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How Long Does It Take for Sterling Silver to Tarnish?

Featured image for "How Long Does It Take for Sterling Silver to Tarnish?" blog post. Silver necklace.

You may have inherited a lovely, sterling silver tea service set, a beautiful serving platter, or another heirloom sterling silver object from a beloved relative. Perhaps, you have several pieces of sterling silver jewelry you really love to wear. You’re ready to use the tea set or wear your jewelry only to find out that the pieces have tarnished.

Why do sterling silver pieces tarnish? Just how long does it take for sterling silver to tarnish? What’s the best way to remove it and how can you keep silver from tarnishing so you can enjoy your sterling silver items year after year?

We’ll explore these questions about silver tarnishing and more in this article, so read on.

What is the Science of Silver Tarnish and Its Cause?

Simply put, tarnish is a thin layer of corrosion on metals—a chemical reaction (oxidation, to be exact) between metal and non-metal environmental elements containing gases like oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, or sulfur dioxide. Tarnish can appear on sterling silver as a dull, yellow, gray, or black film/coating.

Thankfully, though, silver tarnish is only a surface problem. Unlike rust—which can eat away at all levels of a metal object—silver tarnish only affects the top few layers of the sterling silver object. Think of it as simple everyday wear with a black coating and you have the definition of silver tarnishing in a nutshell.

Tarnished silver tea set.
Tarnish will only affect the top layers of your sterling silver items. This makes tarnish easy to remove with a high quality polishing cloth.

What is Silver Sulfide?

Silver sulfide is a dense, black solid which, over time, makes up the tarnish on silverware and other silver objects. It’s the main product of silver tarnishing.

Isn’t Pure Silver Tarnish-Resistant?

Pure silver is, indeed, tarnish-resistant, but it is much too soft to be made into jewelry or other items for household use. Since about the 1300s, sterling silver jewelry (as well as household items) have been made using silver and other metals like copper (for added strength) in a ratio of 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent other metals, known as .925 sterling silver.

It’s the other metals—especially copper—which react to moisture and sulfur in the air and cause the tarnishing of your sterling silver objects.

Sterling silver bracelet.
.925 sterling silver contains other metals such as copper which will cause tarnish over time.

How Can I Tell if My Sterling Items are .925?

When looking for the right jewelry to wear and shopping for sterling silver bracelets, rings, necklaces, or earrings—with or without gemstones such as diamonds, pearls, or emeralds—you want to make sure you are buying quality sterling silver jewelry and not fakes. In the fashion world, there can be some sellers who may attempt to pass off silver-plated (a thin plate of silver) jewelry as legitimate sterling silver jewelry.

Make sure your silver jewelry is real. Look for a small stamp—like a fingerprint—to indicate that it is .925 but that isn’t always the most reliable way to check. There’s an unspoken rule that only .925 pieces should carry the stamp (engraving); however, some unscrupulous sellers may stamp their jewelry when it isn’t sterling silver.

It’s best to ask a trusted jeweler or an appraiser.

Sterling silver necklace.
Make sure to purchase your sterling silver jewelry from a trusted jeweler or get an appraisal to assure that the piece is made from real .925 sterling silver.

What Are Some Other Tips to Tell if Jewelry is .925?

If you like to wear sterling silver jewelry, a really good method to tell if a piece of jewelry is .925 or simply silver-plated, is to use the magnet test. Place a small magnet next to the piece of jewelry. If the magnet has little to no effect on the jewelry, then the piece is genuine .925 sterling silver. On the other hand, if the jewelry is attracted to the magnet, it’s probably not genuine .925 sterling silver.

Horseshoe shaped magnet attracting small silver balls.
Magnets are a good way to tell if .925 sterling silver is real or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another good way to tell if the item is an antique or vintage piece is to take a soft, white cloth and gently rub it onto a tarnished area on the jewelry. If it’s a piece of real sterling silver, you’ll see some black marks on the white cloth. If there are no marks, the piece is probably not real .925 sterling silver and has only silver plating. (Or, it’s just really well cleaned!) Again, it’s best to consult with a jeweler or an appraiser.

How to Polish Sterling Silver Rings

Sterling silver rings tarnish but will last longer when appropriately stored and frequently polished. To polish your sterling silver rings, use the Champion Polishing Cloth and gently rub the cloth on your rings to remove fingerprints, dirt, and slight scratches. If you’ve washed your rings with mild soap and water, be sure to dry them thoroughly before polishing them.

Wedding ring.
With a high quality polishing cloth, you can get any of your favorite rings looking as good as new!

Is it All Right to Put Sterling Silver in Water?

Water alone will not hurt your items, so it’s okay to wear your sterling silver jewelry in the shower but just make sure to thoroughly dry your jewelry afterwards. However, chlorine in swimming pools most definitely will increase the rate of tarnish. If you happen to forget and dive into a swimming pool wearing your silver jewelry, wash your jewelry with mild soap, rinse immediately, and dry well. Then, polish your jewelry with the Champion Polishing Cloth.

Does Where I Live Cause Items to Tarnish Faster?

Yes, sterling silver tarnishes much faster when exposed to a natural environment with high humidity and air pollution. Common household products like hair spray, perfume, deodorant, and body lotions can accelerate the tarnishing process, so keep your items in an airtight container when not worn. This help prevents tarnishing.

Reduce or avoid exposure of your sterling silver jewelry to makeup and even your own body sweat, so don’t wear that precious sterling silver bracelet, necklace, or ring to the gym when you work out!

Woman running in the sun.
Make sure to remove any sterling silver jewelry before exercising, as sweat can cause tarnish over time.

How Long Does It Take for Sterling Silver to Tarnish?

