Silver has been used in jewellery for millennia and as a luxury material to grace the tables of the wealthy for many hundreds of years. A rare, precious and valuable material but one that has been readily available for many centuries, it’s no surprise that silver tableware has been so popular. It remains extremely popular today and yet despite this popularity it has one particular downside; turn your back on it for five minutes and it will tarnish, taking the shine off your jewellery and tableware. There’s nothing like blackened service plates and candelabra to suggest that your apparent wealth is not underpinned by the ability to engage staff to do your dirty work. So why does silver tarnish so readily and how do you stop it if you haven’t ready access to a butler and army of housemaids?
Silver tarnishes thanks to a fairly simple chemical reaction. Sulphur is the main culprit responsible for the reaction that blackens silver tableware and jewellery. Well known for being one of the deadly chemicals issuing from volcanoes, it’s less well known that sulphur and hydrogen are relatively common elements found in the atmosphere and in all kinds of domestic settings. Modern cleaning chemicals and other everyday substances contain them and these can all adversely affect silver. Sulphur hydrates, which blacken silver, can occur through contact with a range of harmless materials including clothing and skin.
State Visits and Domestic Crises
This affects jewellery but when it comes to silver tableware (including silver plated tableware) the problems can be even more noticeable. As we don’t all get the family silver out for a quick plate of chicken nuggets and chips tarnish can build up unexpectedly. When a state visit from the in-laws is imminent we can be horrified to discover that tarnish is about to blacken our reputation. On these occasions there is nothing more stomach churning than realising that the family silver looks like it’s been neglected for years and will only serve to raise a second eyebrow. The good news is that even relatively severely tarnished silver can be cleaned.
Simple Solutions and Emergency Measures
- You can actually wash silver fairly easily as long as you use a light touch. Warm water – never hot or boiling – is fine and a gentle soap should suffice. Wash lightly and rinse thoroughly. If you do use silver, or silver plated tableware regularly, washing carefully after each use will remove contaminants that will cause tarnishing.
- The old fashioned way of cleaning tarnished silver plated tableware is to employ plenty of elbow grease and a bit of silver polish. For light tarnishing this works a treat but for more serious cases it will only work well if you’re prepared to work hard and have time to do so. Silver polishing will freshen up dulled silver beautifully but for serious blackening it’s time to employ a little domestic sorcery.
- Electrolysis is the name of the process that creates tarnishing in the first place. It can also be used (rather handily) to reverse the damage. It’s important to note that this method is suitable for silver tableware but may not be best used on silver plated tableware– especially if other metals are used to create joints in the item. Basic household products (and no mad scientist) are required to remove tarnishing using this method. You’ll need a bowl big enough to contain the item/items to be cleaned. Beware of using metal bowls, these will only cause more damage; plastic, glass or ceramic are all absolutely fine. Line the bowl with aluminium foil and completely submerge the silver in water. Cold water is fine as is warm, but never hot. For every pint of water add a couple of tablespoons of baking soda and leave for ten to fifteen minutes – remove your glittering new silverware and marvel at your own domestic prowess!
To avoid tarnishing your reputation during important parties a few simple silver cleaning techniques can come in handy. If, however, you are buying new silver plated tableware, consider buying the tarnish resistant models available. These retain the glimmer on your tableware and the shine on your reputation!
About the Author
Nick Thorping is a freelance writer, antique (and junk) collector who has been forced to learn (on several occasions) the dark arts of how to clean silver plated tableware.