The 5 Things Everyone Ought to Know About Silver Tarnish

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Silver Tarnish - Richardson

A beautiful piece of early American silver by an important Philadelphia silversmith simply coated in tarnish.

From the way people talk about silver tarnish you’d be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of fatal disease.* I see it on silver every day, in stages ranging from mild to cringe-inducing, but I’ve yet to see a terminal case. Tarnish has the most dramatic effect on people not silver.

Tarnish is a nuisance to silver, nothing more. Resist the the temptation to let this minor irritant determine your relationship with silver. Nine times out of ten times window shoppers on my site and those who see me in person at events cite polishing silver to remove tarnish as the reason why they don’t have any silver on the table.

Knowledge is power. So let’s illuminate the not-so deep, dark secrets of tarnish.

Understand the cause of silver tarnish

Tarnish develops as a chemical reaction. The most common source is through the air (although direct contact with substances that contain sulfur will also cause tarnish). This is why silver is generally stored in air-restricted spaces.  I say air-restricted because glass front cabinets and silver chests are not air-tight and even when stored in these places tarnish will still eventually develop, just at a slower pace.

Identify silver tarnish

As far as silver is concerned, tarnish and patina are not the same thing  Patina is a gorgeous, mellow, grey, soft, lustrous finish that well used and cared for silver develops. As silver is a soft metal, every time it’s used it acquires tiny marks. These marks are part of the living finish of silver and should be prized.

New and unused silver has a shiny, mirror bright surface on which patina has not had a chance to develop. Antique and vintage pieces are sometimes mechanically buffed to remove patina marks and restore that mirror shine. This diminishes the appeal of silver as the patina is destroyed and is also responsible for skewing perception of what silver “should” look like.

The great authority John Bly, author of Miller’s Silver and Sheffield Plate Marks laments,

“Tragically, a large amount of 18th century silverwares have had their definition severely impaired by overzealous butlers and cleaners who used abrasive cleaning agents in the attempt to keep the silver sparkling.”

In contrast tarnish is best understood as a dull film over the metal. Tarnish ranges in color from a yellowy-gold to absolute black, depending on how long it has been allowed to develop. It does not necessarily coat the surface of a piece evenly.

Eliminate existing silver tarnish

How long tarnish has developed on a piece of silver determines how easy it is to remove. At the mildest end, when it’s still in the dull-gold phase, a simple wipe with a clean cloth will do. More serious cases require the actual application of polish.

Here is a short video of me removing tarnish from a fork.  The tine ends are quite severely tarnished, while the rest of the piece is only mildly tarnished.

When I get a new addition to my personal collection, the first thing I do is polish it to remove any existing tarnish. Once I’ve polished it, like I did in the video, it goes into everyday rotation and doesn’t get another going over with the polish for probably close to 2 years! Instead it receives it’s regular cleaning in the dishwasher.

Prevent future silver tarnish

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best way to deal with tarnish is not to let it develop, the easiest way to do that is use it regulalry.  Frequent handling dramatically cuts the development of tarnish.

So if you purchase a piece of silver that has been polished by the dealer and you use and wash it in the dishwasher regularly, you can expect a significant amount of time to elapse before it needs another polish. Furthermore, when you feel it does need another polish, it’s not a huge time consuming task, because all you are doing is touching up rather than tackling 3 (or 30) years of undisturbed tarnish.

I often ask the people who don’t use silver because of the tarnish issue whether they wear any silver jewelry.  As silver jewelry is so common, usually a pretty high percentage of people show me a piece they regularly wear. Then I ask how often they polish it. I have yet to run across someone who frequently wears a piece of silver jewelry and ever polishes it.

Precisely the same principle applies to silverware. There is a reason silver dealers say, the more you use it, the less you polish.

The dark side of tarnish

vintage silver, pitting hidden by tarnish

This is pitting hidden by a "light" layer of tarnish.

The real cause for concern about tarnish is what it can hide and the damage people can unintentionally inflict when trying to prevent it in the first place.

  1. Tarnish can hide genuine damage, such as scratches, pits and corrosion. A nice dark coating of tarnish can hide many flaws.  If I had a nickel for every time a client came to me and was devastated because a piece of silver that they got at a “bargain price” on an auction site had corrosion damage hidden by tarnish I’d be very wealthy. On the site-that-I-shall-not-name I often see pieces offered that are coated in tarnish from vendors who do not allow returns! Often times this is explained away with nonsense about not wanting to “destroy the patina”. Caveat emptor.
  2. Often in trying to prevent tarnish people end up inflicting damage. If you don’t use your silver frequently enough to prevent tarnish, store it properly in a silver chest or specially treated silver bags. If you feel that is insufficient protection you can then add an additional layer, by enclosing the silver in a plastic bag, but only after the piece(s) are wrapped in silver cloth. No plastic in direct contact with the metal please! And, please, please don’t wrap your silver in plastic wrap.

PS The upside of tarnish

silver tarnish - as relief

On these elaborate silver tongs, the valleys are dark allowing the raised portions to literally stand out and shine drawing attention to the intricate detail of the pattern.

After re-reading, it occurs to me that it’s worth mentioning tarnish does have a bright side.  On pieces that are heavily chased or with repousse, the tarnish that is so difficult to get out of the low spots should actually be left.  It serves as a deliberate contrast to the high spots which should be free from tarnish, displaying the varying elevations of the piece to best advantage.

* The horrible irony is that sulphur in the air only poses a nuisance to silver but is a genuine health risk to people.  For more information about why we all need to be concerned about sulfur and other airborne pollution please visit Moms Clean Air Force, co-founded by Dominique Browning, former editor of House and Garden magazine.

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6 thoughts on “The 5 Things Everyone Ought to Know About Silver Tarnish

  1. Debbie MurphyNo Gravatar

    Hi! You mention no plastic in direct contact with silver. I just wrapped a large silver tray in bubble wrap, before placing it in a box, as a gift at Christmas. Should I undo it now? What occurs when plastic is in direct contact with silver, and will 2 months wrapped in plastic bubble wrap affect the tray? Also, do you know of any safe way to remove rust from the bottom of a silver coffee pot? I assume it is rust as I have cleaned it multiple times, with little change, only slight discoloration removed. Thanks so much for your responses-I enjoy readying of your expertise and passion for all things silver, and learning so much in the process!

    1. SilverMagpiesNo Gravatar Post author

      Hello Debby –

      Personally I’d unwrap the piece and place some acid-free tissue paper around it. I doubt a few weeks will cause any damage, but better safe than sorry.

      As for the rust…silver does not rust, so either you have corrosion or silver-plating has worn off and the base metal below has rusted.

      Nan

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