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

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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