duty polishing to remove tarnish,  smooth out any micro-scratches, and, basically, completely restore the shine of the silver jewelry, this is the best method. Assuming you don’t have your own tumbler, you can find jewelers who do, or you can take it to just about any jewelry repair shop.

And, now that I’m thinking about it, if the only problem is tarnish, I recommend making the dipping bath described above.

5. Avoiding tarnish

Tarnish occurs when the silver contacts sulfer compounds. Most contact occurs with normal exposure to air. Anything with rubber or latex will cause tarnish, as will fossil fuels. Even some foods, such as eggs or mayonnaise, have sulfer and will cause tarnish. If your silver jewelry contacts any of these elements, wash it with soap and water soon.

6. Damage from stress

Under normal usage, the bracelet will remain intact and beautiful for years. As with any jewelry, however, hard tugging and pulling can damage the bracelet. Most chainmaille jewelry is fairly strong, but it can be damaged if yanked hard, such as by catching it on a corner or a hook. This may cause some rings to pull open, which weakens the bracelet and may, over repeated occurrences, cause the bracelet to fall apart. Please be gentle with your bracelet.

7. Repairs

Let’s hope your bracelet never needs repairs. However, most chainmaille jewelry can be repaired fairly simply. If you notice significant damage to the bracelet, if you notice that the rings are opening, or if a ring falls out, get the bracelet to a jeweler promptly before the damage increases. Small damage can quickly become major problems.

That’s it. With proper care, your sterling silver jewelry should give you enjoyment for years and years.