Does Sterling Silver Tarnish? [Buyer's Guide]

Sterling silver makes beautiful jewelry that can quickly become some of your favorite pieces. It has a smooth, shiny appearance that is strong and durable. Despite its simple look, it does require care and maintenance because even high-quality sterling silver will tarnish.

In its purest form, silver does not tarnish. But it is brittle and can't be used for jewelry-making in this form. Fortunately, when mixed with other metals, it becomes an alloy perfect for jewelry. 

Here, we'll learn about sterling silver, why it tarnishes, and what you can do about it.   

Related:  5 Best Ways to Clean Jewelry: Spring Clean Your Pieces

What is Sterling Silver?

Silver is a precious white metal, but it's too soft in its natural state for jewelry-making. The resulting jewelry would be bendable and easily scratched, even in its finished form. So, to make durable, resilient jewelry, silver is then mixed with other metals to create an alloy. 

When silver is mixed with copper, it becomes the high-quality alloy we call sterling silver

Don't let the high sheen of sterling silver fool you into thinking it isn't real. Its purity can be identified by the '925' stamped on the jewelry. This is known as a hallmark, meaning that for every 1000 parts of the alloy, 925 parts are pure silver, and 75 parts are other metals. 

Similarly, silver bullion has a hallmark of 999, which means the alloy contains 99.9% pure silver. 

What the Word 'Sterling' Means

We think the word originates from an old French word, esterlin. This word refers to an early Norman silver penny. Alternatively, the Oxford English Dictionary says the word may have come from the old English word steorling meaning 'little star.' Historically, the Norman silver pennies had a little star on them. 

Still, another source says the name came from the past North Eastern merchants called Easterlings, who used pounds of Easterlings as currency. The term was abbreviated to 'sterling.'  

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Ensuring the High Quality of Your Sterling Silver

If you're in the market for sterling silver, don't be fooled by counterfeits. Here are a few ways to know whether or not you have a genuine sterling silver item

  • Check the hallmark. Your jewelry item should have a stamp that says 925, indicating its purity.
  • The magnetic test. Silver is NOT magnetic. If you hold a magnet near your silver jewelry, and the item is attracted to the magnet, it is not genuine. Attraction to a magnet means the item is silver-plated or silver-filled but not sterling silver! 
  • The rub test. You should see small black marks if you rub your jewelry with a soft, clean cloth. These are an indication of silver's oxidation with exposure to air. It's a good sign.  
  • The sniff test. High-quality sterling silver has no scent, but many other metals do. 

There are a few other ways to determine the quality of your silver, but these are the easiest to perform. 

Related: Polishing Jewelry: Everything You Need to Maintain Your Metal Jewelry 


Silver wedding rings hanging from a chain


What is Tarnish?

Will your sterling silver jewelry tarnish? Yes, absolutely! 

Tarnish is a type of corrosion that spreads on the surface of the silver. The most common type you'll see is silver sulfide, which appears as a dull black color. 

As earlier said, pure silver doesn't tarnish, but sterling silver does because of its copper content. The copper reacts to exposure to sulfur and air. The sterling silver oxidates and becomes discolored. Additionally, tarnishes can be made worse by cold or warm water and humility. This is why proper storage is vital to protecting your sterling silver.  

While seeing your beautiful shiny jewelry turn dark-colored is disheartening. Tarnish isn't terminal. It can be cleaned, and its progress can be hindered.   

How to Prevent Tarnish

Often, sterling silver is coated with rhodium, a precious metal from the platinum family. This coating makes your jewelry tarnish and corrosion-resistant (mostly). This coating won't stop tarnishing completely, but it will significantly help. 

Whether or not you have the rhodium coating, these tips will help to preserve your sterling silver.

  • Use a silver polishing cloth regularly. 
  • Store your silver in an air-tight Ziploc bag. This will reduce the amount of oxygen it is exposed to. Don't put all your sterling silver jewelry together in the same bag, as they can damage each other.  
  • Avoid exposure to moisture, as this will speed up the oxidation process. This also means don't wear your jewelry in hot, humid, or wet conditions.
  • Collect and use silica packets around your jewelry. These packets come with new shoes and clothes to absorb moisture. Keep a few in your jewelry box or storage bag.
  • Be gentle with your jewelry. Avoid getting needless abrasions that will accelerate tarnishing.  
  • Avoid contact with chemically-treated surfaces. Don't sit your silver jewelry on treated wood. 
  • Wear your sterling silver jewelry often. The oils in your skin help to keep it clean and hinder tarnishing.   


A tarnished silver sun pendant


How to Get Rid of Tarnish

Even though you may follow the above recommendations, you will likely still have to deal with some tarnishing. Or you may have already tarnished pieces, and you're wondering how to salvage and restore them to their original luster. 

Whatever you do to clean your silver, do it carefully. It's surprisingly easy to accidentally damage your precious sterling silver jewelry while cleaning it. For instance, some sources recommend using baking soda and lukewarm water as a mild scrub to remove tarnish. While this method may be effective, it could also cause tiny scratches. 

If you have persistent tarnish that hasn't responded to a soft cloth, try a gentle tarnish cleanser from your jeweler. 

Related: How to Clean Tarnished Jewelry: 5 Best Ways 

Yes, Sterling Silver Tarnishes

No matter the purity of your sterling silver pieces, they will tarnish. As outlined above, this happens naturally and does not signify poor quality. 

Unfortunately, there is little you can do to prevent tarnish completely. Your objective must be to care for your sterling silver jewelry from day one of having them to prevent as much tarnishing as possible.   

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