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Does Sterling Silver Rust?

Sterling Silver Vase Rust

Sterling silver doesn’t rust in the traditional sense, but it does go through a chemical process that causes the color of the metal to change over time. It’s important to understand what happens to different metals when exposed to certain elements so you can protect your sterling silver jewelry, dinnerware, and other items and enjoy the striking appearance that you’re after.

What is Sterling Silver?

Sterling Silver Vase Rust
Image via Unsplash by stephanieharvey

Sterling silver is a metal alloy that’s comprised of 92.5% silver. The remaining 7.5% of this metal is typically zinc or copper. Sterling silver is more durable than pure silver, which is 99.9% silver with only trace elements making up the final 0.01%. Pure silver is so soft that it’s only used in a few fine jewelry pieces. It will bend under pressure and can easily become damaged.

Sterling silver, on the other hand, is frequently used for jewelry, plates, platters, silverware, and other items. It can stand up to regular wear and tear without getting damaged. Sterling silver is also incorporated as plating over other metals, particularly for larger objects where using a different metal for the interior can help lower the price point significantly. Sterling silver is the obvious choice for most uses. 

Tarnishing Vs. Rusting

One difference between pure silver and sterling silver is that sterling silver will tarnish. This is different from rusting. Rust is a reddish iron oxide that typically appears on iron objects. Rust is a form of corrosion that causes the metal to actually deteriorate. As the item rusts, it also begins to crack and crumble. Rust can form any time iron is exposed to oxygen and water.

Tarnish is a black, grey, or green discoloration that can appear on silver as well as copper, aluminum, nickel, zinc, and brass. Sterling silver tarnishes more quickly than pure silver because it features a combination of metals that are all susceptible to tarnishing, thus speeding up the process. Items tarnish when they’re exposed to oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide. These substances create a chemical reaction that causes silver sulfide to form on the surface of sterling silver objects.

While sulfur compounds are often airborne, they can also be found in some shampoos, perfumes, soaps, and makeup. Some people have greater acidity levels in their skin as well, which speeds tarnishing further. This means that your sterling silver jewelry may tarnish faster when it comes into contact with your skin. High humidity levels cause items to tarnish faster as well. 

Removing the Tarnish From Sterling Silver

If your sterling silver has started to tarnish, there are several things that you can do to remove this discoloration and restore the piece to its original state. Some options for cleaning your sterling silver include:

  • Silver Polishing Cloths: A dedicated silver polishing cloth is a great tool for cleaning sterling silver, particularly when you’re working with pieces that have a lot of flat surfaces. These soft microfiber or flannel cloths contain anti-tarnishing and polishing agents that help enhance the cleaning process. Silver polishing cloths have limited uses for chains and deeply engraved items, however, as they cannot get into the smaller grooves where items will present noticeable tarnish.
  • Ionic Cleaners: An ionic cleaner removes tarnish through an electrochemical process. This converts the tarnish into a hydrogen sulfide gas. Ionic cleaners feature two electrodes in a water solution that contains electrolyte powder. Purchasing your own ionic cleaner can be costly, but many jewelers have this equipment on hand and can use it to quickly and effectively clean your sterling silver for you.
  • Chemical Cleaners: You can purchase chemical cleaning agents that are designed specifically for sterling silver. Follow the directions on the package carefully, as some products should be applied only to the surface, and others are made for immersion. 
  • DIY Electrolytic Cleaning: You can create an electrolytic reaction at home for your sterling silver by lining a tub with aluminum foil and filling it with hot water. Add two teaspoons of baking soda and one teaspoon of salt. Immerse your jewelry in this solution for a few minutes, rinse, and dry.

Intentional Tarnishing on Sterling Silver

Some silver pieces feature intentional tarnishing. This is referred to as oxidized silver. Oxidized silver jewelry has purposeful blackening that gives the item a vintage look and makes gemstones really stand out. To create oxidized silver, jewelers darken the silver using sulfides. Depending on the strength of the solution, the finished effect may appear purple, blue, yellow, red, or black. 

If you have oxidized silver jewelry, it’s important to avoid any kind of harsh silver cleaning process as this will remove the patina and leave your jewelry with a very different appearance. You can clean this type of jewelry with mild dish soap and a soft toothbrush. This should remove dirt and grime while leaving the oxidation. Rub very gently when cleaning these pieces and stop if you notice the oxidation coming off.

How to Care for Sterling Silver Pieces

If you don’t want your sterling silver to tarnish, it’s important to think about where you’re storing it. To slow the tarnishing process, you should store your sterling silver away from:

  • Wool.
  • Latex.
  • Tissue paper.
  • Rubber bands.
  • Humidity.
  • Painted surfaces.

You can purchase storage bags or jewelry boxes for sterling silver that contain a protective inner lining that will help prevent tarnishing.

When wearing your sterling silver, you should be mindful of any contact with sunscreen, cosmetics, and chlorine. These will all cause the silver to tarnish more quickly. This doesn’t mean that you need to avoid these substances entirely, however. Simply pay attention to what your sterling silver comes into contact with and clean it more frequently and thoroughly when it’s exposed to things that are likely to accelerate tarnishing.

If you’re interested in selling sterling silver jewelry and other items, we want to talk to you! We pay top cash for sterling silver flatware, tableware, figurines, photo frames, jewelry, and more. Just 30 minutes from Chicago’s Loop, we’re easily accessible. Visit Americash Jewelry & Coin Buyer to determine the value of your sterling silver pieces today.

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