There’s no definite answer to this question. Many factors come into play, causing tarnish: The environment, exposure to chemicals, household sprays, and beauty products along with other factors such as if the piece is already somewhat tarnished. A slightly tarnished piece will tarnish more slowly than an untarnished piece. Regardless of the cause, all sterling silver reacts to the environment and will eventually tarnish requiring a good cleaning, so keep your silver protected.

How Do I Remove Tarnish on Silver and How Do You Polish Silver?

Soap and water won’t work well to clean a layer of tarnish and neither will other home remedy methods, so the best way to remove tarnish from your silver valuables is to use a good, quality product like the Champion Polishing Cloth. The Champion Polishing Cloth comes ready for immediate use. Simply roll the cloth into a ball and rub gently onto the silver piece. One Champion Polishing Cloth with its built-in cleaner will last longer than a gallon of metal polish.

The Best Silver Polish for Heavy Tarnish : Champion Polishing Cloth.
Champion Polishing Cloth

What’s the Best Way to Store Special Silver Household Pieces?

You’re ready to set your table for a special occasion and you pull out your silver serving trays, tea set, and silverware only to find that they are all badly tarnished. Silver tarnishes more when not properly stored; therefore, to protect your silver, store your pieces in a drawer in a hutch, a china cabinet, a flannel bag, or in a tarnish inhibitor case with silica gel bags. Silica gel bags are made from silicon dioxide and are desiccants, meaning they absorb moisture from the air.

If you live in a humid climate, silica gel bags are helpful. Another tip is to place a small piece of white chalk into a drawer or flannel bag with your pieces to help keep them polished and to help prevent damage. Remember, however, there is no magic formula to prevent silver from tarnishing. Eventually, all silver will tarnish.

Stars on a blackboard and a piece of chalk.
Keeping a small piece of white chalk next to your sterling silver pieces can actually protect them from damage.

What About Coating My Silver Pieces with Lacquer?

Throughout the years, coating silver pieces with lacquer—also called “flashing”—has gone in and out of fashion. While a layer of inert lacquer doesn’t actually hurt the surface of the silver itself, the lacquer can become easily scratched and wear off. It may also cause a color distortion. It is not recommended as a way to take care of your silver pieces. Polished silver should be full of light and bright reflection contributing to the beauty of the piece.

Another drawback to coating silver with lacquer is that the lacquer is difficult to apply evenly over the surface of your silver item.

What is the Difference Between Platinum and Silver?

Platinum cube.
While platinum looks quite similar to silver, they have numerous differences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

While platinum and silver are the same color and can look alike to the naked eye, there are some notable differences. First, platinum is shinier and brighter while silver has a duller, more grayish look. Second, platinum is heavier than silver. Third, platinum is stronger than silver, and, fourth, it requires less polishing than silver. It is also hypoallergenic, but it is also vastly more expensive because it is rarer than silver and even gold—about 30 times rarer than gold!

What is Rhodium Plating?

Some sterling silver jewelry and other pieces in white gold are coated with rhodium, a chemical element. Rhodium is rare, silvery-white, hypoallergenic, and very durable. It’s tarnish-resistant; however, the drawback is that it will eventually wear off and you may have to have your pieces re-plated. Clean rhodium-plated pieces with warm water and a mild, liquid soap. Rinse and dry, then polish with the Champion Polishing Cloth.

How Can I Tell if My Silver is Rhodium-Plated or Only Silver-Plated Tin?

Many tin cans on a white background.
Beware! There are some antiques marketed as being made of genuine silver when they are really just made with silver plated tin!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best way is to ask a trusted jeweler or silversmith. Some antiques marketed as silver are actually silver-plated tin, a chemical element that has a faint yellow hue. Tin is soft enough to be easily cut and shaped for various household uses such as tin cans or for artistic designs like old-fashioned pie safes. If you are in doubt as to whether your silver item is actually silver-plated tin, it’s best to speak with an appraiser.

What is Precipitated Calcium Carbonate?

Precipitated Calcium Carbonate (PCC) is a chemical mixture used as a mild silver polish. It’s mild because it doesn’t remove too much of the silver beneath the tarnish. PCC is made from purified calcium carbonate rock called limestone and it is possible to make at home; however, an easier way would be to use the Champion Polishing Cloth to clean your beloved sterling silver pieces and jewelry.

How Long Does It Take for Sterling Silver to Tarnish?

Silver tungsten ring.
Now that you know how to prevent and get rid of tarnish, your sterling silver jewelry will always look its best!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ve come full circle back to our original question: How long does it take for sterling to tarnish? As we’ve learned, the rate of how fast a sterling silver item tarnishes depends on many factors, not the least of which is the environment in which the silver item is stored.

Other factors include whether or not the silver item has been exposed to chlorine in swimming pools or household beauty products like hair spray, hand lotion, or makeup. Additionally, other factors are how much the silver item is already tarnished and how long the silver item has been exposed to oxygen.

Tarnishing is also affected by the type of metal alloy used in addition to the silver. In short, how long it takes for sterling silver to tarnish is dependent upon these factors and more.
But it’s safe to say that tarnishing can occur both quickly and over longer period of times, months even, depending upon the factors listed.

Silver necklace.
Silver jewelry can look great forever if cared for properly over the years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thing is certain, however, the color of the tarnish on the silver item changes as the tarnishing deepens over time. This changing of colors is called “thin film interference” and can be simply defined as light “splitting” when it hits the thick layer of tarnish on the silver object. In this phenomenon, some of the light reflects off the top layer while some light reflects off the silver beneath the tarnish.

There’s a certain science to tarnishing but to keep your silver items shiny and in good shape, follow the tips listed in this article and use the Champion Polishing Cloth. Then, you can be sure that your beloved, silver family heirlooms and sterling silver jewelry can be passed down to another generation to be enjoyed for many years to come.