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Antique Silver

Shining Your Silver Spoon: Cleaning and Caring for Antique Silver

There is something regal about the shine of antique silver, and when cared for properly, silver pieces can be kept for generations. And in fact, treasures made of precious silver have a long history. Excavations in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur have unearthed silver jewelry pieces. It is well known that silver was mined around Anatolia, located in the area of modern day Turkey, and that the Chaldeans were the first culture to extract silver from other ores around 2500 B.C. By 1000 B.C., the cultures of South and North America were using advanced silversmithing techniques. Mining continued throughout the ancient times, and the popularity of silver spread throughout Asia, from China to Korea and then to Japan. In 600 A.D., silver became very important in China during the T'ang dynasty. Later, in the Sung Dynasty, the Chinese perfected the Repousse technique (a method of pushing out sculptural forms from within the silver vessel and then defining them further with exterior chasing). Spanish mines began to be important sources of silver around this time, as well as those in Eastern Europe. By the 16th century, European conquerors began exploiting New World silver, particularly for the benefit of royals back home. By the 1800s, silver jewelry became more affordable because of advances in technology. Electroplating was invented. Tiffany & Company began producing silverware in New York in the mid 1850s. In England, Queen Victoria began the revival of ancient Celtic motifs in silver jewelry design, and the fashion trend lasted until her death in 1901.

The major drawback with silver is its seemingly speedy ability to tarnish and as a result, some people shy away from the daunting task of polishing and restoring silver to its original brilliance. Silver tarnishes when exposed to air and certain chemicals, like sulfur. Tarnish begins as a yellowish hue which darkens to a brown and eventually to a purplish black color. It is easiest to remove tarnish in its early stages, but when it becomes black over time, it can be very difficult to remove. That is why it is important that you care for, properly store and regularly clean your silver pieces.

First, always store your silver pieces wrapped in tissue paper and in plastic bags. Try to store your pieces in a dry place, free from humidity. You should also prevent silver from coming into contact with rubber products like placemats and rubber gloves, especially for an extended period of time, as the sulfure in these products causes silver to corrode. Also, do not store or wash silver and stainless steel flatware together. Contact between the two metals causes silver to stain. When using your silver pieces, whether it is flatware, platters or holloware, be sure not to let food remain on the pieces for very long. Some foods contain sulfur (eggs and mayonaise in particular) and should not be kept with silver for extended periods of time. Wash your silver with warm water and soap, and dry immediately. Do not put your silverware and silver pieces in the dishwasher, or allow them to soak in water.

Silver needs to be polished periodically. If you do this, it will prevent you from having to spend inordinate amounts of time removing tarnish buildup. Polishing silver and removing tarnish usually involves using a cream or silver cleaning liquid, which is somewhat abrasive of silver, which is a soft metal to begin with. Using the gentlest method possible is best for maintaining your silver, especially with silverplated items which sometimes have a very thin plating applied to the base metal. If you want to wear gloves when polishing your silver, wear cotton gloves, not rubber ones as rubber gloves contain sulfur. If you are polishing silver for maintenance and there is very little to no tarnish, a quick use of a silver wipe (readily available for purchase at most stores which carry cleaning products) should do the trick. Silver pieces that contain some polish can be cleaned with a silver cream or paste. Use a small amount of silver cream, and using a soft cotton towel, rub the piece in straight strokes. As you rub against the silver tarnish, it removes a little silver with each stroke. This is especially important to remember when polishing silverplated pieces. Don't overdo polishing your silver. Then use a clean soft towel to buff and finish the silver.

Liquid silver dips are another method for cleaning and removing tarnish. They are less abrasive that creams and pastes, but they do contain strong chemicals and acids which can cause silver to pit and etch over time. Silver should never be left in a dip for a long time. Also, the acids can damage wood and ivory attachments to silver as well as leak into hollow parts of your piece and continue working on the silver and cause pitting. You can use a silver dip by swabbing it over the surface of the silver and then rinsing it thoroughly.

As a final note, silver dips and creams can be abrasive as well as toxic. Another alternative is to make your own, non-toxic "silver dip," which uses science to convert tarnish back to silver. When silver combines with sulfur, it produces silver sulfide, also known as tarnish. Polishing silver with a cloth and cream or a liquid dip is a method that attempts to remove tarnish from the surface. The following method converts silver sulfide back into silver and therefore does not remove the silver. Aluminum is one metal that is more attracted to sulfur than silver is, so when the two metals are placed together, the sulfur will transfer from silver to aluminum. Here is a simple recipe that you can use:

Baking soda
Aluminum foil

1. Line your sink or a glass pan with aluminum foil.
2. Heat water to steaming. Add 1 tablespoon of baking soda and 1 tablespoon of salt per quart of water. Pour into glass pan or sink.
3. Using tongs, carefully place silver on pan, making sure it touches the aluminum foil. The tarnish should begin to disappear immediately. For heavily tarnished pieces, you may need to reheat the solution and repeat the process.