What's the Best Way to Polish Sterling Silver Jewelry?

Mar 26, 2014

In November and December of last year, I sold a number of sterling silver earrings in a local shop.  That's the good news.  The bad news?  The few unsold pairs came back heavily tarnished.  It's not the end of the world, but it has made me pause and rethink my idea of making more of this particular line of jewelry.  Like most jewelry makers, I want to spend most of my time making jewelry, not polishing it.

To help me decide what to do, I talked with Michelle Buettner of MiShel Designs.  Michelle's work has been published in several magazines, including her handmade ear wires, which were included in the "beads to buy" section of the winter 2013 issue of Jewelry Stringing.  She reminded me that one of the benefits of using sterling silver rather than other metals is that it's sturdier.  She notes, "If you nick or mar it, you can usually buff it with a file or even some steel wool and keep on working."

As for the tarnishing, I can almost hear the sigh in her voice when she says that the process of keeping silver shiny is "a never ending task."  She recommends storing your jewelry in airtight zip-closure bags with a little piece of anti-tarnish tissue or paper to keep it bright for several months. She also said, "I have found that both .999 fine silver and Argentium sterling silver tarnish much slower than .925 sterling silver.  Those two metals, although a little pricier than .925 sterling silver, are good alternatives if you want to keep that bright, shiny, white-metal look a bit longer without as much upkeep."

How to Polish Sterling Silver Jewelry

Currently, I use multiple ways to polish my silver jewelry, depending upon where I am (home or away), how quickly I need something polished, and the number and type of item I'm polishing.  This isn't a complete list, but simply the methods that I personally use most often to polish silver:

  • Polishing cloth
    I tote these to photo shoots for the jewelry books I work on so that I can give jewelry a quick polish if needed.  These cloths are lightweight, portable, and affordable.  They work best for items that aren't too heavily tarnished. The Sunshine Polishing Cloth is one popular brand.
  • Liquid jewelry cleaners
    I like how quickly these solutions work: you simply dip the items into the liquid and pull it out a few seconds later.  (You usually need to rinse it in cold water and pat dry after you pull it out.)  I find that some of these have an unpleasant, chemical smell, so I use them only in a well-ventilated area.  The version I use has a little basket to hold items as they are dunked in the solution.  This is great for larger pieces, but does not work well for jump rings and small pieces.
  • Paste or silver polish
    The nice thing about this option is that you might already own it if you have silverware pieces in your kitchen or dining room.  I find it can be difficult to get the cleaner into the corners of filigree or small chain. I tend to use this on large, flat pieces such as plain discs.
  • Foil and baking soda
    I learned about this earth-friendly solution from Beadwork senior editor Jean Campbell.  It uses inexpensive, easy-to-find materials such as foil and baking soda.  It does take a little time to set up and work, so I wait until I have several items to polish and do them all at once.
  • Tumbler
    This is Michelle Buettner's preferred method.  It can be a great time-saving method in that while your items are in the tumbler, you can be doing other things (making more jewelry?).  You do need to take care not to put very soft items in the tumbler or they may get damaged.

I'd love to hear other ideas!  What's your favorite way of polishing sterling silver?  Or do you stick to using other types of metal in your jewelry designs?


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Comments

on Mar 28, 2014 11:40 AM

What a great article Michelle! Thank you so much for contacting me to help you with this - that was certainly a treat!  I do like the tip you received from Beadwork's senior editor, Jean Campbell, on the foil and baking soda method. It's a great alternative to chemical cleaners as far as certain pearls, softer gemstones and/or delicate art beads are concerned. We certainly wouldn't want to harm any of the beautiful beads in the creations we worked so hard to make.  Thanks again!

Cheers, ~Shel~  Michelle Buettner, MiShel Designs

on Mar 29, 2014 7:01 AM

What about the stones and/or beads used in the jewelry designs, is it safe to use the baking soda technique for removing the tarnish?

I have noticed some of my earrings and bracelets need polishing, but I don't want to harm the beads.

on Mar 29, 2014 7:04 AM

Pretty silly of me, my question would have been answered if I had just kept on reading Michelles' comment.

Wendalore wrote
on Mar 29, 2014 9:44 AM

Regarding sterling silver—such a wonderful metal!!

Have you ever used Renaissance Wax? A product "invented" (concocted?) in England to preserve museum pieces, such as ancient knives and armor, it keeps sterling silver from tarnishing for a very long time, depending on how much use it gets. It wears off eventually with use. Also, it comes right off in hot water.

I ALWAYS have a little can of Renaissance Wax in my house. I love it!! To apply it, use a fleece cloth and polish it right off with another part of that cloth, or a different one. Each coat you put on makes it last a little longer. If you are going to sell your sterling bracelets, yes, it takes more time to "Renwax" them than if you don't, but when you bring the unsold pieces back home, they won't be black!  

