Ethnic Jewels

An appreciation of ethnic jewellery and adornment

I wanted to share a method I have found for cleaning Ottoman low silver, that is silver which is 30-40% real silver content.  Many Ottoman jewels were made entirely or partially in this lower silver content.  For example, the buckle I will share has the filigree top in high silver, and the frame and chain/pin closure in the low silver.   However unlike a lot of supposed low silver which is not silver at all but nickel or tin, the Ottoman low silver pieces will have 30-40% silver content and can be beautifully cleaned.  I have tested this silver and it shows as a pale green/yellow on nitric acid.  For comparison 50% silver is listed on the chart as pale green.  

When Ottoman low silver is heavily tarnished, it will look like tarnished brass.  It is impossible to remove the tarnish with silver cloth or paste at this stage, which leads many to conclude that it is brass, but it is not.  Here is an example of the cleaned low silver pin against the still-tarnished low silver frame.  You can see the frame looks just like tarnished, dull brass. 

To polish this silver, you need a two-step process.  The first treats the metal like brass, and the second like silver.  The first step is to clean in acid.  I have used vinegar and ketchup with success.  You apply acid to the piece, just like brass, but when the tarnish comes off instead of being yellow the metal will be silvery white.  Between 30-90 minutes should work, depending on how heavy the tarnish is.  Here is an example of the chain after acid cleaning. 

After the acid cleaning, you can use silver polish cloth or paste or even chemical on the piece and it will turn a brilliant shiny white.  Here is a comparison of the pin, which has been cleaned with acid and then polished with a silver cloth, on top of the high silver filigree, which has been gently cleaned with cloth. 

I hope this is useful.  While this method reduces the patina, I prefer the silver look vs. metal that appears to be tarnished brass.  There have been multiple Ottoman and Bulgarian photos posted here cited as brass, where I suspect the metal is really this 30-40% silver. 

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Comment by Lynn Ardent on December 2, 2014 at 3:38

Peter and Jan, thank you for your comments and I hope the method works for you.  I have posted another ornament which has been cleaned using just this method, with a "before" picture in the comments.  The gilt surfaces were cleaned only with acid (ketchup) with no abrasion.  The silver surface I cleaned with ketchup and then gently buffed with a rouge cloth.  I think the result is amazing.  http://ethnicjewels.ning.com/photo/greek-or-bulgarian-head-ornament...

Comment by Peter Hoesli on November 28, 2014 at 22:08
Dear Lynn; Many thanks for this advise - much appreciated and I shall try it out accordingly. With kind regards and best wishes. Peter
Comment by Jan Raymond on November 5, 2014 at 22:51

What terrific advice.  Many Indian pieces are also made of composite metals including silver so this may work on these pieces too.  I have a small collection of pieces which include glass used to emulate rubies (red), emeralds (green), blue (sapphires) which were made by villagers to emulate mogul's fabulous jewellery.  Who knows what proportion of silver is in these pieces as silver jewellery was melted down in India to create new dowry pieces. 

Comment by Lynn Ardent on October 25, 2014 at 18:55

Hi Thelma, vinegar is not thick enough to stick to the metal so if you don't want to submerge it, you would have to use another weak acid like ketchup or make a paste of vinegar and something else.  I have soaked pieces in vinegar for 30-60 minutes and not had a problem rinsing the smell off.  Vinegar is a weak acid and should not harm metal for that period of time (do not soak any organic or delicate material.)  Either way the key is that it has to be left on for long enough to dissolve the tarnish, just like cleaning brass. 

Alaa, I think the metal under the gilding varies.  I have one piece which is definitely this lower silver under the gilding, and one piece which is more likely bronze or brass under the gilding.   I don't think such a weak acid bath would harm gilding but please don't be mad at me if it does.  :)

Comment by Thelma on October 25, 2014 at 18:26

Thanks Lynn. That's very interesting. Presumably you don't submerge it in vinegar but use a brush or cloth. The only problem with vinegar is the smell it leaves behind. I often a soft toothbrush and lemon juice for cleaning stubborn bits of filigree but I don't leave the lemon juice on for very long before wiping it away with a damp cloth.

Comment by Alaa eddine SAGID on October 25, 2014 at 17:18

Very helpful method, thanx for that....i would just advise againt applying the acid method when there is enamel or in the vicinity of the cabachons!!

What about giding ? o often see these ottoman/balkan pieces being gilt or is it the bras that shines?

Comment by Lynn Ardent on October 25, 2014 at 13:55

Thanks Betty!  I hope it works.

I discovered this when I received the Bulgarian man's chest ornament and fob set I have posted.  They looked quite horrible when they arrived and were totally impervious to rouge cloth (nothing came off on the cloth.) I decided they were brass and looked up methods of cleaning brass (kitchen vinegar or ketchup.)  I was truly shocked when they turned silver.  After the soaking to remove heavy tarnish, I can been able to keep them looking nice with just a cloth.  Before the brass tarnish removal, the cloth would not pick up anything; afterwards, it turns black just like with a silver piece and they take a beautiful shine. 

Comment by Betty on October 25, 2014 at 12:55

Thanks for sharing these tricks on polishing low-silver items, Lynn.

I have quite a few pieces that I suspect to be of a similar silver content. Usually I do not like cleaning pieces to much, but sometimes there is no patina, but only tarnish ;-) Will try method and report!

Thanks!

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