Updated: Jan 8, 2021
Most of our jewellery is made from sterling silver, copper, brass, or a combination of these. All precious and base metal jewellery requires some care and maintenance to keep it looking as good as the day you purchased it. If well cared for, this jewellery should last forever.
What is Sterling silver?
Sterling Silver, sometimes referred to as .925 Sterling Silver, consists of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% other metals, usually copper. The addition of another metal serves to make the silver harder and less likely to bend or get deformed when worn, but also increases the likelihood of the jewellery tarnishing over time.
All sterling silver will tarnish under certain conditions or if stored for a long time, but tarnish is very easy to remove and relatively easy to prevent.
What is tarnish?
Tarnish is caused by a natural reaction that occurs when silver or copper (including the small element of copper within sterling silver) reacts with sulphur that occurs naturally in the atmosphere. Tarnish on silver (including sterling silver) will appear as a blackening of the metal, eventually turning a dark grey-black colour. This is sometimes used consciously for artistic effect on some pieces of jewellery, in which case it is more likely to be referred to as oxidisation rather than tarnishing: although it is not true oxidisation, this term is used to differentiate it from tarnishing, which tends to refer to the accidental blackening of the metal over time/use.
Tarnishing will significantly increase or speed up if your jewellery is exposed to certain chemicals or environmental conditions: avoiding these, and cleaning your jewellery regularly between wearing can help keep tarnish at bay.
Make-up, perfume, hairspray, deodorant etc All of these substances can increase the speed at which your jewellery will tarnish, often significantly. To avoid this, apply your make-up, perfume etc and allow it to dry completely before putting your jewellery on. In other words, make your jewellery the last thing you put on!
Chlorine Chlorine will tarnish your jewellery almost instantly and is best avoided completely. Avoid going swimming or using a hot tub while wearing your jewellery
Water Water itself will not tarnish your jewellery but the other chemicals contained in domestic water supplies will. If possible, avoid bathing, showering, washing the dishes etc while wearing your jewellery if this means that your jewellery will come into contact with the water. Brief contact with water should not have a dramatic effect, but it is worth drying your jewellery as soon as possible after it gets wet, and regular cleaning will also help. If your piece has stones set in it, it is particularly important to avoid water: small amounts of water can get in to the piece of jewellery, under the stone, and cause tarnishing in places that it cannot easily be removed.
Skin chemicals, sweat etc Some people’s skin is naturally more reactive with metals such as silver and copper. If you find that this is the case, it is even more important that your jewellery is cleaned regularly and properly stored when not being worn. And whether your skin is highly reactive or not, it is still best to avoid exercising while wearing your jewellery as this is also likely to speed up the rate of tarnishing (not to mention the risk of the piece getting lost or caught in your treadmill!).
Hand sanitiser This is obviously particularly an issue at the moment and poses quandaries for us jewellers in presenting our work at craft fairs etc, but substances such as hand sanitiser can tarnish silver almost instantly! Given the need to use hand sanitiser regularly just now, it’s obviously not always going to be possible to remove a ring every time so regular cleaning becomes even more important, as does making sure that your hands have completely dried from the hand sanitiser before you touch your other pieces of jewellery.
Storing your jewellery
Proper storage of your jewellery should seek to minimise the amount of moisture that your jewellery is exposed to and to keep it somewhere cool and dark. For this reason, we recommend keeping your jewellery in its box if it was provided in one. The addition of a silica gel sachet to the box can also help minimise moisture – if you have any that came with other products, hang on to them, they will be your jewellery’s best friend!
We also recommend cleaning the jewellery (see below) before it is put away to keep it looking at its best, particularly if you do not know how long it will be until it is taken out again to be worn.
Avoid tissue paper as padding for your jewellery unless you know that it is specifically anti-tarnish tissue paper. Most non-specialist tissue paper will start to tarnish silver immediately on contact – it’s fairly alarming to see in action.
If you do not have a box for your jewellery, a small ziplock plastic bag can be quite effective at keeping air (and therefore moisture) away from your piece of jewellery, although for a piece that is a particular favourite, it may be worth trying to acquire a proper jewellery box: if you bought your jewellery from us and would like a box, or an additional box, please get in touch.
If your jewellery is on a chain, fasten the chain at the clasp before storing it to help avoid the chain tangling.
Cleaning your jewellery
There are several considerations before deciding how to clean your jewellery:
Does it have any stones set in it, and if so what are they?
Did the piece originally have a high-shine finish, a matt or satin finish, an oxidised (blackened) finish or a patinated finish (various other colours created naturally on the surface of the metal)?
