When it comes to jewelry, prevention can go a long way to preserve pieces and keep them looking like new. Understanding the whys behind some of the questions commonly asked is helpful to prevent or avoid damage. Tarnished jewelry can sometimes be the reason why people won't wear their pieces because they think it will require too much work to get it back to its previous state. But if you know why its happening you can in part slow down the corrosion process or even prevent it.
Why does jewelry tarnish?
You'll need to start by understanding that all jewelry metals contain alloys. Metals like gold tend to be too soft for jewelry hence why they must contain alloys. Even platinum will contain small amounts (about 5-10%) of alloys. For gold, as the numbers get smaller (18kt, 14kt, 12kt, etc) the proportion of gold decreases while the proportion of alloys increase. Copper and silver are commonly added as an alloy to strengthen metal and it is the alloys that are corroding.
So how does understanding that help? Well it helps because corrosion is a state of the metal disintegrating whereas tarnish is only the top metals layers reacting. Tarnish simply put is a form of corrosion. Corrosion typically occurs under wet conditions. Tarnishing though is most often seen in sterling silver jewelry which is softer than gold and contains 7.5% copper and silver alloys. Fine silver on the other hand tarnishes less often because it only contains 0.1% alloys. Sterling silver reacts with sulfur compounds, which is present all the time in our air thanks to hydrogen sulfide gas. It can also react with products we wear containing sulfur compounds, which only speeds up the tarnishing process. Keeping all jewelry dry is important to prevent corrosion and even more so for sterling silver jewelry. A cloth comes in handy as well since wiping down your jewelry before you store it can help prevent additional corrosion as well.
How should you clean tarnished jewelry?
There are many suggestions on how to clean tarnished jewelry and it in part depends on if the piece is sterling silver or costume/fashion jewelry (which contain more base alloy metals). In my opinion the best and easiest way is a silver polishing cloth. You can purchase one on Amazon for under $10 and you don't need to worry about getting the piece wet. Do not use silver polisher though! These can be abrasive, cause jewelry to actually tarnish faster, and some gemstones can't handle it. If you wipe down your jewelry with polishing cloth before you store it you generally won't have to worry about it being deeply tarnished. If you do, taking it to be professionally cleaned is your best bet.
There's no reason to be afraid of purchasing certain metals because at some level, all jewelry metals corrode. I'll be writing another post soon on my favorite polishing cloths so keep an eye out.