Caring for Your Antique Jewelry

Jewelry is always one of our most prized possessions whether it’s newly made, an heirloom passed down through the generations, or a fabulous vintage or antique piece that you discovered while on vacation. We all love our jewelry and want it to last through our lifetime and for generations to come. Antique jewelry, which is defined as any piece 100 years or older, or vintage jewelry which is 40 years or older, will require special care to keep it at its finest. Because these older pieces are more sensitive, how they are cleaned and stored will make a difference in how they hold up over time. We have some pointers to help you keep your antique/vintage and even newly made pieces at their sparkling best.

Jewelry Care Don’ts

As a luxury item, jewelry likes to live a life of luxury, what does that mean? It means that your jewelry likes a life of leisure and there are certain times when you should not wear it.

Do not wear jewelry when you are doing housework. Pieces could be damaged by chemicals in cleaning products, or you may accidentally bang your rings or bracelets against something while cleaning and break or chip a stone, or dent/scratch the metal. This includes necklaces that may get caught on something if you bend down while cleaning, which could cause the chain to break.

Do not wear jewelry when you are working out.  Jewelry is sensitive to sweat and oils from your skin, which believe it or not, can harm your jewelry. Also, if you lift weights, or even heavy boxes for that matter, that activity could cause your jewelry to break or the metal to dent or become very scratched. Also, bracelets or chains on necklaces may break if they get caught on something.

Do not wear jewelry when you are gardening. You may have your hands in dirt, or you may expose your jewelry to gardening chemicals that may be plant friendly, but not jewelry friendly. Also, if you have a loose stone that you don’t know about, you definitely don’t want to have it fall out in the flower bed where you may never find it again.

Do not wear jewelry when you are swimming. Whether it is the ocean or the pool, you should avoid wearing jewelry in those situations, even though we have seen many movie stars doing it, in real life it doesn’t work out so well. Chlorine can corrode metals and mar gemstones and saltwater can also corrode metals and stones. Due to its copper content rose gold is particularly susceptible to damage from saltwater or even saltiness in the air, such as at the beach.

Do not wear jewelry when you are cooking. Heat is bad for some gemstones, plus if the metal in your jewelry heats up you could get burned. And again if a loose gemstone falls out you don’t want to have to dig through your dinner to find it.

Do not wear jewelry when showering or sleeping. You want to avoid getting soap, shampoo, conditioners or other products on your jewelry, plus the prolonged contact with water is detrimental to the piece. If you sleep in your jewelry, you may break or in some way damage the piece while you are moving as you slumber.

Do not clean antique or vintage jewelry in an ultrasonic cleaner. The vibrations of the ultrasonic cleaner can be trouble for antique or vintage jewelry, causing stones to loosen or dropout of the setting, it can also dent a piece, or damage soldering that holds the piece together.

Do not submerge antique or vintage jewelry in water. Water can be damaging to jewelry. If you have an antique piece with a foiled closed back setting and it gets wet, it could (read that as will) irreparably ruin the item.

Do not use commercial jewelry cleaners. The jewelry cleaners that you buy over the counter in the drug store may be very harsh and damaging to an antique piece.

Do not use toothpaste or denture cleaner. Neither of those two items is appropriate for cleaning jewelry. Both are too abrasive and could harm stones or metal.

Do not clean jewelry over the sink with the drain open. Make sure you have a plug for your drain so that if you drop your piece it doesn’t get lost in a pipe somewhere. Who can forget the time JLo dropped her pink diamond ring down the drain in LA’s Ivy restaurant the first time she was engaged to Ben Affleck? It can happen to anyone.

Jewelry Care Do’s

It is important to inspect your antique or vintage jewelry on a regular basis. Be a detective and check for wobbly stones, broken prongs or fastenings that may be bent or loose. Some experts suggest using a magnifying glass to check your jewelry for any damage as well as to get a better look at where dirt may be hiding so you can better clean it. Others advocate gently prodding the stone with the tip of a straight pin to see if the stone is loose, you’ll be able to tell because the stone will jiggle in the setting. 

Do have your jewelry inspected and cleaned by an expert. It’s a really good idea to have your jewelry examined by a jeweler who specializes in antique jewelry to make sure that all the clasps are intact and that there are no loose stones, broken or bent prongs. You may also want to have the jeweler professionally clean your piece — just make sure that your jewelry won’t be going into an ultrasonic cleaner.

Do use a soft, lint free cloth to clean your jewelry. It really is okay to gently polish a piece of jewelry with a soft cloth to remove surface dirt, oils and fingerprints. You may also use a soft bristle toothbrush to gently clean pieces. Dip the toothbrush in a solution of mild soapy water, an unscented castile soap, for example. Use about a half teaspoon of soap to two cups of room temperature water. When using the toothbrush to clean your jewelry, be very gentle and do not apply pressure. Remove the soap and water with a soft damp cloth and then dry your piece with a soft cloth. It is important to be sure the soap is fully removed and to dry each piece thoroughly.

Do put on face creams, make-up, hairspray and perfume before you put on your jewelry. Any of those items may contain ingredients that are harmful to your jewelry, in some cases those products may even stain certain gemstones, such as turquoise, coral or pearls. Keep your treasures safe by putting them on after your beauty products.

Do store your jewelry properly. The key to proper jewelry storage is to make sure that the pieces are all protected. If you have the original box, keep it, especially for the antique pieces, it adds value. But more than that it protects your jewelry. You may also consider purchasing a jewelry box with compartments that will allow each piece to be stored individually. You may also store your jewelry in a pouch, or small plastic baggie. Store earrings so that each one has its own baggie or pouch. This way you avoid scratching stones or metal. When you store a pendant on a thin chain, let the chain dangle outside of the pouch or baggie and then close it, this method will keep it from tangling. Keep your jewelry in a cool, dry place. Overly heated or frigid environments are not good for jewelry.

Pearls, Opals and Other Special Cases

Some gemstones are more sensitive than others and require the “very important jewelry” treatment. Pearls, opals, moonstones and emeralds fall into this category. With these stones it is imperative to avoid exposure to chemicals, ultrasonic or steam cleaners to avoid damage.

Pearls are not a stone, they are organic matter,  and they are quite soft and delicate. Clean pearls with a soft barely damp lint free cloth. Then wipe them down with a soft dry, lint free cloth. If you are cleaning a pearl strand do not get it wet as it can ruin the necklace. If the string gets wet, there is the possibility that it could mold and also cause the pearls to mold. When wearing pearls put them on after you have applied your beauty products as they can damage the pearls. When storing pearls make sure that they do not rub against each other as it can ruin their luster.

Opals are very delicate. Opal is made primarily of silica and water, making it very susceptible to changes in temperature. If opals are stored in a place that is too hot, they will dry out and crack. So it is especially important to keep them in a cool, but not cold, place. It is okay to clean opals with room temperature slightly soapy water and dry thoroughly.

Emeralds have many fissures that occur naturally and are part of the beauty of the stone. They are generally treated with an oil to fill in the fissures. The oil can dry out if not stored properly away from heat.

Moonstones like temperatures to be stable. Temperatures that change suddenly or are too hot, may cause a moonstone to break.

One of the best ways to keep your antique, vintage, or contemporary jewelry at its beautiful best: Make it the last thing you put on when you get dressed and the first thing you take off when you get undressed. With proper care, your jewelry will last you a lifetime and the lifetime of generations to come.

Authored by Amber Michelle