This information was originally posted in January 2010. I get so many questions about plated metals that I thought I would re-post it with a few updates.
I usually choose silver-plate over sterling silver for my metal findings (clasps, hooks, ear wires, headpins, etc) because of the cost. Making this choice allows me to keep my prices very affordable.
Many jewelry makers feel that plated metals will not hold up, that the plating will wear off quickly. I have not found this to be true. I have sliver-plated earrings that I have worn for many, many years. A few have become discolored with a patina, but most look just as they always have.
So what exactly is silver-plate? I did some research on the internet to find out for you.
Silver-plated findings are electroplated, which means a coating of 100 percent silver is chemically deposited on base metal. The silver layer is bonded to the base metal via electric current. The quality of silver-plate is determined by the thickness of the silver coating. Examples of base metals include iron, steel, copper, brass, nickel, and zinc. Nickel is a base metal that many folks are allergic to. Most of the findings I use have copper or brass as the base. Because of that many makers of findings are now using brass. The silver-plated findings that I use are heavily plated over brass. I recently purchased some new ear wires that are heavily plated silver over copper.
I have read that plated pieces will oxidize - blacken - faster than solid silver as the base metals properties overpower the plating. Again, in my own jewelry I have not found this to be true. If you damage or scratch the plating deep enough you can expose the base metal. I have never had this happen with my own jewelry. Although silver-plate doesn't carry the same "air" as sterling silver, it lasts nearly as long and is an affordable alternative.
Caring for and cleaning silver-plated jewelry:
Sulfur is the main culprit in causing silver to tarnish or turn black. You can decrease tarnish build up in between wearings by minimizing exposure to the air and humidity. Store in plastic air tight zip lock bags and add some anti-tarnish paper. Or you can use anti-tarnish cloth in the form of jewelry bags or the lining of a jewelry box. Do not place pieces in a cardboard box or on paper as they have sulfur-producing compounds in them that increase the rate of oxidation. Personally my own jewelry hangs on a rack and bulletin board in my bedroom. It is in dim light and normally is a very non-humid place. This has worked for me for many years.
In addition to tarnish-prevention, another way to avoid wearing down silver-plate is to not over-polish. Any process that removes tarnish also removes minute amounts of silver on the surface, so the less you have to polish the longer life your item will have. To remove tarnish from silver-plate you can use the same techniques that you would with solid sterling silver items.
I do not recommend using dips, polishes or pastes on your jewelry. They can be very abrasive or harsh. If your piece has stones I would definitely not use these methods as they can damage many stones. Polishes and pastes are abrasive and will remove too much of the plating with each polishing.
I do recommend using polishing cloths. I like Sunshine Polishing Cloths. They work amazingly well, are very easy and not messy. When you do polish, do not keep polishing the item just because the polishing cloth continues to discolor and turn black. When the item appears shiny and lustrous, you're done!