As we pull out our silver flatware for Thanksgiving celebrations, now is an excellent time to assess whether your current silver storage will keep your sterling flatware safe and in good condition for your children and future descendants. As an appraiser I have seen far too many sad situations where family sterling was ruined by being stored in improper conditions, always by well-meaning people who unfortunately lacked the knowledge about what storage situations are dangerous for sterling silver's chemical properties. I hate having to tell people that their silver is damaged beyond repair, so please consider this post an Appraiser Public Service Announcement to take this opportunity as you clean up from the Thanksgiving holiday to make sure your silver is safely stored.
Silver is highly chemically sensitive. While most of us have buried our memories of high school chemistry far back in our minds, it's useful to dust off a bit of it to reconsider our sterling flatware in a new light. When you polish tarnished silver, you are actually rubbing off part of the silver itself and exposing a new surface layer, which is why polished silver appears shiny and fresh. That's one of the reasons that engraved designs on old, well-loved sterling can sometimes appear worn and faint--they literally have been rubbed off through decades of regular polishing. Every time you polish the tarnish off your silver you are destroying a little bit of your silver, so it's very important to minimize the opportunities for tarnish and reduce the amount of polishing needed.
Tarnish is a chemical reaction between silver and sulfur elements in the air that combine to form a coating of silver sulphide (the dark substance we call tarnish) on the exposed surfaces of silver items, which is why safe silver storage is focused on inhibiting the ability of air to access the surface of sterling items. (For anyone who is interested in the chemical equations and detailed information about the reaction, this educational website may be of interest: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ed077p328A?journalCode=jceda8)
Have you ever wondered how museums keep the silver items on display in their collections looking so shiny? A common technique in the museum world is to polish the silver item just once and then coat it with a protective lacquer that keeps sulfur from reaching the surface. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a fascinating page online about how their conservation team lacquers and protects their silver items: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/silver-conservation/
Clearly, it's not so practical to expect your dinner guests to eat off of lacquered sterling flatware, so the storage solutions that are better suited for use by private citizens include silver flatware boxes and bags. In my experience as an appraiser, I've found fitted wood flatware boxes to keep silver flatware in the least tarnished condition, although the V&A's conservation article cautions that the baize fabric used in some fitted boxes can emit tarnish-causing sulphur. It's important to be careful that the box lining will provide a stable environment for your flatware.
Silver manufacturers often sell their own branded fitted silver boxes but it's not necessary to match the box to your pattern's company. Retail prices for new, empty fitted boxes start at about $30 for the lowest quality models and average around between $100 and $150 for branded models. Sometimes older boxes can be purchased secondhand on eBay and at other similar venues for a discount.
Silver bags are another option for protecting sterling items from tarnish and are well-suited for hollowware items that don't fit in silver flatware boxes. Made of a soft felt-like material and drawstring closures to keep out the air, silver bags also serve to inhibit the exposure to tarnish-causing compounds in the environment. The cloth of some models is embedded with materials to neutralize sulphur. Silver bags are generally less expensive than fitted boxes and can readily be purchased online. For a flatware service, I would recommend investing in a fitted box over bags, but the bags are still a much better option than many storage conditions I see in my work as an appraiser.
The following are things NEVER to do with your silver:
-DO NOT put plastic wrap around your silver to remove access to air. The plastic wrap causes a chemical reaction with the silver, eventually turning it a putrid yellow color that can't be fixed. While in theory this seems like it would be a good idea (i.e. air is bad so cover the surface from air), the materials in plastic wrap cause their own vicious reaction with the silver items that is much more harmful than the sulfur in the air would have been. I've had to give the bad news to numerous people who've used plastic wrap on their silver and it is terribly unpleasant to have to do.
-DO NOT use rubber bands to bundle your silver flatware, or have rubber bands anywhere near your silver. Rubber bands also cause a chemical reaction that eats away at the silver. I've seen bundles of sterling flatware where the rubber band has literally eaten a scooped channel out of the flatware handles at the point of contact.
-DO NOT ever let salt come into direct contact with your silver. Have you ever wondered why silver open salts always have blue cobalt glass liners? That's because salt causes a chemical reaction with the silver (are you sensing a theme here?) and eats away at the item. It's rather the same principle as the gardening practice of pouring salt on slugs--it does the same thing. Silver salts need the cobalt glass liners to provide an impermeable barrier between the salt and the silver's vulnerable surface. Similarly, it's not a good idea to serve very salty foods in silver bowls without having a protective bowl in between.
-DO NOT store your silver in newspapers or plastic bags. While not quite as catastrophic as the materials mentioned above, newspapers and plastic bags also activate chemical reactions in the silver and contribute to deteriorating condition. Twentieth century newspapers are made of wood pulp and are highly acidic (it's not a good idea to store anything in newspapers).
-DO NOT store your silver in a location that isn't climate controlled. Here where I'm based in Virginia, temperatures range from over 100 degrees in the summer to almost 0 degrees in the winter. It's not a good idea to put your silver through all those fluctuations, not to mention our infamous local humidity. Attics are not healthy places for silver, or antiques in general.
-DO NOT put your silver in the dishwasher. There are several schools of thought about this, with some firmly in the pro-dishwasher camp, and while you likely won't notice immediate damage if a fork accidentally gets in the dishwasher, it's not a good long-term practice. The advent of dishwashers in many ways brought about the demise of regular use of beautiful china and silver flatware, but for special occasions it's not such a headache to spend a few extra minutes hand-washing your family heirlooms. You can always bribe another family member to do it with promises of pie...
Do you have family silver and are interested in having it insured? Silver is one of my favorite things to appraise and I often prepare appraisal reports for clients for insurance coverage of their silver. Limiting the appraisal to just the silver makes it a very affordable product and provides insurance protection for what are often some of the most expensive items in a household. If you are thinking of getting an appraisal report for your silver, please feel free to call me at 703-543-2567 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'd be happy to prepare a complimentary estimate for you.
FOR ADDITIONAL READING:
Winterthur published a very interesting description of their silver lacquering process: http://www.winterthur.org/pdfs/Silver_Coating.pdf
S.J. Shrubsole has a good article on their website about care and cleaning of silver: https://shrubsole.com/news/?p=96 Shrubsole is one of the top silver dealers in the world and they have always been very helpful when I contact them for retail pricing input on silver items in my appraisal assignments.