There are few materials more precious than the fine china, glass, crystal, and silver that's been passed down for generations. Since the finest dinnerware and serveware is usually tucked away in a cabinet until it's time to celebrate a special occasion or host for the holidays, you may think you only have to buff these heirloom pieces right before it's time to serve. Experts, on the other hand, say you should be taking stock of these items more regularly—especially since you don't want to be caught with tarnished serveware hours before it's time to set the table. To avoid this scenario, we're walking you through the steps to keep your finest items in tip-top shape all year long.
Of all the fine materials housed in your china cabinet, silver is one of the most elegant and temperamental. This metal is easily tarnished when it's exposed to air and light, but that doesn't mean you can't restore it to its former glory. From flatware to plates, cleaning silver just requires a little elbow grease and a soap water bath. Whatever you do, don't submerge any delicate design elements, like wood or mother-of-pearl. While soap will clean silver's surface, there are a few other ways to really make this reflective surface shine.
The other elements of your collection, such as china, crystal, and brass, can also be restored, but require a bit more effort and know-how. Here, we share expert-approved tips to make sure your special pieces are looking their best for the entertaining season ahead.
To fight future tarnish, wash items after dinner and store them in cotton cloth or bags. If it's humid where you live, experts, such as Lally Brennan of Commander's Palace and Mary Ferguson of Greyfield Inn, suggest bundling the cotton in plastic bags or wrap.
Most glass can go straight into the dishwasher, says James Murray, vice president of design and creative at Simon Pearce. Just make sure your machine is in good shape—rusty prongs can scratch, so if they look worn, buy new rubber tips. And be sure to space your pieces out. Certain products can help prevent cloudy water marks. Hand-wash vintage stems and pieces with gold detail—and take off jewelry before you roll up your sleeves. "Diamonds and bracelets can break glass," says Lori Hedtler, owner of Devonia Antiques.
Unlike glass, crystal items need to be hand-washed: Rinse each glass in warm water and a teaspoon of white vinegar to remove tannin and lime deposits, then hand wash and dry with a soft cloth, says Céline Sanchez, brand director for crystal maker Saint-Louis.
The beauty of this material is that it tarnishes very slowly—all it usually needs is a light dusting, even if it's been stored away for years. But because it's soft, it's vulnerable to scratches. Italian pewter manufacturer Match advises its customers to removing them with metal polish or grade #0000 steel wool; then hand-wash in warm, soapy water and dry right away. After dinner, wash solid pieces and any with crystal or glass components by hand.
If you have hard water, hand-wash the rest of your delicate items, too. Otherwise, ceramic items with pewter trim can go in the machine on the china or gentle setting, with no heat-dry. Let them cool before taking them out (the materials can contract and loosen from the heat). To prevent scratches, store stacked pieces with plate separators or paper in between.
It's sensitive to temperature changes, so if your porcelain spends the off-season in storage, give it time to adjust, says Hedtler. "Say your dishes are in an unheated attic. Let them sit in the garage for a day or two before you bring them into the kitchen. Otherwise, the temperature shift could cause crazing [lines in the surface] or a crack. Even 20 degrees matters." Hand-wash vintage porcelain, taking care with the edges. That's the rule for hand-painted or gold-trimmed plates and bowls, too.
That said, some porcelain is dishwasher-safe on the light-wash or china cycle, says Daniel Da Silva, USA president of Portuguese porcelain maker Vista Alegre. Check for markings on the bottoms. For safekeeping, place a linen or felt protector or a paper towel between plates, says Hedtler, and don't stack more than 12.
Some modern brass types are lacquered and don't tarnish. Unlacquered brass, however, is similar to silver in that it develops a patina when exposed to air. If you want a high shine, rub brass polish onto the surface using a polishing cloth or mitt, then buff it gently, advises Tina Frey, founder of Tina Frey Designs, a maker of resin and brass tableware. After dinner, hand wash pieces in warm, soapy water using a soft cloth, and store them in a climate-controlled part of your home, away from humidity.