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March 28, 2013

Care and Maintenance: Silver


Jewelry is not for every guy, but it is still important to know a thing or two about caring for sterling silver. Those heirloom cufflinks from your grandfather or that awesome vintage tie bar you picked up in a thrift shop won’t polish themselves.

In the US, anything that is called sterling and/or silver is required by the FTC to contain at least 92.5% pure silver and will (almost) always be stamped with ‘925’ to denote that it isn’t just plated. The stamp has been in use since around the 14th century, but became a federal mandate with the passage of the National Stamping Act in the US in 1906. So, with few exceptions, anything you happen across in a vintage store that was made in the US should have ‘925’ on it somewhere if it is actually silver. I have never seen it personally, but occasionally you may see a piece marked ‘92.5’ which amounts to the same thing.

Tiffany & Co stamped sterling silver ring

While in the US, a 925 quality stamp should always be accompanied by a trademarked maker’s mark, there are a wide variety of regulations around the world. Many European countries mandate quality stamps, but there is no universal system. There is a huge assortment of quality marks, hallmarks and makers’ marks, often in conjunction with each other.

Sterling silver Irish claddagh with multiple hallmarks

Occasionally, you will run across a piece that is stamped with either ‘silver’ or ‘sterling’ or sometimes even without a stamp. In this instance, there are a couple things you can do to see whether you have sterling silver or something else. First, there are silver testing kits that you can get from a jewelry supply store. These are usually acid based and will be able to tell you definitively if something is sterling silver. The other thing you can do is the magnet test. This will not be able to tell you if something is silver, only confirm if it is not, because silver is non-magnetic so it won’t react to a magnet.

Vintage handmade bracelet stamped 'sterling'

While it all may seem a little confusing, the good news is that sterling silver will, for the most part, take care of itself as long as you treat it right and use it often. Remember how I said that sterling is 92.5% pure silver? The other 7.5% is usually copper which makes it a surprisingly durable alloy. While it will scratch, silver will stand up to a surprising amount of abuse while still maintaining its integrity.

If you don’t wear your silver frequently, it will eventually tarnish. There is no shortage of products on the market that you can buy to restore the shine to your silver and I am sure they work (some better than others). A silver polish cloth is great for on the go, but my years apprenticing for a gold and silversmith taught me a few tricks that don’t cost anything.

Tarnished silver ring

Most of the silver polishes out there share a main ingredient with something you probably have under your sink – ammonia. The shop that I worked in never used commercial silver polish. Instead, a soft bristled toothbrush and a small bowl of Formula 409 will do the trick every time. Dry and buff with a microfiber towel and it’s good as new.

If you have silver that, for whatever reason, got dirty and needs to be cleaned, it is best to use warm water and a mild dish soap. The dish soap will cut any residual oils without damaging the silver (the same reason you should use it to handwash wool). After you wash it, be sure to towel dry the silver to avoid spotting. This is more of an issue with something that has larger areas of flat surfaces, like a tie bar, but it only takes a minute so I would recommend drying all your silver pieces after washing.

Tarnished ring after a quick cleaning

Even though it’s an alloy, silver will still scratch. Rings and bracelets that take a lot of abuse are more likely to show their wear than a necklace or tie bar. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because if you have a daily wear piece, it will start to acquire a unique character and patina that will make it uniquely yours. If something really near and dear to you gets severely dinged up, there is hope. A good silversmith can restore almost anything to like new condition.

There’s nothing too complicated or intimidating about caring for silver. All it takes is a little knowledge and your silver accessories will last a lifetime.

Stay stylish,
- JJ

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