How To Store And Clean A Sterling Silver Charm Bracelet
Silver in its purest form is soft and flexible, so it is usually alloyed with one or several other metals in order to harden it and make it possible to create jewelry pieces that can hold up to a bit of wear and tear. Sterling silver, a mix of 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper, is the most common alloy, and while pure silver can retain its natural luster for a long time, the addition of copper causes it to tarnish quicker which, incidentally, is a significant characteristic of sterling silver.
Why Does Sterling Silver Tarnish?
The copper reacts to pollution and humidity in the atmosphere, as well as many other elements such as salt, acids, perspiration, certain foods (eggs, onions, etc.) and materials (wool, silk, latex, leather, etc.) which results in darkening and oxidization.
One way to get around this is to electroplate sterling silver pieces with rhodium (a silvery-white precious metal resistant to corrosion). It helps protect them from natural tarnishing and they will maintain their silvery luster over a longer time. On the downside, the rhodium will eventually wear off, and it scratches easily. There is also the fairly new invention, Argentium sterling silver, where some of the copper is replaced with Germanium, a highly tarnish resistant metalloid which also adds more hardness to the silver. But, because there still is some copper in the jewelry, it can tarnish. It depends on the body chemistry of the wearer.
As for "regular" sterling silver jewelry, you can reduce the amount of tarnish by wearing it daily (except for in the shower, when swimming, while cleaning, washing hands, putting lotion on, etc.), and storing it the right way when not in use. Always store pieces individually in a cool dry place wrapped in archival tissue in an airtight bag (Ziploc bags are perfect) or in good quality jewelry storage with partitions and a protective lining to avoid any contact with other pieces that may scratch or blemish them. Rubber corrodes silver and may permanently damage raised engravings so always avoid storage with rubber components. Polishing your silver with a soft jewelry cloth before putting it away will help it keep its natural shine and protect it from dirt and chemical build ups which may cause immediate tarnishing and corrosion.
Heavily darkened pieces can be restored to their natural patina by mixing baking soda and salt in an aluminum foil-lined glass pan (the aluminum foil acts as absorbent material for the tarnish). Add enough hot water to cover the jewelry, add in the jewelry pieces and let sit for a few minutes. Pull out the pieces, rinse, dry and polish with a soft cloth. This process removes hardened dirt and grime, even in the tiniest nooks and crannies of a sterling silver charm bracelet with its minute elaborate details.
Note: Do not use this method if your jewelry has gemstones, pearls, or crystals. Also, boiling them can create tiny pits, so only do this on non-heirloom or inexpensive jewelry pieces. A gentler way is to put (non-gemstone) bracelets in warm water with a few drops of dishwashing liquid and rub with a q-tip or baby toothbrush, then rinse with water and dry with a soft cloth.
For silver pieces with inset pearls or gemstones, use a rouge cloth, or if that doesn't do the trick, dip a q-tip in soapy water and use it to only clean the silver parts of the jewelry. Pearls (and porous stones like turquoise, amber, emerald, etc.) in particular get damaged very easily, so if it's possible, try to only use the cloth. Never ever put the entire piece into the water, because it can damage the stones.
A very quick and easy way to clean inexpensive smaller flat pieces (like rings, findings etc.) is to rub regular white (not gel) toothpaste on them (use a baby toothbrush if they have patterns) and then rise with water. Many jewelers frown on this method, but it works like a charm. I do it all the time (but again, only on items I could easily replace).
Finally, in the case of very valuable or heirloom pieces, the best thing to do is to take them to a professional to have them cleaned. A small scratch on a $15 silver ring isn't really that much of an issue, but on a designer charm bracelet worth thousands of dollars, or a priceless heirloom, any little nick is a major disaster.
Having said all this, I think tarnishing is part of the charm of silver jewelry, so rather than constantly taking it back to its white lustrous look, I only clean my silver when it is absolutely necessary, and then leave it to develop some discoloration - it only adds character to the piece.