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  • Writer's pictureLillian

Caring for Antique Jewelry

Updated: Feb 24, 2023


How to Clean and Store Antique Jewelry

To become an antique, an item needs to be 100 years old. That is a LOT of time spent accumulating dirt and grime. As a custodian of antique jewelry, it's important to know how to care for it so it may last for years to come. Even though these old jewelry pieces have survived for over 100 years, they can sometimes be more delicate than contemporary pieces. Some of these fantastic finds need special care. It's important to note that different types of antique jewelry require different types of care. Understanding what type of jewelry you have is key in figuring out how to clean and store it. Use this guide as a starting point, and as always, if you aren't sure - seek out a professional. These cleaning techniques are also applicable to vintage or any jewelry pieces!


 

I've broken down Care tips into two categories:


Cleaning Antique Jewelry


Identify the metal and stones.

Before you start, make sure you know what materials you are working with. This is so important because the materials will determine what type of cleaning the piece can handle. For example, harder stones like diamonds and sapphires can generally handle stronger cleaning detergents. But softer, more porous/delicate materials like opals, pearls, emeralds, pastes, and enamels need significantly gentler cleaning. Different materials will have different needs. It's also important to check for any damaged settings or areas where water can become trapped, so you can avoid those areas while cleaning. Also, (this is important) If you have closed-back settings or antique glued settings, do not soak your jewelry in water.


Can I soak my jewelry in water?

If you've checked your stones to make sure they are safe to soak, and you've checked your settings to make sure you won't lose any gems, you can make a cleaning mixture (mild dish soap and water) and use a damp cloth or soft bristle brush. I sometimes will use a toothpick or sharper tool for those hard-to-reach places. If a piece is too dirty to clean with these simple tools, I highly recommend taking it to a professional who is familiar with antique pieces. OR, roll up your sleeves and get ready to work, Gently!! Sometimes jewelry has layers and layers of filth that needs to be carefully scraped away. The worst thing you can do is aggressively jab at grime to loosen it, which can damage your jewelry. Pieces with Open Back settings can usually be submerged in water. However, soaking can damage some types of antique jewelry, including jewelry with pearls, closed-back settings, cameos, portrait miniatures, hair jewelry, and opals. Submerge with discretion. :)

Avoid Submerging and scrubbing these gemstones: Amber, Pearls, Carved Shell/ Cameos, Coral, Turquoise, Malachite, Carnelian


My go-to jewelry cleaning tools:

- mix a mild cleanser like dawn with warm water (I'm obsessed with dawn- just one drop is needed)

- a microfiber cloth

- a soft bristle toothbrush (I avoid terrycloth and sponges because they can snag settings)

- a small paintbrush can also work for hard-to-reach places

- small cleaning tools, like cotton swabs or toothpicks

- a tray or pan if you are cleaning something with gems or beads (just in case you drop something!)

Pay attention to the settings.

If you have a CRUSTY piece of old jewelry, you will need to be extra careful, because sometimes the filth could be holding the gems in place. I usually soak the piece in water and then go to work with smaller tools and the toothbrush. Build-up usually cakes into open back settings and prongs because they are tiny places that are hard to clean. Never clean your jewelry over the sink; you don't want to risk loosening and losing a gem or bead to the drain. Instead, lay out a towel or tray to work over. A small toothpick or soft dental pick can help you gently scrape away any residue that has settled into your jewelry. Take your time and be careful not to pull any prongs out of place accidentally. Rinse thoroughly and make sure to dry the piece completely. Accidents happen when rushing, so take your time and be intentional. It will take a minute. If your jewel is extra crusty, you may need to work on it for hours, but it'll be worth it!


Avoid Ultrasonic / Mechanical Cleaners

Antique pieces are fragile, meaning ultrasonic cleaners are not always the best choice. If you have a solid gold chain, plain band ring, or newer solid pieces with hard gems, it's usually ok to go in an ultrasonic. However, Be very cautious putting any antique gem set jewelry into an ultrasonic cleaner, and never put jewelry with closed back settings in this type of cleaner. These cleaners vibrate, which can cause gems to become loose. Enamels and painted pieces can become brittle with age leading to damage. They should never go in these machines. If you plan to use an ultrasonic device, check to see that your settings are tight and your gems are secure. Never put pearls, opals, pieces with glue, or cameos in an ultrasonic cleaner.


Many Gemstones can be safely steam cleaned by a professional. Make a habit of asking if your jewelers are familiar with antiques.


Don't use strong chemicals.

Lol, just don't. I'm not going to write a paragraph about it. Some abrasive cleaners work wonderfully on contemporary jewelry, but I rarely use anything harsh on antique and vintage pieces, even if they can handle it.



Cleaning Antique Gold - Watch that Patina!

Many antique gold pieces are going to have a patina. This is an age-related discoloration that comes from exposure to the air. A patina is highly desirable on antique gold, and it takes YEARS to form. I personally feel that a patina is a good thing for antique jewelry. Many jewelers will use chemicals to fake a patina on contemporary jewelry for that "old gold" look, but it's never as good as the real thing! So before you grab the cleaner and the cloth, be careful not to clean that precious patina away from your antique gold. A soft cloth and gentle cleaner will usually do. Watch that patina! If you're nervous, you can spot-test clean an area on the back of the piece to see how it will look before you do the whole thing.


