For all of its timeless appeal, silver is a bit of an outlier. Gold, platinum and other precious metals resist tarnishing, and while copper shares the tendency to discolor, it gains a regal green patina; silver turns a chalky shade of black when exposed to oxygen.
So why is silver so adored? The most obvious reason is its beauty. Silver’s luster is incomparable. But it may go deeper than that. “Silver is an amazing commodity,” says John Rivers, a Charleston-based collector who has assembled one of the most notable personal collections of historic Charleston, South Carolina silver in the country. “Throughout history, its anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties have led it to be used for medicinal purposes. It apparently doesn’t transfer disease, which is why, during the times of plague or viral disease outbursts, silver was used to craft doorknobs, flatware and chalices. It’s said to be the reason one does not get sick after drinking from a communion cup at church. It’s better to sip than dip!”
John’s expertise in silver has come from years of collecting antique pieces made in Charleston, South Carolina — and making a few mistakes along the way. “Don’t ever wrap your silver in newspaper,” he warns. “The chemicals in the print can cause irreversible stains and smudges. I found that out the hard way
Fielding Freed, who is responsible for the care of Historic Columbia’s collection of primarily 18th and 19th century pieces, says that creating a microclimate unfriendly to tarnish is the best way to keep silver sparkling for generations. “Every time you polish, you’re actually removing a bit of the silver,” he explains. “It’s really all about keeping the silver from tarnishing in the first place.”
To create a tarnish-snuffing microclimate at home, Fielding suggests storing pieces that aren’t used every day in bags made from fabric impregnated with silver. “They really do work,” he says. “If you have a number of large pieces, you might want to consider purchasing the fabric by the yard and using it to wrap the pieces.”
Silver at Historic Columbia is polished once a year by University of South Carolina history students. It’s a painstaking process requiring gloves, calcium carbonate, distilled water, cotton t-shirts, cloth diapers and lots of elbow grease. “We use calcium carbonate because it’s the least abrasive substance that will take off tarnish,” says Fielding. “We make a paste with distilled water, polish with the t-shirt, rinse with more distilled water and dry with the cotton diapers. The gloves keep the oils on your fingers from reacting with the silver, which could cause a permanent fingerprint to appear on the surface of the silver. It’s quite a process.”
Some experts use lacquer on freshly-polished silver to keep it shiny, but Fielding considers that risky if you plan on using it instead of displaying it. “If the piece is dropped and the lacquer cracks, you’ve opened the place for oxygen to get between the silver and the lacquer,” he explains. “You end with tarnish that you can’t get to because it’s under the lacquer.”
It’s not just experts who have to figure out how to keep precious silver heirlooms looking their best. Margaret Wyman has a collection of silver platters, bowls and other pieces that date back generations. “I come from a line of only children, so I ended up with a lot of family pieces,” she says with a laugh. “They all have stories, so each piece means so much to us.” Margaret swears by storing her silver in the thick plastic bags that usually package new bedding. Just be sure to store it in a cool climate, like a silver closet.
To keep her silver gleaming, Margaret covers a work surface in towels and gets to work with silver polish, coating a few pieces at a time, rinsing and drying them before moving on to the next set. One of Margaret’s most important tips is to keep from twisting pieces as they’re being polished. “It’s so easy to hold onto the bottom of a candlestick or goblet and turn the piece as you work,” she explains. “Silver is so soft, that twisting motion will eventually cause the base to separate from the top,” she cautions. “You might also bend the base.”
Besides sulfur, which is what reacts and causes tarnish, silver’s other “Achilles’ Heel” is salt. “If you have silver salt and pepper shakers, empty, rinse and dry them as soon after dinner as you can,” she instructs. “Salt is corrosive and will pit silver faster than anything.”
Kay Durham, a nationally-recognized silver expert who is a founding member of the South Carolina Silver Society and served as the organization’s first president, agrees with Margaret about salt. “It causes irreparable damage,” she says.
