When your favorite earrings start giving off that strange smell, or your signature necklace looks tarnished, you’ll want to know how to clean silver jewelry without ruining it. Fortunately, it’s easy to do.
But first, let’s get something straight: it is spelled jewelry (one L) NOT “jewellry” (two L’s) or “jewelery”. Unless you’re in the U.K. where it’s spelled “jewellery.” Oh, you crazy Brits! (Now, of course, I have typed that word so many different ways that they all look incorrect to me.)
Regardless of your spelling proficiency, there’s one thing we can all agree on: tarnished silver is not just unsightly, it smells unpleasant, too. Since most silver jewelry is actually sterling silver, an alloy of copper and silver, it tarnishes in response to hydrogen sulfide in the air. If you have particularly moist skin, it may also turn green in response to the jewelry’s copper component. And that smell? It’s the product of the sulfuric reaction.
While tarnish doesn’t actually damage your jewelry, it does become more difficult to remove the longer it remains in place. That’s why it’s important to know how to clean silver jewelry and then do so on a regular basis, ideally after each wearing.
How To Clean Silver Jewelry
The method that works best for your jewelry depends on how tarnished it is, and whether it is plain or embellished with soft, porous stones like turquoise or pearls.
Lightly tarnished: Pour 2 cups of warm water in a bowl, add 1 teaspoon of non-oxygenated liquid dish soap (for example, Ivory) and gently swirl. Add your jewelry one item at a time, let sit for 5 minutes, then gently rub with a soft cloth to loosen grime. Rinse and dry thoroughly with a soft, lint-free cloth.
Heavily tarnished, unembellished sterling silver: This method relies on electrolytic cleaning to counteract the tarnish. Line the bottom of a baking sheet with aluminum foil and place your unembellished, sterling silver jewelry on it. Make sure the jewelry is laid flat so it’s touching the aluminum foil. In a deep sauce pan on the stove, heat 4 cups of water to boiling. Remove from stove and stir in 1/2 cup of baking soda, 1/4 cup table salt, and 1 teaspoon liquid dish soap. (It’s important to use a deep sauce pan because this will froth.) Now, pour the hot liquid carefully into the baking sheet so the liquid completely covers your jewelry. The tarnish will start lifting almost immediately, but allow it to sit for 3-4 minutes then lift each item out of the hot liquid with a fork. Rinse well with clear water, and dry thoroughly with a soft, lint-free cloth.
Heavily tarnished, embellished or antique items: Due to the potential for damage, these items should be taken to a jeweler for professional cleaning. If you choose to DIY, do not use toothpaste; it’s so abrasive that it’s likely to damage softer embellishments or antique silver. Try a commercial silver polish instead, taking care not to allow the polish to get into crevices where it may be difficult to get out.
Since moisture and compounds in the air can tarnish silver, its prevention involves counteracting these things. Your body’s oils will actually help prevent tarnish, so wearing your jewelry often will keep it looking good. But remember: lotions, perfumes, household cleaners, chlorinated water, and even sunlight can all cause tarnish. That’s why jewelry should be the last thing you put on when getting dressed, and the first thing you take off. And always take it off before cleaning or swimming!
After wearing, clean your silver jewelry in soapy water then rinse and dry it well after each wearing. To keep it from tarnishing when not in use, wrap it in anti-tarnish felt cloth and tuck a piece or two of white chalk in your jewelry box. The felt will protect your jewelry from the air while the chalk will absorb tarnish-causing moisture.