People have been admiring silver since the ancient times and used it to create jewellery and other items of wealth. Although no one can say for sure exactly when silver was first discovered, archaeologists have found the remains of silver smelting operations dating earlier that 4000 BC. In fact, until 1400 A.D., there were only seven metals known to man in total. These metals are known collectively as the ‘Seven Metals Of Antiquity’: Gold, Silver, Copper, Iron, Tin, Lead and Mercury. Mysteriously, even though silver is a rather impractical metal for making weapons and tools and neither as rare or as workable as gold, at various stages in history silver has been counted as considerably more precious of the two metals.
Unfortunately, silver is a precious metal that tarnishes very quickly and has to be looked after properly in order to maintain its beautiful pure moon-like shine. Taking care of larger silver items or new silver jewellery is significantly easier than cleaning and storing antique silver filigree or silver jewellery incrusted with gems. However, knowing a few little tricks and ways of handling antique silver makes the task rather simple.
Antique jewellery and jewellery with precious gems is delicate and requires special care when cleaning and storing. Exposure to air tarnishes silver, so storing your silver jewellery pieces in separate airtight plastic bags with anti-tarnish strips is a great preventative measure. Silver is a soft metal and the individual pieces can scratch each other, therefore to prevent your treasures from wearing on each other and scratching, they can also be stored in a cotton-lined box at a moderate temperature. Placing a piece of chalk, a packet of activated charcoal or silica gel in the storage area helps a great deal to minimize the tarnish.
Silver always reacts to chemicals, so making sure that it doesn’t come into contact with hairsprays, perfume, make up and cleaning chemicals is highly advised. Contact with wool, rubber, latex, chlorinated water and even some foods, such as onions, mayonnaise and eggs can be extremely damaging to silver and should be avoided. Skin oils can be very bad for silver jewellery too, that’s why taking your jewellery off before going to bed can be a good idea. It is also highly recommended not to wear delicate jewellery while doing sports, cleaning, gardening or engaging in any activities where your jewellery can be easily contaminated or broken.
Paying special attention to the settings around the stones and ensuring that the gems are not loose is the best way of avoiding the disappointment of losing the precious stones set in your jewellery. The moment you notice that a stone is loose, your should take your item to a jeweler for repair. When choosing a jeweler, look for a professional who is familiar with the intricacies of antiques – not that many jewelers are skilled at taking care of delicate old pieces.
When cleaning antique jewellery pieces, bear in mind that it is always better to under-clean something than to over-clean it. An item can always be cleaned a second time, but it is difficult to replace broken enamel or to restore oxidization applied to a jewellery piece as a pattern. Never clean your antique pieces in an ultrasonic cleaner as the vibrations can easily loosen stones and break delicate filigree.
Using cleaning dip-in solutions for antique jewellery and jewellery with stones is not a fantastic idea either. Those solutions contain harsh chemicals that can strip away the beauty of an old piece and severely damage the stones – diamonds, sapphires and rubies are the only gemstones that can take heat and may be cleaned with an ammonia or other strong solutions. All other gemstones have varying degrees of heat- and chemical-sensitivity and should be cleaned with extreme care.
Simply polishing silver works really well when the tarnishing is not too severe; it’s also the best method for cleaning oxidized silver items. Use a special silver polishing cloth or a lint-free flannel, microfiber, or another soft nonabrasive cloth. Using paper towels or tissues to polish your jewelry is not recommended as they contain fibers that can scratch the silver. If a light polish is not enough to bring the shine of your jewellery back or if it is heavily tarnished, a cleaning solution will be required. One of the gentle yet effective cleaning solutions for silver is a mix of white vinegar and baking soda. Wash your items in warm soapy water first and then soak the tarnished pieces in a solution of 1/2 cup white vinegar and 2 tbsp. of baking soda for a couple of hours, then rinse thoroughly with water, dry an gently polish with a soft cloth.
Particular care should be applied when handling items with porous gems such as turquoise, amber, pearls, malachite, lapis, opals, ivory, coral, shell and lava or enameled pieces. If your intricate pieces are heavily tarnished or if you don’t feel confident enough to clean them yourself, taking your jewellery to a professional is always a good solution – very old, fragile, or valuable pieces can be very difficult to clean and very easy to damage.