You love it when it shines. Here are some tips to get you ready for tarnish-free holidays.
Tasteful Decor
Small flower arrangements in silver baby cups make a big impact when clustered together.

Do you have a closet full of silver treasures you are afraid to use? Are you under the impression that the real thing shouldn't be paired with plated silver or pewter? Don't be so hard on yourself. Get your collection out, and set a stunning table.

Silver Style
There are no rules when it comes to mixing metals. You can set a table with a style of your very own. Because sterling has such a high-maintenance reputation, pair it with a few low-maintenance pieces, such as pewter. Use ornate items with simple ones, or mix new pieces with old. The looks you can create, just by altering a few elements, are endless.

Don't save your silver for special occasions--it doesn't have to be a dressy affair to create a beautiful table or vignette setting. As long as it is in good condition, silver deserves to be used. If pieces are broken, take them to a repair professional.

Plated Versus Sterling
Sterling silver isn't actually pure silver. Sterling specifies that the metal contains at least 925 parts of silver to 75 parts alloy (usually copper). Pure silver is rarely used because it is too soft. On the other hand, with silver plate, a coat of silver has been applied over another metal. Therefore it is best to use a gentle hand when cleaning, because in time you can rub the silver off to reveal the metal underneath.

While the dishwasher is a wonderful invention, it's not so great for your silver. Over time, the combination of abrasive detergents and agitating water can wear down patterns. While you might not like to hear it, old-fashioned hand-washing is best. To clean pieces by hand, fill the sink with warm, soapy water. Use a soft rag to clean silver, and dry immediately. Never let your silver sit in the water too long or wash your stainless with your sterling.

Keeping Your Silver Sparkling
There are many products on the market that will remove tarnish. We tested a cream cleanser and a spray cleanser to see which resulted in the best shine with minimal effort.

We started with the spray. This must be done in a well-ventilated area because the fumes are pretty strong. Working in sections, we applied the cleanser, and using cotton gloves, we buffed the items to a shine. It took a little elbow grease, but after a quick rinse, we were pleased with the results.

With the rest of our silver, we used the cream solution. Using a sponge that came with the cleanser, we applied a small amount to the leftover pieces. We repeated the steps, then rinsed the silver with warm water. Once thoroughly dried, we compared our two methods. While pleased with both results, we preferred the final look from the cream cleanser.

You may be tempted to settle for a dip method of cleaning, but both commercial and homemade recipes are often considered too aggressive. The solution will remove the tarnish in the crevices and intricately detailed areas that add character to silver.

Every time you polish, abrasives take a thin layer of the surface off of silver. Repeated polishing or cleaning with chemicals will gradually eat away at the plating, surface decoration, engraving, and monograms.

Storage Solutions
Tarnish is caused by sulfur in the environment. Actually, the tarnish isn't harmful to silver at all, aggressive polishing is. To slow down the tarnish, keep your silver wrapped in silver cloth or in a zip-top plastic bag. For larger pieces, use a dry-cleaning bag; let out the air, and tie both ends.

Silver cloth is available at jewelers and fabric stores and is filled with compounds that absorb sulfur gases. The cloth will lose the compounds over time; washing and reusing it is not advised.

Flea Market Finds
Who knows what treasures are out there? At flea markets they often pile random pieces in large plastic tubs. Whether you're looking for an odd serving piece or a napkin ring with your initials, collecting silver can become a fun hobby.

"ABCs of Silver" is from the November 2003 issue of Southern Living.