You know how it is; by mid-summer, every piece of silver jewelry you've made is beginning to look dingy if not downright black. Humidity takes a harsh toll on silver, and keeping it from tarnishing--or cleaning it once it has tarnished--is part and parcel of making and selling silver jewelry. (All the following refers to sterling or better; silver plate tarnishes faster, is harder to clean, and is generally not worth spending your money on.)
You can clean most silver with a variety of paste cleaners. Naturally, there's the silver polish you buy in stores, but toothpaste can be effective, as can a paste made from baking soda and water. The baking soda paste is also gentle enough for pearls and soft stones.Be warned, though -- make sure your baking soda is thoroughly dissolved -- any grit will scratch your silver!
But what about when you have to clean everything because you've done a show by the shore and the the salt water and humidity has turned it all black? You cannot very well hand-polish each item with paste polishes.
The most obvious thing that comes to mind is the dip polish you can buy in just about any drugstore or supermarket. This type of dip goes by a variety of names, but it always looks about the same -- a small jar with a basket inside it and a clear, stinky liquid. This stuff is primarily ammonia. It does an excellent job of cleaning silver, but it has two major drawbacks:
- it will clean ALL the silver. You won't have any nice oxidation left in the crevices or anything. It's also not safe at all for dyed stones, porous stones, or pearls.
- Rumor has it that items cleaned with dip cleaners will also re-tarnish faster, but I don't know that for certain.
(Dip polish, however, is the best thing to do with vermeil -- a quick dip, run under warm water and pat dry.)
A second kind of dip polish is Jewel Brite. Jewel Brite won't take the tarnish off your silver, but it will clean it and make it shiny, and it's safe enough for pearls. So if things are just looking a bit dingy, give them a swish in Jewel Brite.
If you make jewelry, you probably own a tumbler, which can be used for cleaning silver. Tumbling is quite simply the best way to clean most silver jewelry. It is the only process (aside from paste made particularly for silver) that will not damage the silver in any way. But tumbling also shines, or burnishes, silver. So if you like the aged look of your Karen Hill Tribe silver, with its slightly matte finish, you don't want to tumble it! Tumblers come in two varieties: rotary and vibratory. Both take stainless steel shot, water, and a little blue Dawn dishwashing liquid or burnishing liquid. The rotary tumblers are less expensive but take longer than the vibrating ones. (There are a lot of other benefits to tumbling, but I am not going to go into them here!)
Some people say you cannot tumble pearls, but I do so in my vibratory tumbler regularly. It's possible that rotary tumblers, which have more movement in them, may not be safe for soft stones and pearls.
Tumblers can clean several items at a time, but they're still not exactly quick. So what's next?
Well, if you take jewelry to a jewelry shop, they'll probably use a steam cleaner. You can buy a steam cleaner yourself, but there are things you should know before you do. Steam cleaning is fabulous at removing tarnish. It will leave you the oxidized bits you want as long as you do it carefully, and it works fabulously to clean the little crevices around inset stones. However, you cannot steam anything with glass, pearls, porous or dyed stones, or that has glue in it. You also have to steam clean one item at a time.
The most popular home cleaning machine is the ultrasonic jewelry cleaner. Everyone who's used this kind of machine tells me it does a good job cleaning silver, but again it cannot be used with pearls or soft stones.
Then there's the ionic cleaner. More specialized, the ionic cleaner tends to be more expensive and harder to find than the ultrasonic cleaner, but it is safe for pearls and soft stones. I have heard a variety of opinions on this, and though I have ordered one myself it is on back-order til who knows when, so I cannot give it a try and let you know my results just yet. Here are the things I have heard about ionic cleaners:
- "Silver takes about 15 seconds, gold 30-35 seconds. The ionic gets rid of grime/dirt and cleans the tarnish from the silver."
- "I also use an ionic cleaner for thin chains. The Ionic cleaner works well to remove tarnish, but I've found that my chains seem to tarnish much quicker."
- "sometimes the ionic cleaner blackens the wrapped wire or a few connected links of a chain. The instructions do mention this but they also say the black is easily removed with any pickle solution. So I tried a homemade solution (vinegar & salt) & it was absolutely useless! I've had to scrub the affected areas with silver dip several times over as well as polish them for ages to remove the burnt areas."
UPDATE: I tried the ionic cleaner. It did fine on some items, but I did have the nasty blackening reaction in several places, and the parts that turned black wouldn't clean up again with pickle, dip, or any other easy form of cleaning. I finally got them clean by taking an electronic toothbrush and using it to scrub and scrub using toothpaste. Then I threw out the ionic cleaner. More trouble to clean up the black parts than to just lightly scrub the entire piece with the cheapo electric toothbrush and toothpaste.
Then, there's the aluminum foil method: Line a pan with crumpled aluminum folk, then fill with hot water with washing soda in it. This is the same as the "museum silver cleaning kit" you see advertised on TV. This works well and is safe enough for pearls and soft stones. You just don't want to clean anything that's been glued into place this way. The tinfoil has to touch some part of each silver bead you want to clean, which is why crumpling it makes the process easier. (Washing soda should be in the detergent aisle, but it's not so easy to find in many places. If you cannot find it anywhere locally, Amazon has it. I personally have not had huge success with this type of cleaning, but some people swear by it.
So that's it, that's what I know about cleaning silver. If you know something else--because I am sure many of you have had a great deal of experience in this matter--please let me know so I can update this article!