You can also use it on gemstone beads, such as Jasper, Agate, Jade, Lapis, Citrine—all that good stuff! for a soft glow. It won't actually give a glow to an unpolished stone—it just enhance the beauty of the ones that are already shiny. You can use it on pearls, too.

It smells of white spirits, pretty strongly. The white spirits off-gas, leaving the micro-crystalline wax. If I'm doing a lot of work with it, I might wear a mask, or gloves, but the company says it's not toxic. You can even use it on your sterling silver table-wear!

You can Google Renaissance Wax, as it is sold in a variety of stores, on and offline.  Dennis Blaine is the distributor for the US. I "met" him online while I was searching for something else, and that's how I found out about it. If you Google him or "Restoration, Conservation, Preservation Products," you can find him that way. I don't work for him, honest! I love using Renaissance Wax so much that when I hear someone complain about tarnished silver, I think I'd better share this information with them.  One more thing—you might THINK it's pricy because it comes in a small can (the smallest size) but one can will last you a long time—you'll be surprised!

Wendalore wrote
on Mar 29, 2014 9:50 AM

Regarding sterling silver—such a wonderful metal!!  This product I'm about to discribe isn't for polishing silver, it's for preventing tarnish from forming once it is polished.  I think you can use it to polish silver somewhat but it would be less work to use a product designed to that.

Have you ever used Renaissance Wax? A product "invented" (concocted?) in England to preserve museum pieces, such as ancient knives and armor, it keeps sterling silver from tarnishing for a very long time, depending on how much use it gets. It wears off eventually with use. Also, it comes right off in hot water.

I ALWAYS have a little can of Renaissance Wax in my house. I love it!! To apply it, use a fleece cloth and polish it right off with another part of that cloth, or a different one. Each coat you put on makes it last a little longer. If you are going to sell your sterling bracelets, yes, it takes more time to "Renwax" them than if you don't, but when you bring the unsold pieces back home, they won't be black!  

You can also use it on gemstone beads, such as Jasper, Agate, Jade, Lapis, Citrine—all that good stuff! for a soft glow. It won't actually give a glow to an unpolished stone—it just enhance the beauty of the ones that are already shiny. You can use it on pearls, too.

It smells of white spirits, pretty strongly. The white spirits off-gas, leaving the micro-crystalline wax. If I'm doing a lot of work with it, I might wear a mask, or gloves, but the company says it's not toxic. You can even use it on your sterling silver table-wear!

You can Google Renaissance Wax, as it is sold in a variety of stores, on and offline.  Dennis Blaine is the distributor for the US. I "met" him online while I was searching for something else, and that's how I found out about it. If you Google him or "Restoration, Conservation, Preservation Products," you can find him that way. I don't work for him, honest! I love using Renaissance Wax so much that when I hear someone complain about tarnished silver, I think I'd better share this information with them.  One more thing—you might THINK it's pricy because it comes in a small can (the smallest size) but one can will last you a long time—you'll be surprised!

Scssrwzrd wrote
on Mar 29, 2014 10:30 AM

But she doesn't tell you what the tumbler method is, or am I missing it?

joyc804 wrote
on Mar 29, 2014 4:15 PM

I do what they do in Mexico......I polish with toothpaste.  It's great when you are traveling or need a quick touch-up.

floozette wrote
on Mar 30, 2014 12:28 AM

I also wondered what was meant by the 'tumbler method' but as I am not a jewellery maker figured it was not very important to me.  I tend to use the foil and baking soda method or an ultrasonic cleaner but I find the latter not very good.  I liked Wendalore's comment - my husband is a woodworker and used Renaissance wax so I might be able to snitch some and try it on my silver. As I get older I find the cleaning of tableware to be something of a chore.

HOOC wrote
on Mar 30, 2014 4:52 AM

I have found with my personal jewelry that the liquid silver cleaners, while quick and effective at removing tarnish, permanently affects the silver somehow in that once you use it, the item tarnishes much quicker and so you have to keep using it (like nasal spray if over-used!)

I may have read somewhere that those solutions strip the silver of some coating or finish? While that may be a "Renwax" layer in some cases, with repeated use, it seems to strip the silver itself of its shininess, leaving it porous and etched looking.

I like the idea of prevention first, through sealing and/or air-tight storage, though I'd like to learn more about the tumbler option, as that is something I was just inquiring about for polishing gemstones, and a jeweler friend told me they use their tumbler to polish silver.

KarenZ@10 wrote
on Mar 30, 2014 8:44 PM

I have found out, that if you keep your silver in a velvet bag, it will not tarnish as often. I have silver, silverware that I have not used in over 10 years and the silver has not tarnished after all this time. So why keep polishing and rubbing silver to keep it shiny when a simple thing as velvet will make the job much easier for you.