I love the look of bright, shiny silver, but not the work of cleaning silver. As a jewelry designer I get asked all the time about how to clean it, so I wanted to share with you some advantages and disadvantages of various cleaning methods. I have always been a save-the-best-for-last type of person, so I am going to let you know now, my favorite super easy silver jewelry cleaning method is the last one on the list. If you want you can skip there now, but I encourage you to stick it out and read about all the methods because others do have some pros.
*Wash with warm soapy water, dry with a soft cloth*
I often send this as the care instructions when someone orders jewelry from me because it is safe for pretty much anything. An old tooth-brush and some Dawn or Joy type soap is all you need so it is cheap and easy. This works best for regular maintenance cleaning after wearing. It will remove some tarnish and get rid of any sweat, (not that any of you sweat), oils, lotions, make-up, etc. I am a big Dr. Bonner fan, but not for jewelry. I find it leaves a residue. If you have water that smells of rotten eggs, you might want to use bottled water to wash jewelry, because your water may cause your jewelry to tarnish faster. Always let your jewelry completely dry before putting it away. Cleaning a heavily tarnished piece of jewelry this way is a bit like rubbing two sticks together to start a fire… you can do it… if you really want to…
*Rock Tumbler (glorified soap and water)- not for your average Jane*
If you just happen to have a rock tumbler and some stainless steel shot lying around, which I am doubting most of you do, you can clean a lot of jewelry at once with a few squirts of dish soap. Most of you can skip this, but this is how I clean lots of jewelry at once. I include it on the list for the hobby jewelry maker who actually might have this stuff on hand. You place your jewelry in the rock tumbler with about 2 lbs of stainless steel mixed shot (some people take out the pointed pieces), cover everything with at least an inch or so of water, and a few squirts of dish soap. Then tumble your pieces for 10 minutes or more depending on how much cleaning they need. Rinse in a strainer and dry with a clean cloth. This is a little rough and may not be appropriate for extremely delicate pieces and some stones. This method will harden the silver a little, which if you make jewelry is very useful. Coral, pearls and very soft stones as well as any that might be some type of manmade composite “stone”, or have a coating may get damaged. You can tumble larger chains, but I don’t recommend very fine chains or multiple chains at once unless you have a knot fetish. If in doubt, I highly recommend tumbling a stone of the type in question if you have one and don’t mind sacrificing it, or tumbling for very short intervals at a time and checking on the piece. Tumble at your own risk.
I use polishing cloths all the time and would not do a fair without one. I also sell a few polishing cloths for the convenience of my customers. Many polishing cloths are impregnated with chemicals to help them clean better or anti-tarnish compounds. Some are better for some types of jewelry than others. I sell one that is good for a quick wipe down before or after wearing and two that do a great job of cleaning more tarnished pieces. One also has anti-tarnish compounds in the cloth. Most polishing cloths should never be washed. Just use them until they are in shreds then get a new one. Due to the nature of most of these cloths, they will remove the tarnish with relatively little rubbing, and can handle more tarnished pieces well. If you have a lot of cleaning to do your hands will get a bit dirty. Also, if you have a piece of jewelry that is only silver plated this can wear off the plating very fast. The style of some jewelry may also be hard to clean well with a cloth. For example, my Susan style earrings would be a challenge with a cloth. When using this method on wire wrapped pieces, after a time you may end up with an antiqued look, where the crevices are darker which you may or may not like depending on your taste. Be cautious of impregnated cloths when it comes to very delicate stones or beads.
These can be like pouring gas on a fire to get it going. They are really fast, but watch out! There are more solutions and pastes than I care to try to count and all are different. Some are much stronger than others. Some require only dipping, while others require a little scrubbing with something like a toothbrush. Especially some of the stronger ones tend not to be safe for jewelry with soft stones, pearls, coral, or stones that are glued into a setting. The chemicals usually eat away at the silver a little and I would not recommend most for plated metals. Some are quite caustic and should not even be touched with your bare hands, others are much more gentle, but clean about as well as soap and water. Check with the manufacturer on what materials they say their product is safe to use on. In summary, I think they have a place, but usually I would go with something else.
*Baking Soda and Aluminum*
And now, to my favorite super easy silver jewelry cleaning method. I love this one, because instead of rubbing silver off your piece or eating away at it, this simply reverses the chemical reaction that causes tarnish. It is quick and easy and does not involve any scrubbing or rubbing! Boil water. Mix 1 cup of boiling water with 1 1/2 tablespoons of backing soda. Place some aluminum foil in the bottom of a small glass dish. Choose a dish big enough to hold your jewelry, but small enough that the water will completely cover the piece. Place your jewelry on the aluminum foil, making sure the silver is making contact with the foil! Gently pour the water/ baking soda mixture over the jewelry and foil. Depending on the weight of the jewelry you may need to use a utensil of some kind to push the foil back down. You can also place the jewelry on the foil after putting the water in the dish. I find this is sometimes very useful with chains. You need to make sure you choose a dish size so that the water is completely covering the silver or make more solution to completely cover the jewelry. Then, simply let everything sit for about 10-15 minutes depending on how tarnished the pieces are. If the jewelry still needs more cleaning, you can pour off the solution, heat it back up, and pour it over the jewelry again. When you finish simply rinse the jewelry off with clean water and pat it dry. This method is great with delicate pieces, detailed wire wrapped jewelry and hard to clean chains. The only skin hazard is the boiling water, and I am confident my readers can handle remembering not to stick their hands directly into the water while it is hot. I have not experimented a lot with pearls and coral. They should be safe but you may want to avoid letting them soak for an excessive amount of time. I have not tested what happens if you forget and leave them soaking in the water for a long time.
If you want to know more about the chemistry, here is a pretty easy to read explanation of what is going on. http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/homeexpts/tarnish.html
And here is a simple explanation of how silver tarnishes http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ed077p328A
—A few other silver jewelry tips to reduce tarnishing—
*If your water smells of rotten eggs, use bottle water to wash jewelry. (The rotten egg smell is from Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S))
*After washing your jewelry or rinsing off any cleaner make sure your jewelry is completely dry before storing.
*Store it in a sealed plastic bag when your jewelry is not in use.
*Put your jewelry on last to avoid getting a lot of lotions of make-up on it.