Sterling silver is stronger and more durable than both regular silver and gold. For these reasons, and the sheer number of traditional and modern artisans working in sterling silver, this type of jewelry is some of the most popular.
But how long does it take for sterling silver to tarnish?
That question is more complicated than it would first seem. Sterling silver can begin to tarnish in anywhere from 2 months to 3 years, but don't let that worry you.
Tarnish is no big deal and there are simple ways to clean and prevent it.
Real silver, or silver with close to 99.9% purity, is just too soft for use as jewelry. To make it stronger and more durable, silver is mixed with copper and sometimes zinc or nickel to strengthen the precious metal. This silver alloy is called sterling silver and is generally about 92.5% pure.
Other types of silver include coin silver or silver plating. Coin silver is another composite alloy and is generally no more than 90% pure.
Silver plating is a coating of sterling silver over a less valuable metal. With silver plating, the sterling silver coating will eventually wear away and look less desirable.
The name sterling silver most likely comes to a type of silver coin that was originally minted by Britain's King Henry II, due to its steady value and durability. It is believed the coins, at 92.5 % purity, were known as "Easterling coins." This name was soon shortened from Easterling to just sterling.
Today, the best silver artisans work in sterling silver, following in the footsteps of icons like Charles Lewis Tiffany and Sotirios Bulgaris.
To easily tell if a piece of jewelry is sterling silver, it'll be stamped with "925," a reference to the silver's purity rating.
When metals are exposed to the air, they experience a chemical process called oxidation. This oxidation can produce a number of different outcomes from rust on steel to tarnish on silver.
The silver alloy is actually combining with latent sulfur in the air released from natural organic decomposition and environmental factors like volcanic eruptions and pollution. The chemical reaction between silver and sulfur creates silver sulfide, which is black.
Tarnish, therefore, is a thin film of this silver sulfide on your sterling silver.
On a large sterling silver platter, for instance, this tarnish can look like a patina of brown over the serving vessel. On a silver locket, the tarnish can appear as spots of discoloration on the piece's face or chain.
That depends. As stated above, the amount of time it takes for the tarnish to form depends on the amount of exposure the sterling silver piece exposed to air.
Also, natural oils in the skin can help speed up the oxidation.
In a controlled environment, it could take sterling silver a couple of years to tarnish. Or if the piece is constantly worn without applying preventative steps, it could take just a few months for the piece to begin to show signs of tarnish.
So what can you do? Preventing sterling silver from tarnishing is really no big deal and takes just a few seconds or minutes.
The best way to prevent your favorite pieces of sterling silver jewelry from tarnishing is to clean them after wearing. Not only will this remove any dirt or natural oils that may have accumulated, but it'll also prevent the chemical process of oxidation.
To wash your sterling silver, use warm water, scrub gently with a cloth, and then dry. You can even wash your sterling silver while you shower, just as long as you dry the piece afterward.
A word of caution: Wearing your sterling silver in the shower is not the same as wearing it in the pool. The chlorine, like your body's natural oils, can accelerate the potential for oxidation and tarnish.
Another way to prevent tarnish is to keep your pieces in an airtight jewelry box. Latent chemicals in the air fuel oxidation. So by limiting exposure to air, you'll reduce the oxidation.
Another method for reducing tarnish is to add a tarnish tab to your jewelry box. These paper strips help pull the sulfur and moisture out of the air and away from your sterling silver jewelry. They come in a range of styles and their duration of effectiveness varies by manufacturer.
If you already have tarnish spots on your sterling silver, there are a couple of methods to remove the blemishes depending on the extent of the oxidation.
For light tarnish or spotting, scrubbing with a specially coated anti-tarnish cloth can remove the discoloration. However, be careful not to overuse the tarnish cloth because it can sometimes reduce the luster of your jewelry.
Also, for light tarnishing, a toothbrush and light baking soda and water mixture can also do the trick. Scrub lightly with the toothbrush and solution and dry thoroughly.
For heavy tarnishing and full discoloration, an over-the-counter tarnish remover is probably called for. Searching for a silver cleaner or "silver dip" will produce a number of results. One of the more popular products is Wright's Silver Cleaner and Polish Cream.
Sterling silver is perennially popular by consumers and jewelers because of its strength, malleability, and an endless parade of designs.
Maybe, more importantly, sterling silver is an affordable precious metal that expresses a timeless quality. Many of the designs are pieces are exclusive and make a statement about the wearers' focus and brand.
When you are wearing the right piece, no one will ask you, "How long does it take for sterling silver to tarnish?"
Especially when the proper and simple care is shown, which can be as simple as an airtight jewelry box, an readily available cleaner,or just a simple washing.