If you’re fortunate enough to own any antique silverware, perhaps a family heirloom or an investment piece, you will want to ensure that its appeal, value and beauty lasts for as long as possible. It can be quite tricky knowing how to keep it looking its best without damaging it.
This guide will show you how to safely store your precious silverware items to keep them in excellent condition for many years, including which containers can prevent damage and which can accelerate the tarnishing process.
What harms antique silverware?
Silver reacts with a multitude of chemicals located in air, food and water, which makes it a stubbornly difficult metal to protect and maintain. If you wear silver jewellery, you may have noticed how quickly they can tarnish. I’ve had a lot of rings and necklaces tarnish and look really grubby. Silver sulphide is the chemical term for tarnish, which is the yellowish colouring (light tarnishing) or black film (heavy tarnishing) that you can see on silver that hasn’t been protected or polished. I never know how to fix it, so I usually just stop wearing that particular piece of jewellery. Although not difficult to remove, tarnish can’t be washed off with water and soap, so it’s worth investing time into protecting your silver during storage to save frequent cleaning.
According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, silver tarnishes much quicker when damp, which shows that airtight containers and maintaining adequate levels of humidity are key to preserving your antique silverware. So, avoid putting these items in a damp cellar or stuffy attic. It’s a great excuse to have them on show in your home. Also, to store your silverware safely, it’s often best to use an airtight container and place it somewhere in your home that is safe from oxygen and external pollutants that cause the production of silver sulphide. For example, opt for a cool, protected place — such as a sideboard or drawer in your spare room — away from windows.
However, it’s not always external influences that can harm your silverware — each piece of silver can damage the other if not stored properly! Pure silver is soft, which means each piece can easily scratch and dent each other, if not kept apart during storage. This is probably why a couple of my necklaces look scratched when I’ve been so careful with them keeping them in a jewellery box.
Storage options for your antique silverware
According to English Heritage’s Guidelines for the Storage and Display of Archaeological Metalwork, you should look for a silverware container that is made from materials which don’t give off sulphur pollutants.
Here is a selection of safe storage solutions to keep your silverware safe from damage and tarnishing:
- Acid-free tissue paper and sealed polythene bags: make sure you squeeze the air out before sealing and add silica gel to absorb any excess moisture.
- Airtight chests or boxes: able to keep humid air and oxygen away to protect silver collections from tarnishing. However, this can take up a lot of space and, if you accidentally choose an airtight container made from a harmful material, you will trap the problem inside with your silverware.
- Anti-tarnish bags: available in a range of sizes and ideal for smaller silverware items. But avoid plastic bags — these will trap moisture and expediate the tarnishing process.
- Cloth rolls: compact way to safely store silver items individually, especially cutlery. However, this method leaves silver exposed to the air and you must make sure that the fabric isn’t harmful to silver.
Remember, each piece of silverware must be kept apart so that they don’t scratch each other. This means getting a storage box that has separate shelves and grooves (e.g. to keep cutlery isolated) or using individual bags, cloth rolls and tissue paper for each piece of silver and placing these slightly apart in their storage compartment (i.e. not stacked on top of each other).
Displaying your antique silverware
However, the above recommendations aren’t your only options, and you should feel free to have your silverware on show, if that is what you’d prefer. There are some beautiful, glass-doored display cabinets available to store your silverware in an attractive fashion — after all, part of the enjoyment of antique silverware is its ornamental characteristic!
Items such as silica gels, chalk, and anti-tarnish strips can help decrease humidity in a container and absorb harmful gases that react with silver. Also, you can buy microcrystalline wax polish to use on your silverware items that you wish to display to help protect them from humidity, dust and pollutants. Precious items stored in places such as the British Museum and Tower of London also use this type of wax to help preserve important artefacts!
What to be wary of when storing your silverware
Guidelines for the Storage and Display of Archaeological Metalwork also claims that the following materials can adversely affect your silver and that you should avoid using them for storage:
- Rubber (i.e. rubber bands).
- Anything polysulfide-based or containing pyrite and rubber.
- Stained or treated wood.
The chemicals found in treated wood can harm silver and speed up the tarnishing process, while ink in newspapers can corrode your silver. However, you can avoid this by using anti-tarnish bags, acid-free tissue and untreated wood coated with anti-tarnish lacquer. I didn’t know that wool would damage the silver, I think this is where I’ve been going wrong!
Hopefully, this guide has provided solid advice on safely storing your silver to protect it from damage and tarnishing. If you’re lucky enough to own any antique silverware, you can protect it properly now. Remember to decide whether you want to store or show your antique silverware, and then take steps from there to ensure your precious items maintain their beauty and value.