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The Importance of Caring for Your Jewelry Collection
Justin Krall, G.G. P.G., A.J.P.
September 16, 2005
Most jewelry owners will have their jewelry cleaned when they are visiting a jewelry store. The clerk will place jewelry in an ultrasonic cleaner that uses hot water, detergent, and high-frequency ultrasonic vibrations to loosen dirt. After a few minutes in the ultrasonic cleaner, the jewelry is subjected to high-pressure steam from a steam machine. The heat and pressure from the steam removes the majority of oils and dirt that collect from daily wear.
Having jewelry cleaned by your local jeweler is usually very fast. Most jewelry stores do it as a service to their clients for free while you wait, and for prospective clients as a good way to give you time to spot that “must have” item in their display cases. If there is a fee, you should expect to pay between $5.00 and $15.00 per item. If during cleaning your jeweler suggests some work needs to be done such as simple polishing or resetting a stone, you should always get written documentation of what you are leaving with them, what needs to be done, how much it will cost and how long it will take.
The problem, of course, is finding the time to visit a jewelry store on a regular basis. The security risks of regularly removing all your jewelry from the safety of your home and carrying it through the streets can also be a deterrent. Few people can afford to purchase ultrasonic and steam machines, which can cost over $1,000, but if you prefer to clean as much of your jewelry as possible at home, there are effective ways. First, be aware that some jewelry is inherently fragile and some is not. Most diamond, sapphire and ruby jewelry for example, is relatively robust and can usually be safely cleaned at home. On the other hand, opal and emerald jewelry, and almost all antique jewelry, can easily be damaged and should be cleaned by you local jewelry professional.
Liquid jar jewelry cleaners sold with a basket and a small brush will remove most of the oils and dirt. These are effective cleaners but although the jar will say otherwise, it is not a good idea to use these store-bought jar cleaners on anything but diamond-only jewelry – that is, diamonds set in gold or platinum with no colored side stones. The jar will probably say that it is safe to let jewels soak for up to 15 minutes, and in the case of diamond-only jewelry even with 15 years of soaking there would be zero chance of damage to the diamond. The chances of damage start to creep up with other stones however, because while often almost as hard as diamonds, few stones have as high a resistance to chemicals.
As stable as they are, there is one precaution about diamonds that has to do with fracture filling. Fracture filling is an acceptable practice as long as it has been disclosed to you at the point of sale. If you are not sure if your diamond has been treated you must ask if the jeweler to try and detect any fillings. If a jeweler places heat to a diamond for any reason, for example when soldering to repair a prong, the filling inside the diamond could possibly burn and become impossible to repair. When in doubt always have a professional make sure there are no treatments. If your jeweler is not sure, try to bring it to someone who can be.
Overall, the safest possible method of hand-cleaning jewelry, particularly that which includes colored stones, is to soak it in warm water and liquid ivory or other mild, chemical-free soap. A soft child’s toothbrush can be useful for getting into the crevices. Jewelry that has acquired a substantial dirt buildup may require several minutes of hand scrubbing, or soaking in the solution for a period of time. It’s worth it though, because the “build-up” will dull the appearance of the gem by taking light that should be returning to your eye in the form of brilliance and letting it out through the bottom instead. Remember that a brief and gentle cleaning weekly or bi-weekly will reduce the need for a lengthy and vigorous one less often. You should periodically check the prongs on any diamond or other gemstone jewelry before soaking or scrubbing for long periods of time. If all is well, feel free to soak and scrub your diamond and cut gemstone jewelry until you see no dirt. As an aside, be aware that it is acceptable for some softer stone like turquoise to move slightly in the prongs, but diamonds, and other hard stones like rubies and sapphires, are so hard that with each movement they are actually taking a slice out of the prong and they will eventually cut through! As always, if you are uncertain as to whether that wiggle in your mounted stones is a problem, take it to a professional.
Toothpaste, which is slightly abrasive, is another effective material that some people use to clean jewelry. Small, ultrasonic jewelry cleaning machines are also available for home use. These cleaners are very effective and can be used with hard stones such as ruby and sapphire, but fragile gold and silver pieces, antique jewelry, enameled jewelry, pearls, turquoise, opals, or emeralds should never be cleaned in them, and foil-backed stones and emeralds are always best cleaned by professionals.
Emeralds, by nature, have numerous tiny fractures and it is an accepted practice in the trade to “oil” them with colorless oil to hide the fractures and give them their beautiful transparency. Colored oils however, artificially increase the green coloration of the emerald and are not acceptable. A reputable jeweler should inform a client when an emerald has been treated with dyes so that they can make an informed decision about buying. Cleaning a stone that has been artificially enhanced with colored oil could, understandably, result in the loss of some color. For this reason emeralds are best cleaned by a professional, and a knowledgeable professional should not use any heat from a steam machine or an ultrasonic cleaner that uses hot water.
Pearls should be cleaned on a regular basis, if not after every use, but the cleaning of pearls should not involve the use of any liquids. Also avoid contact with any type of common chemicals such as hair spray, or perfumes. Even natural oils from your skin can eventually be harmful to pearls because they are a porous and absorbent gemstone. If possible, wipe down the pearls after each use with a jewelry cloth or soft tissue paper. Strands of pearls are best stored flat in your jewelry box rather than hanging. This will prevent the silk from stretching and reduce the need to have them restrung too often.
Opals require special care and are one of the most common gemstones to be cared for incorrectly. One common misconception is that opals need to be rubbed or soaked with olive oil or some other type of household oil. This gives the surface of an opal a temporary shine while at the same time clogging the gem with oil that will eventually make it appear dull or lose some of its phenomenon called opalescence, or play-of-color. The best option for cleaning opals is to take them to a professional. Even there, you will probably notice the opal placed and soaked in sterilized water – not placed in the ultrasonic cleaner. You will also notice that opals are never placed under the steam machine because opals should not be exposed to long periods of high temperature. This could cause the opals to craze (tiny surface fractures) or even break completely.
Turquoise jewelry is another gemstone that requires regular care. It too, would react badly to steam and very hot ultrasonic cleaners. Pieces of turquoise could actually explode and turn the remaining pieces brown. Turquoise is also very susceptible to discoloration by perspiration and cosmetics. Once again warm soapy water or just a gem cloth would be safe for home cleaning. If you need further cleaning, as always, bring it to a professional.
There are many more gemstones that that can be cleaned at home and also many more that need professional care. As time goes on and technology gets better, each gemstone will have new treatments, new synthetics gemstones will get better, and caring for them will be even harder. Antique jewelry is in a special category all its own and in almost every case it is recommended to bring your antique jewelry to a professional. Even the slightest damage or alteration to antique jewelry could seriously diminish the value of that item.
So the rules are, scrub cut stones in simple mountings, wipe down your pearls and turquoise, take emeralds, opals and antiques to be cleaned by a jeweler. But the most important rule of all is when in doubt, consult a professional before cleaning your jewelry.
Justin Krall offers free gemstone cleaning tips. Contact him at Justin@baystateappraisers.com if you’d like his advice.
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