Silver and gold, two of life’s finer pleasures. In a previous article, we talked about how to identify real gold. Now, let’s talk about silver! Caring for silver objects is a bit more complicated than gold, because real silver tarnishes. What are some of the best ways to clean and polish silver, and how do you identify real silver? We’ll talk to an expert who’s been dealing with silver for decades.
We spoke with Perry Null, owner of Perry Null Trading Company, one of the largest and most reputable trading posts in Gallup, New Mexico. Surrounded by the Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and other reservations, Gallup is ground zero for Native American silver. Perry has been in this business since the 1970s and has personal relationships with hundreds of artists, who trust him with their creations. Every day, Perry evaluates numerous silver artifacts that were crafted earlier in the 20th century, even as long as 100 years ago, when silver items were unmarked and silver quality varied widely.
When it comes to silver, you’ve probably heard that “sterling” is the best. Even sterling isn’t pure: sterling silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals, primarily copper. That’s because pure silver is too soft for most uses. The words “sterling” and “pound sterling” have a long history! Around 775 AD, silver pennies were known as sterlings, and 240 of them made a pound. Then in 1158, King Henry II introduced the Tealby penny with a 92.5% silver purity as the standard.
When an item is 90% silver or less, it’s commonly referred to as “coin silver.” In times past, sterling was too expensive and/or too difficult to come by. Perry says, “Long ago, American silversmiths simply melted coins to make jewelry. Later, Navajo smiths sometimes added pennies to melted silver to stretch it out a little, which turned sterling into coin silver or worse.” In Europe, due to economic stresses and shortages, silver jewelry made during or shortly after the world wars was usually coin silver.
When identifying a “silver” item, first look for a stamp. Nowadays, many (but not all) countries require silver to be stamped with its purity level. Sterling, at 92.5% silver, is stamped as “925,” “.925,” “SS,” “sterling silver,” or “sterling.” Some of my Danish jewelry from the 1930s and 40s is stamped “830” and thus is coin silver—83% silver. It looks and feels slightly like tin and weighs less than sterling.
If your silver isn’t stamped, your best bet is to take it to a jeweler for evaluation. To test it yourself, you can try a neodymium magnet. Silver and gold aren’t magnetic, so if your jewelry is attracted to the magnet, it’s probably plated. If Perry Null wants to test a silver item for purity, he uses a drop of nitric acid, which immediately turns the item green if it has a high copper content. Coin silver turns black, while pure silver stays a creamy color. If Perry thinks an item is plated, he scratches it with a safety pin in an inconspicuous place and then applies the acid.
Does It Matter?
Sure, you might want to know that your jewelry is silver and not junk metal. But whether it’s coin silver or sterling, does it matter? It’s usually only a few percent difference. And remember that not all plating is bad. Most contemporary sterling jewelry is now plated in rhodium, which offers some advantages: Rhodium plating looks like white gold or platinum, and it prevents your jewelry from tarnishing! Native American artists, as well as Tiffany & Co., don’t plate their silver.
Unplated real silver tarnishes. Silver exposed to air contains a small proportion of hydrogen sulfide. This causes it to gradually darkens. You can watch this process by taking a piece of silver and putting it in a ziploc bag with a freshly boiled egg, cut in half. As hydrogen sulfide escapes from the egg, the silver tarnishes in minutes! To clean larger, highly tarnished objects like silverware or platters, you can start by applying Tarn-X, which essentially reverses that chemical reaction. Use gloves and work in a ventilated area. But Tarn-X leaves your silver a little yellowish, so follow up with a silver polishing cloth to bring out the shine.
Polish Your Jewelry
If you love the patina that develops naturally on silver jewelry, then leave it as it is! Perry Null notes that silversmiths sometimes intentionally oxidize pieces for a rich, antique look. But to polish your jewelry he says, “Don’t use something like Tarn-X, which can damage stones. Instead, use a polishing cloth. It’s safer and that’s what we use.”
Store Your Silver
Store your silver properly and you’ll rarely need to polish it. Perry Null recommends wrapping silver tightly in plastic bags. I store my silver in anti-tarnish cloth, which works by neutralizing the gasses that cause tarnish. I’ve sewn small bags for bracelets and I’ve even lined shadow boxes with it, so I can display my Native American jewelry without it tarnishing. Enjoy your silver!
Shop for silver testing/care products:
- Neodymium magnet
- Silver testing acid
- Silver polishing cloth
- Polishing cloth
- Oxidized sterling silver earrings
- Plastic storage bags
- Anti-tarnish cloth
Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.
Crista Worthy writes about aviation, travel, wildlife, and more from her home in Idaho.