Preventing Silver Tarnish

Part of the Uniclectica Antiques and Collectibles Online Series "Caring For Your Antiques and Collectibles"


The dark purple-blue-black silver tarnish that most of us are familiar with occurs when the outer layer of silver reacts with sulphur. This sulphur can come from a variety of sources, including: from one's hands, from storing or displaying the silver near objects or substances that give off sulphur, and from the air around us (air pollution).

Polishing works by physically removing the outer layer of tarnished silver. Over time, details on the piece can be polished away, or, in the case of silver plated objects, the silver may be entirely removed! Minimizing this damage is as simple as reducing the amount of polishing. Of course, you don't want to display a tarnished piece, or serve dinner with tarnished utensils! It is possible to handle and store your silver in such a way that tarnish formation is diminished:

1. Wear cotton gloves as much as possible when handling your silver. This will prevent the oils and acids from your hands from ending up on the object. Cotton gloves are very inexpensive, and can be purchased at photography supply stores and some drug stores.

2. Do not store or display your silver with other objects which contain sulphur. This includes keratin-based objects, such as horn and tortoiseshell. Keratin contains sulphur, which is released as the keratin ages, or begins to break down.

Latex, which is found in elastics and latex gloves, also contains enough sulphur to cause silver to tarnish. Remove all elastics from your silverware, and do not wear latex gloves to protect your hands when you do polish your silver. You can get sulphur-free nitrile gloves at a drug store (ask for the gloves you would wear if you had a latex allergy).

Glues and sealers used in the construction of storage or display cabinets may also contain sulphur. If you have a new storage cabinet, let it air out for at least a month before putting your silver in it. You can minimize the effect of any cabinet-based sulphurs by following the next step.

3. Store your silver in an airtight container with a small sachet of activated charcoal. By storing your silver in an airtight container (such as a Ziploc bag, Tupperware, or Rubber Maid), you put a barrier between the silver and the sulphur-containing air around us. Although an airtight container is not always practical, a sachet containing activated charcoal can still help reduce tarnigh.

The activated charcoal serves as an "air scrubber", removing pollutants (including sulphur) from the air around the silver object. While much more effective in a sealed container, where no new air is introduced, a sachet can also be helpful in small display cases, silver chests, shipping boxes, drawers, and other small, enclosed areas.

Making an activated charcoal sachet is simple: Cut a square of unbleached cotton (the size depends on the size of the object, and the amount of air that needs to be cleaned; use your judgement). Fold the square over to form a rectangle, and stitch it so that only one of the short sides is open. Fill the sachet with activated charcoal, which is relatively inexpensive, and is available from pet stores (it is used in fish tank filters to keep the water clean). Stitch the final end of the sachet closed so that the charcoal does not escape. Voila!

Note that the charcoal can only absorb so much sulphur before it becomes ineffective. Replace your sachets at least once every year.

This article appeared in the January 1998 issue of New York City's Antiques News.

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