Scratches - the biggest enemy.
While we might think of tarnishing as the main problem with silver (and, if we are talking silver teapots and candelabra, it probably is), the biggest problem for jewellery is probably scratching.
Silver is relatively soft (compared to platinum, say), so it does scratch relatively easily. While big scratches will be obvious, it is the very small scratches that build up over time that make your jewellery end up looking dull.
One of the surest ways to do that is to dump your jewellery into one big box that you scrabble around in.
Keep each item wrapped and/or in a separate box will help avoid scratches and keep it looking pristine longer. It will help with tarnishing, too.
Whatever the natural colour of silver (see opposite), we probably like to think of it as bright and shiny. But there's no getting round it: sterling silver will tarnish over time.
Some people have especially corrosive skin (it's their sweat, really) and can turn silver items black in minutes. They tend not to wear it.
Happily, most of us don't have that problem, but it will still tarnish. With amild level of tarnish, silver takes on a slightly yellow tinge. As it grows, the tarnish starts to look purple-ish (actually a rather attractive effect that it would be wonderfull to be able to freeze, if only we could) before turning blacker. Sometimes you will see the whole specturm of tarnish shades on a single piece.
Be warned that any piece with a frosted or brushed finish will tarnish quite quickly - certainly to the yellow-ish stage. It's not a design or manufacturing fault. That's the way of it. All is not lost, though. Tarnish is easy to deal with.
Silver polishes are very effective, but can be quite abrasive. However, jewellery can be delicate and have nooks and crannies that are hard to reach.
A quick dip in a tarnish-removing fluid is a very effective way to bring your silver back to brightness. It is quick and easy, and especially effective for those matt-finished items. Goddards are probably the market leader.
But, do be careful: these dips are not always advisable if you have porous semi-precious stones, shells or pearls.
After the dip (or instead of) use a special silver polishing cloth to bring back the reall sparkle. They work very well, and many are impregnated with an anti-tarnish agent to delay its return.
Prevention is Better than Cure
Tarnish is the result of a reaction of the metals in the sterling silver with chemicals in the environment. Eg:
Types of Silver
So, what colour is silver? Well, actually, it is white (I suppose that technically it is colourless, but that's the same thing in most cases).
Don't believe me? The white on the inside of the ring below is actually a layer of unpolished fine silver.
It is a very delicate layer and will only stay like that because it is protected from rubbing by the shape of the bowl. Give it a good buffing and it would come up
with the bright and reflective surface that we generally associate with silver.
I described that white layer as "fine" silver. That is the term used for (almost) pure silver - anything with that is more than 99.9% pure.
While it has the admirable property of being almost completely tarnish free, fine silver is generally too soft for use in jewellery. It might be used for making a bezel to set a stone in, but not much else. Generally silver is alloyed with other metals to make it more durable.
The alloy that will be most familiar to jewellery lovers is sterling silver, also known as 925 silver, because it is 92.5% silver (925 parts in 1000). The remaining 7.5% is usually mostly copper.
There are some variations such as Argentium and Brilliante silver that include
other metals in the mix, but they are still 92.5% silver so are assayed as sterling silver.
Adding copper to silver makes it much harder than fine silver, but still relatively easy to work, which is why it is favoured by jewellers.
The downside is that the copper element tarnishes quite readily.
This is a 95.8% alloy of silver: harder than fine silver, but more workable than sterling.
It is the alloy favoured by silversmiths because it can be formed more readily.
There is a newly introduced 800 standard of silver (ie 80% silver) but most
jewellers agree that it is 'nasty'.
For anything to be sold as "silver" in the EU, it must be of at least this level of purity but watch out when you are off on holiday. Many other parts of the world are much less particular, and you could be getting only 40% or even less silver.
Of course, the silver isn't everything. Workmanship and artistry counts for a lot.
There is also silver plate: plated items are made with base metals with a very
fine layer of silver laid over, usually by electro-plating.
Because silver is so soft, it won't be long before the plate wears off, unless it is really good quality (ie thick). Cheap plate = thin plate.
The reason that there is an assay office in Sheffield is that, though probably being best known for steel, Sheffield was also a great centre for silverware and
Although silver is relatively cheap (compared to gold, anyway) the amount needed for a large silver bowl or tea-pot is still significant. It certainly would have been back in the 18th and 19th centuries, so the folks back then wanted a
The Sheffield metallurgists of the day came up with a process of melding thin sheets of silver onto a thicker base layer of copper to produce what became
known as Sheffield Plate.
It was high quality stuff that lead the world for many years.
Like most things, it eventually got superceded by the cheaper (but not always better) process of electro-plating.
End of history lesson for today.