Updates on Silver

Silver is a fabulous material with an inner glow and outer shimmer. Once valued as highly as gold, it has become an affordable precious metal without losing any of its beauty or marvel. It is very rarely used in an unalloyed form because of its softness but for the longest time its most common alloy partners were nickel and copper. Both of these metals are comparatively often reactive with human skin and, worse, increase silver’s already strong propensity to tarnish when exposed to light and air.

I don’t know what took so long, but finally, in the 1990s Peter Johns of the School of Art and Design (Middlesex University in the UK), devised a sterling silver alloy that reduces the tarnish reactivity, skin reactivity, and sterling’s propensity to scale when soldered. The alternative element is Germanium. This element has an atomic number of 32 (compare to 28 for Nickel and 29 for Copper) and is an important semiconductor material. Germanium doesn’t replace all of the copper, only a small percentage. But that small percentage gives a big result! Equally interesting to me is that this mineral is somewhat antibacterial and has low toxicity to humans (all mammals in fact). Argentium can be annealed and made twice as hard as standard sterling silver.

Nonetheless, this is a new material and has not entirely replaced sterling silver (not to mention there will always be heirloom silver pieces that need restoration) so it’s still useful to know how to keep silver in general from tarnishing and how to deal with tarnishing if (when) it occurs.

Three methods are widely used. The first is perhaps not as well known as the second but it is less likely to cause pitting. On the downside, it does remove tarnish rather than return the tarnish to its original state.

The soap method is both gentle and easy. If there are no “soft” gemstones such as turquoise, pearls, or other items with finishes that might react badly you can immerse the piece in a solution of warm sudsy water and rub gently with fingers, cotton swabs, or some other very soft material. If there are components that need to avoid the soapy water instead of immersing the object, moisten the swab or cloth and gently rub the silver surface. In either case finish by drying the piece with a soft dry cloth to avoid spotting. Regular cleaning can help avoid re-tarnishing.

If you don’t mind a little work, there are any number of polishing cloths available. I like Sunshine Cloths and use them as a final polishing step when I am working with silver, especially wire.

The recipe for highly tarnished to moderately tarnished silver is 2:1 ratio of baking soda (NOT baking powder) to salt. For 2 to 3 cups of water use 4 Tablespoons baking soda and 2 Tablespoons salt. Method: Bring water to boil. Scatter baking soda and salt over the bottom of an aluminum baking pan or aluminum foil lined glass baking pan. Pour boiled water into pan and stir quickly to dissolve soda and salt. Drop in silver piece making sure the silver is in contact with the aluminum. Wait at least 15 minutes for water to cool before removing no longer tarnished silver.

Now for the two caveats. First this method should not be used very often as it can cause pitting in the surface of the silver. Second, do not use this method at all if the work includes “soft” gemstones such as turquoise, pearls, or other items with finishes that might react badly to the baking soda.

Once your silver is untarnished store in such a way to discourage further tarnishing. My grandmother’s very ornate sterling silver platter is stored wrapped in an airtight, opaque plastic bag. Anti-tarnish paper strips, tissue, and plastic bags are also available and do a good job though be sure to change the anti-tarnish strips every three months or so.

1. Mark Winter, The University of Sheffield Web Elements Periodic Table of the Elements – Germanium http://www.webelements.com/germanium/

2. Color Spark Studio How to Clean Silver Jewelry