Caring for your silver is easier than you may think. For most of your silver, the simple solution is to use it!
When you use your silver, hand wash and dry it, you do 95% of your polishing. Use a gentle, non-acidic (no lemon scent) dishwashing liquid. Washing and dusting unused silver will also help. Not everyone has silver. If you are lucky enough to own it, use it and enjoy it! Museum quality pieces should be treated with respect while you enjoy.
Tiffany's 1894 Blue Book recommends using 'Castile' soap to wash silver. Castile soap, originally from the Castile region of Spain, is a generic term for soap made from olive oil. It can be easily found today, and a natural, non-acidic (no citrus added) variety would be very good for daily use on silver.
Tarnish is a combination of oxidation and sulfidation. Since oxygen is found naturally in the air and sulfur is an industrial pollutant also found in the air, the less your silver is exposed to air the less tarnish you will see. Keeping flatware in a drawer or chest with anti-tarnish lining helps. Using an enclosed display cabinet will also slow the tarnishing process.
Storing unused items in anti-tarnish bags will also be helpful. Even closing windows helps. Do not use saran wrap or other plastic on your silver – chemicals can leach from the plastic into the silver, permanently damaging the surface.
When we exhibit at shows, the most common question we hear is: "What do you use to polish your silver?"
No need to over polish your silver. One of the delightful things about silver is how it reflects light. A little patina, or tarnish, in recesses next to polished highlights, gives the surface texture and depth. Lightly polished silver is one of the prettiest things in any home.
To polish your silver, we recommend Wrights/ Weiman Silver Polish. (It has been called both at different times.) It is non-abrasive and has tarnish inhibitors. It is excellent for everyday use. Wrights/ Weiman Silver Cream is mildly abrasive and good for tougher jobs. The Silver Cream is the pink paste which comes in a tub that is widely available in supermarkets (although we usually find it cheaper at Wal-Mart). The anti-tarnish Silver Polish is no longer easy to find in stores but easy to find online. You may want to buy a 6-pack carton to keep it handy.
Both these products are non-toxic and safe to keep around the house. (Although, like any household product, please keep secure from young children and pets.)
Other makers make good polish – Haggerty, Goddard, etc., so this is not an exclusive recommendation. Just be sure to use their non-abrasive polish. We have used Wrights over the years and been happy with it.
Please rinse your silver carefully after polishing. (Polishes can be mildly corrosive to your silver if left on for extended periods.) Dry with a soft cotton cloth.
Do not use toothbrushes; they can scratch your silver.
We do not recommend the use of liquid tarnish remover.
'Dip,' as it is colloquially known, will remove all tarnish so that any surface, even surfaces where we like to see patina, will be cleaned. This gives fancy silver an overall bright, white look with no depth or clarity of design.
Technically, it works by chemically removing the oxidation from the surface of the silver, but over time it will permanently damage your silver. Using dip will physically change the surface of the silver by chemically altering the silver and copper content of the metal. The effects are cumulative - you may not notice it at first, but the damage is done with every application. We've all seen painful examples of the yellow/brown surface created by this. Please don't do this to your silver.
The use of lacquer on silver has gone in and out of fashion over the years.
On the positive side: Lacquer is inert and does not harm silver. It is reasonably clear and covers the silver with an airtight seal, so it does not need to be polished.
The negatives include: Silver doesn't develop its rich patina under lacquer. Over time lacquer degrades. It turns yellow. Conservators say modern lacquer will not yellow, but they were saying that 25 years ago and that lacquer is now changing color. (In fact, we recently saw some silver that was lacquered during the seventies that had developed a rose-colored hue. That was funny looking silver!) As lacquer degrades and gets used, it is prone to cracking and chipping. This means black areas develop on otherwise white (or yellow) silver, making it look unsightly.
While lacquer can be helpful in specific museum settings where curators and conservators can control the process, it makes little sense for most collectors.
The biggest problem most collectors face with lacquer is that it takes a skilled silversmith to prepare the silver and lacquer it, and it takes caution when removing it.
So often, fine antique silver winds up with an unskilled silversmith whose goal is to make it look new again. And that is how silver gets ruined. Polishing to 'make new' removes the patina, color, and surface that makes each piece unique. If you lacquer your silver, what happens when it goes to its next owner - who knows what they will do? If you do lacquer your silver, make a plan so that it is treated well when it is time to remove or re-lacquer it. Or have the lacquer correctly removed before you deaccession your piece or collection.
Gilded silver, which has a thin layer of gold applied to the silver, should not need much polishing since gold does not easily tarnish. Because this layer can be tiny, you should be careful about polishing.
Polish as little (and as lightly) as possible using only nonabrasive polishes. Tiffany's 1894 Blue Book suggests gently rubbing gilding with an ammonia moistened linen cloth when occasionally necessary.
Gloves are excellent to use for light polishing or cleaning. We use them to remove fingerprints at shows and for other light polishing jobs.
One caveat: gloves get dirty. Small particles can scratch your silver. Please keep them clean and change them.
Acids, alkali, and sulfur can be corrosive to silver, and simple steps will help your silver stay clean. Salt and eggs are the two main culprits, and this is why most objects made for use with them are gilded. Salt cellars may have glass liners; if so check to make sure no salt gets between the liner and the silver. Other salt cellars should be emptied and then washed when not in use. Egg spoons, ice cream spoons, etc. should be washed as soon as practical after use.
The most elegant interiors use silver candle holders. Candlelight creates a truly wonderful environment, and a few easy measures will keep your candle holders happy.
Use your bobeches! Bobeches, or nozzles, are the (usually) removable receptacles on the top of your candlesticks or candelabra where you place the candles. When putting candles in your holders – remove the bobeche, place the candle in it, then place the bobeche back in position. This significantly reduces stress on the holder. Not doing this is the chief cause of broken candelabra arms.
When polishing, remove the bobeche and candelabra arms. Polish them separately. Place the candlestick upright and hold in place while polishing. Polish the candelabra arms gently – they are delicate.
A tip for removing problem wax buildup: if rinsing with warm water is insufficient, put it in the freezer and then try removing the wax.
Old knives with carbon steel blades are the sharpest knives available. But they do require care so they will not rust. Whether silver plated or not, always hand wash and carefully dry your knives or they will rust.
We found this advice from Oneida silversmiths on a circa 1930's knife bag:
CARE OF KNIVES!
Keep knives ALWAYS in a DRY place. The blades of all knives are steel. These are heavily plated with silver, but no amount of silver plate will entirely prevent rusting of knife blades if they are left where moisture can attack them. Continuous use does not harm knives, as much as improper care. Therefore, wash, rinse and dry thoroughly after use, then - KEEP THEM DRY.
ONEIDA COMMUNITY, Ltd., Oneida, N.Y.
Dishwashers are not good for silver. Granular detergent is too abrasive for silver (and older gilded porcelain). Chlorine can damage the surface of the silver over time and give it a yellowish hue. Heat is harmful to knives. At worst, antique knife handles can split into pieces. Many handles become loose and some part from the blade. Most modern knife handles are made to be dishwasher safe, old ones (before 1970) should NEVER go in the dishwasher. (And obviously, the same for carbon steel blades.)
If you must use the dishwasher, there are a few safeguards you should consider. First, use a non-acidic liquid detergent. Second, keep silver and stainless separate – they can permanently stain each other. Third, use a gentle cycle. Last, hand dry your silver. This will keep chlorine and other chemical residues from baking onto your silver and damaging the surface.