Born to a mother who loved silver, Kay grew up surrounded by beautiful trays, pitchers and other pieces; in 1991 she took her interest to the next level and completed the courses necessary to become an appraiser. Today, in addition to knowing how to care for all types of silver, she provides valuations for estate and insurance purposes. Over the years, she’s heard horror stories about silver care. “People use toothpaste, which is entirely too abrasive,” she says. “I’m also against those homemade dips that people use in their sinks. They’re very, very harsh. If you want your silver to last, you want to polish it with the mildest, least abrasive product you can find.”
Kay uses a two-step process to keep silver looking its best. She starts with a thorough polishing, using either Scotchgard™ Tarni-Shield™ or Hagerty® Silversmiths’® Polish. “You can use a soft toothbrush to get into the crevices of a repoussé design, but be sure to use a clean one to get it all out,” she notes.
For pieces that stay out, Kay keeps an eye on them. “After about two weeks, when they start to turn that vaguely brassy color, just dust them with one of those special tarnish removing cloths or mitts,” she says. “You’ll eventually have to polish again, but not nearly as often.”
To store silver, Kay also relies on silver cloth bags and fabric as well as tarnish-reducing strips from 3M and Hagerty®, all strategically placed to keep oxygen from reaching the silver. “If flat silver is wrapped in bags or fabric, I often store it in shoeboxes,” she notes. “The strips are good to use in drawers or cabinets.” Although Kay doesn’t recommend storing silver in plastic, her real issue is with plastic wrap — and excessive temperatures.
“A friend of my mother’s wrapped her silver goblets in plastic wrap and put them in the attic,” she says. “When she took them out to use them, the plastic had literally melted into the silver. The goblets were ruined.” For that reason, Kay cautions against storing silver anywhere that isn’t climate controlled. “A hot attic or a damp basement is not a good environment for storing silver,” she notes.
Al Crabtree, who owns The Silver Vault and The Brass and Silver Workshop in Charleston, has also heard, and dealt with, horror stories about plastic wrap. “It’s the worst mistake you can make,” he says. He’s also against what he calls “homebrews” that silver owners mix up in their sinks to remove tarnish from a lot of silver at once. “It takes all of the coloration out of the crevices, so the silver looks flat,” he says. “You want the high spots to shine and the low spots to be a little darker, which sets off the pattern.”
Like Kay, Al relies on Hagerty® polish, although he often uses the spray variety, and treated cloth bags for storage. “If you wrap silver carefully in acid-free tissue paper, I think it’s okay to store it in a plastic bag,” he notes. “Just be sure to check it every few months to make sure it’s not reacting to anything and that no moisture has gotten into the bag.”
For picture frames, trays and other silver pieces that are often displayed but don’t come into contact with food, Al recommends wax. “Microcrystalline car wax or paste wax will keep air and sulfur, which is what causes tarnish, from reaching the silver,” he says. “Try Butcher’s® Boston Polish Amber Paste Wax. It lasts forever.”
Whether silver is old or new, fancy or plain, experts agree on one thing: using it. “I applaud people who use their silver every day,” says Fielding. “It gains character that makes it beautiful.”
Will the Dishwasher Ruin Silver?
There will probably never be a definitive answer about whether the dishwasher ruins silver or not. Kay Durham doesn’t like the white film it leaves on silver; Fielding Freed says his mother, who uses her silver flatware every day, routinely puts it in the dishwasher. But every expert cautioned against using the dishwasher to clean knives. Not only can the heat loosen blades from handles by melting the glue, but, according to Al Crabtree, if water leaks into the hollow handle of a knife, the drying cycle could cause it to turn into steam — and cause the handle to actually explode.
It’s advised to run the dishwasher immediately after putting silverwear in it so that the salt from the food and people’s hands does not corrode it. When unloading it, wash your hands, or put on gloves, to keep the salt and oil from your skin from the silver. Wipe each piece down with a soft rag before storing to ensure there are no lines from water drops.