What are you looking to clean off the jewellery – is it early signs of tarnish, advanced tarnish or just general grease/oils from being worn?
How do you want the piece of jewellery to look once it has been cleaned?
High-shine jewellery with no stones set in it
If your piece of jewellery has no stones set in it, and it originally had a high-shine finish that you are looking to restore, then you’re in luck - cleaning is relatively simple!
If cleaning the piece regularly, you should find that rubbing the metal with a dry, soft, lint-free and non-abrasive cloth should be enough to remove any early signs of tarnish and to restore that lovely lustre to the piece. Be careful with standard household cloths though – these may be more abrasive than you realise. To go a step further, a silver polishing cloth will work wonders on your jewellery, and you can be sure it will not be abrasive. These specialist cloths are available relatively cheaply and will often work on silver, copper, brass and most other precious or base metals. Simply give your jewellery a rub over with the cloth, applying a little friction, and the cloth will lift off any grease, dirt and any early signs of tarnishing (and then marvel at how much black came off even your cleanest piece of jewellery!).
From Summer 2020, we are supplying one of these cloths as standard with all of our higher-end silver jewellery, but can also supply them on request with other pieces – just get in touch if you’d like one.
Alternatively, you can use some warm water with a mild detergent to gently wash the piece, making sure to dry it completely afterwards with a soft lint-free cloth. Do not use anything abrasive though – even kitchen roll can scratch the surface of your jewellery.
If the piece needs a little more cleaning (if it’s been sitting in storage for a little while, for example), then warm soapy water as above plus a soft natural bristle toothbrush should do the trick. Again, be sure to dry the piece thoroughly with a soft lint-free, non-abrasive, cloth.
If you need something with a little more oomph to clean the jewellery, then using some specialist silver polish (not silver dip - that's a different thing altogether) with a soft cloth should do the trick. There are many brands on the market but make sure that it is specifically formulated for cleaning silver jewellery: more abrasive cleaners will likely ruin your jewellery. In our experience silver polish will often also work wonders on copper and brass jewellery and many brands will explicitly say this in the description, even if the name of the product only refers to silver.
Jewellery with gemstones
For jewellery with gemstones set in it, it is important that you know what the gemstone(s) in it are. Not all stones will react well to being submerged in water to be cleaned, for example. A general rule of thumb is to clean the piece in such a way as to avoid the gemstones, but knowing what the stone is made of is still an important prerequisite to establish your cleaning routine. If the stone is a fairly robust one, and the metal in which it’s set was finished to a high shine, then many of the techniques listed above will be suitable, but please get in touch to discuss the best methods.
Satin, matte, oxidised or patinated jewellery
Not all jewellery is intended to look bright and shiny. If your jewellery was supplied with a matte or satin finish, using a polishing cloth as outlined above is not suitable, as the friction caused will eventually rub away the texture that was applied to the piece when it was being made, and will leave you with a high shine piece of jewellery instead. The same applies to any pieces that have been oxidised or had a patina effect applied to them.
The oxidisation or patina on your piece of jewellery will only be on the very surface layer of the metal so anything that is even slightly abrasive will rub this layer off, leaving you with a piece of jewellery that is no longer oxidised or patinated - once you reach this point the oxidisation or patina may not be able to be restored without risking significant damage to the piece of jewellery.
It is hard to give a ‘one size fits all’ recommendation for cleaning matte, satin, oxidised or patinated pieces of jewellery as it depends on the exact design. For example, if the oxidisation is only on elements that are ‘etched in’ or sunken beneath the main surface of the jewellery then some of the techniques listed above may be suitable. If you have a piece of jewellery that fits in to this category, please contact us directly and we’ll advise on the best approach to use.
Advice on cleaning other pieces of jewellery
While we are happy to try and give advice on any jewellery that you are looking to clean, it is always preferable if possible to go back to the jeweller who made the piece originally – it will not always be possible for us to be sure exactly how the piece was made, and any advice given may lead to accidental damage being caused. For that reason, there will be occasions when we simply won’t be able to offer any advice.
Buying polishing cloths and polish
As mentioned above, there are a range of brands of polishing cloths and polish on the market, many of which are relatively inexpensive. If you have a range of jewellery in different metals look out for those which explicitly say that they will clean jewellery in other metals, even if they are listed as ‘silver polishing’ cloths/compounds. We have not tried many brands so are unable to give opinions on most of them, but most sites that they can be bought from will have reviews and review scores from other purchasers. The polishing cloths and polishing compound that we use are from a brand called Town Talk who sell a fairly extensive range of jewellery cleaning products, but we have no doubt that other brands will also have the same effect.