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The vast majority of my work is created using two precious metals: Argentium sterling silver and 14 karat gold-fill. Very occasionally I will use fine silver, which is 99.9% pure elemental silver.
Argentium® is a new alloy of sterling silver that was developed in Great Britain in 1996. The name is derived from the Latin name for silver, Argent; it is not related to Argentina! A key feature of this new type of sterling is that it is naturally resistant to tarnish. It can still tarnish, but does so much more slowly.
For centuries, sterling silver has consisted of a mixture (an alloy) of silver and copper. In the US, sterling silver is defined by the Federal Trade Commission to be at least 92.5% silver. The remaining 7.5% is usually copper. Argentium is 93.5% silver, and the remaining portion a mixture of copper and germanium (another metallic element). When properly treated, Argentium will form a clear layer of germanium oxide on the surface of the metal, which helps protect the silver and copper from reacting with sulphur compounds to form tarnish (silver sulfide and copper sulfide). Argentium can still tarnish in certain circumstances, but in general it is far superior to ordinary sterling silver and for most people is easier to care for.
Not to be confused with gold-plate, gold-fill materials have a center core of brass to which a minimum thickness of karat gold is bonded. This material is regulated in the US by the Federal Trade Commission; gold-fill must be a minimum of 1/20th (by weight) of the stated karat gold. This layer does not flake off or wear away with normal use. All the gold-fill wire I use is 14 karat and nickel-free.
First things first. YES! You can get your jewelry wet! Argentium silver, in fact, will benefit from regular washing in hot soapy water. No kidding! When you wear your jewelry, it is exposed to skin oil, lotions, make up, chemicals in the air, dust in the air, etc. Basically, like the clothing you wear every day, your jewelry gets dirty. Wash it! Dry the surface with a soft cloth or paper towel, and allow to air dry further before storing in an enclosed area.
If you find that after washing your pieces, they are still dull, or even have tarnished (it does happen with Argentium), you can use any silver cleaning method you prefer. The polishing cloths you can find at hardware stores works fine, and may be all you need. Should you choose to use the liquid Tarn-X, please do so carefully, and not at all if your jewelry contains turquoise. This liquid is quite harsh, and actually removes a layer of silver from the surface. You may find that the tarnish is gone, but the piece has become dull. You should wash it again in soapy water in order to remove ALL of the harsh chemical, then BUFF the piece with a cloth (an old t-shirt would work well here). Essentially you will need to polish the jewelry after using the Tarn-X.