Sterling Silver 101: The comprehensive guide to understanding and maintaining your jewelry and silver cutlery
Pure silver is by nature, extremely soft and mallaeable, and hence unsuitable in the manufacture of jewelry & other accessories. Bracelets, rings, pendants and other silver jewelry pieces cannot reasonably be crafted from pure silver without the presence of alloy metal additives to buttress its atomic structure. To use silver as a commercially viable metal, it has to be alloyed with copper to increase its hardness. Due to the close natural resemblance between both metals, the combination chemical process can be executed without substantially affecting the stretchability and beauty of the silver. However, as the level of purity of silver decreases, the thorny issue of tarnishing arises, giving rise to the need to find a suitable equilibrium balance between the percentage content of Silver and the cheaper metal (whether Aluminum, Copper, Steel or Brass) used in the alloy cocktail.
The optimal solution, as discovered by expert chemists, is sterling silver: an alloy of silver containing 92.5% by mass of silver and 7.5% by mass of other metals, usually Copper, Steel or Brass. The sterling silver standard has a minimum millesimal fineness of 925 (ie: 92.5% purity). Since the percentage purity of sterling silver remains high, sterling silver is the most suitable material for use in the manufacture of expensive luxury jewelry and top grade luxury cutlery used by highly affluent and successful individuals.
Chemically, silver is not reactive-it does not react easily with oxygen or water at ordinary conditions of temperature, and so does not easily form the problematic silver oxide layer, which appears as a dull, powdery white coating over the surface of pure silver, obscuring its beauty. However, sterling silver is not a compound, and other metals in the alloy, usually copper, will react with atmospheric oxygen, tarnishing the overall appearance of the sterling silver alloy. The good news, however, is that tarnish is easily reversible by polishing: a process which chemically dissolves and removes the surface coat of CuO obscuring the bright sheen of the underlying alloy. The one-step reversibility of the tarnish has resulting in 925 sterling silver becoming the benchmark of consumer choice in jewelry craftsmanship.
Sterling Silver’s beauty increases with use, which causes a patina or soft sheen layer to form over the jewelry body. Plated silver is silver that has been plated through the process of electrolysis over another metal. Rusting occurs more quickly in damp and foggy weather, but is ultimately inevitable in any climate. Sterling silver should ideally be stored in treated paper or cloth, or plastic film.
The effort and cost which you incur in cleaning your sterling silver should be determined firstly by the value you have placed on it, whether monetary or sentimental, & secondly, the intricacy or depth of the pattern. Silver with deeply carved patterns that are enhanced by an oxide or French gray finish should be hand-polished with a commercial grade silver cream or polish.
Hand rubbing develops what is commonly known as “patina on silver” which adds to its beauty. Ornamental silver pieces that are lacquered must be washed in lukewarm water rather than hot water, as hot water could potentially cause damage or erosion of the lacquer. Polishing silver while wearing rubber gloves is a cardinal sin. Don’t do it! Instead, choose plastic or cotton gloves.
Silver is vulnerable to certain reagents. Rubber is one material which can cause severe corrosion to silver. The damage can become so severe that only a silversmith would be able to repair the damage, albeit with a severe wasteful loss of silver mass. Embossed designs are beyond help, and will be lost permanently. Storage chests with rubber seals, rubber floor coverings and rubber bands are strict no-nos.
Other deadly enemies of silver include table salt, olives, salad dressing, eggs, vinegar and fruit juices. Essentially anything which contains food acids. If you treasure your cutlery, serve even mildly acidic foods in china or glass containers rather than your precious silver tableware. Although flowers and fruit really do look lovely in silverware, the carbonic acids produced as they decay can etch the containers and cause serious damage. If you really want to use silver containers, use plastic protective liners.
Baking Soda and Toothpaste: For cleaning with toothpaste, smear the silver layer with toothpaste, then run it under lukewarm water, work it into a foam, then rinse it off. For stubborn stains or intricate grooves unreachable by hand, use an old soft-bristled toothbrush.
For Baking Soda, create a paste of baking soda and water. Rub, rinse, and polish dry with a soft cloth preferably cotton. To remove corrosion from silverware, sprinkle baking soda on a wet cloth and rub it on the silverware until rust is removed. Rinse, then dry well.
To find out more about sterling silver and more comprehensive ways of preserving its beauty, visit Chrome Hearts.