Caring for Silver
Over time there is a natural darkening of silver which is referred to as patina. Patina gives a piece a warm, soft sheen. It is a result of use and handling. It is very desirable on antique silver because it adds attractiveness and character.
Oxidation which is the blackening of the fine details in a design is also very desirable and increases a piece’s value. Some patterns were produced with factory-applied oxidation. When restoring a piece a silversmith often will ask if you would like to have them add oxidation to the finished piece. Removing this oxidation with chemical dips or by placing the silver in a dishwasher will decrease a piece’s value. Oxidized details make patterns stand out.
Although patina and oxidation are desirable, Tarnish is not. Tarnish is the all-over blackening of silver caused by pollutants in the air. When we buy a piece we are aware that tarnish can hide wear and damage. So when negotiating a price for a piece, keep this is mind.
Tarnish is created when the silver comes into contact with hydrogen sulphide in ambient air to form silver sulfide. The hydrogen sulphide reacts to with the silver to form black silver sulphide. In the 16th century air was clean and silver did not tarnish as it does today. With advent of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas being used for lighting and heating, sulphurous gases were released into the air. Many foods are high in sulphur which when cooked release sulphur compounds into the air. High sulphur foods include eggs, scallions, onions garlic, watercress, turnips and cabbage. Chicken, duck, nuts and seeds also are high in sulfur. High sulfur fruits include coconut, papaya, pineapple, banana and watermelon. Acidic drinks can pit silver.
Vulcanization, a chemical process turns rubber or plastic into a form that is more durable and elastic by through the addition of sulphur curatives. Rubber bands and gloves, synthetic fibers, heels of shoes, erasers and even balloons will release sulphur into the air.
Hand polishing with a non-abrasive silver polish is always best for your antique silver. Hand polishing will remove tarnish without removing the patina. If tarnish is not removed periodically it will completely discolor the original silver, turning it dark. This is true for all silver whether it's coin silver, Sheffield, silver plate, nickel silver, or sterling silver.
Experts advise that silver should be cleaned and polished several times a year using a cream paste formulated specifically for silver. We believe silver should be used. Afterward is should be washed with a gentile, non-lemon scented, phosphate-free soap, then rinsed and dried.
When we first buy a piece I clean it thoroughly using Hagerty silver foam and then Meg uses Tarni-shield Silver Polish made by 3M for the final detailed cleaning. She uses a variety of tools, used toothbrushes, cotton swaps, and even toothpicks to clean all the small crevices and engravings. We then make a determination as to whether the piece should be sold as is, restored, or scrapped. We place our display pieces in our cabinets which have glass doors, and then place anti-tarnish strips on each shelf. For light touch-up we use a silversmith’s glove.
Cleaning the inside of the pots can be done electrically. Heat two quarts of water and add two - three tablespoons of baking soda and two-three tablespoons of salt. Vary the formula based on the size of the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil. Place some aluminum in the bottom of the pot to be cleaned. We use some short aluminum bars we cut from a cheap aluminum bar we bought at the local hardware shop. Pour the heated mixture into the pot and cover for a few minutes. Empty the pot, rinse, and then dry with a soft cloth. We did buy one of those as “Seen on TV” Silver Lightning trays for the flatware we purchase, but have it found it easier to just clean the pieces by hand.
To store pieces, we first wrap them in acid free tissue paper. We then place them in zip-lock bags, and store them cushioned in a 56 quarter plastic container with a lid so as to minimize the amount of air they come into contact with; this prevents the tarnishing process. Under no circumstances should antique silver be stored in a wrapped in newspaper or plastic, both can react chemically with the silver and damage it.
May you enjoy your silver pieces for many years to come.