A silver charm, brooch and padlock
Small silver Items from Accidental Antiquarian

Cleaning Silver

Silver tarnishes pretty easily. Some people love the look of a patina on silver, and some people prefer their silver to be bright and shimmery. I prefer to "under-clean" silver rather than over-clean it. I also gravitate toward keeping a patina on an older piece. However, this is entirely personal preference, and you can choose whether or not to keep a light tarnish on your silver. There are many chemical dip-type cleaners for silver, I don't really use these unless it is for contemporary, solid silver jewelry with no gems. These dips work well if you want your silver BRIGHT and without patina. Some people like to clean silver with a mixture of vinegar and baking soda, but I prefer a silver polishing cloth. It can usually do the trick, and it will leave a nice patina in any etched or recessed areas so you can preserve the antique aesthetic of your piece! Lotions, chlorinated water, Mayo (don't ask.), and even the air can cause silver to tarnish.


Images from the V&A Museum. Two ring and a pair of iberian girandole earrings with closed back settings
Mourning Ring, Iberian earrings, and Foiled ring: all closed-back examples from the V&A museum

Closed Back Settings in Antique Jewelry

We often find closed-back settings in Georgian and Victorian pieces. Sometimes these gems are foiled, which means there is an extra layer of reflective metal between the gem and the setting. This foil can oxidize and become discolored if water gets between the gem and the setting - resulting in a "muddy" or slightly discolored appearance in the stone. Sometimes this foil has a copper base, which lends itself to oxidizing. It's very important to keep jewelry in a closed-back setting away from water and high humidity. Some antique pieces have glued split pearls and other glued gems. Be careful cleaning these and dry them thoroughly. Remember, warm water can loosen older adhesives and bonding agents, resulting in lost stones. When I need to clean a piece with a close-back setting, I will use a slightly damp corner of a cloth ONLY on the areas where water won't get trapped. It takes longer but is worth it. GENTLY working with a small toothpick, dry soft bristle paintbrush, or rubber dental picks can be particularly helpful for these types of jewelry. And, as always, if you have something very dirty or fragile, I recommend taking it to a professional. These older, closed-back items are often scarce and not worth the risk of damage during cleaning.


An assortment of silver looking steel cut jewelry.
Earrings: Accidental Antiquarian, Buttons: V&A Museum, Rare Steel Bracelet: ©Trustees of the British Museum

Steel Cut Jewelry.

Your steel cut jewelry is old and is definitely one of the antique jewelry types that need special care. Cut steel is known for its dazzling sparkle, but steel oxidizes easily. Sometimes we find cut steel jewelry in the form of beaded earrings and necklaces. Sometimes, we find it in the form of rigid, riveted pieces and shoe buckles - both forms can develop rust. I never use detergents on steel jewelry, and this is one type of jewelry that I recommend taking to a pro.

- Store in a cool, dry place

- Avoid all contact with moisture

- clean gently with a microfiber cloth, avoiding water



Cameos

Shell Cameos

Shell cameos can become very brittle and prone to cracking as they age. They require more cautious handling than hard stone cameos. Be careful not to use harsh detergents on shell cameos. I personally don't use soaps on cameos if I can avoid them. When I clean shell cameos, I use plain warm water and a soft brush. Shell Cameo jewelry can be treated with oil to prevent it from drying out. Always consult your jeweler before doing anything crazy.

Hardstone Cameos

Hardstone Cameos are usually carved from a sardonyx hard stone, which is hardier than the Shell cameo. These can be gently cleaned with a soft toothbrush and mild detergent. As mentioned, pay attention to the settings. If your cameo is prong set, be careful not to snag your prongs. If it is a closed back or glued setting, avoid submerging it in water or soaking it.

Lava Cameos

Lava Cameos are more porous and should not be submerged in water. I usually clean this with a soft dry brush first to see if that helps to loosen any grime. If deeper cleaning is needed, I'll use a damp soft bristle brush and mild detergent, paying close attention to making sure liquid doesn't pool or get trapped in any recessed areas. Dry very thoroughly and air dry for a bit as well. Sometimes, your lava cameo will look a little darker until the stone is thoroughly dry because the porous stone can retain water.

Coral Cameos

See coral below*


An assortment of coral jewelry including an amulet, scent bottle, earrings and ring
Amulet: V&A museum, Scent Bottle: Royal Trust Collection, Earrings and Ring: Accidental Antiquarian

Coral

We often see coral in antique jewelry from around the world. Sometimes coral is found in its natural branch form, and sometimes we see carved coral. Coral is a very porous, soft natural material. It needs to be cleaned carefully because it becomes very brittle as it ages. Coral comes in many colors, ranging from soft pinks and whites to electrifying reds and oranges. These bright red corals can sometimes lose their coloring with age. Coral should never be soaked in water, cleaned with strong detergents, or cleaned with ultrasonic cleaners. A soft damp cloth can be used to clean coral. Some people swear by treating coral with unadulterated cedar oil, referred to as "re-oiling" or waxing. This is done by thoroughly cleaning the coral and applying a layer of oil that seals the natural fissures and tiny abrasions in the material. I recommend consulting a pro before doing this to any antique jewelry items. Coral is sensitive to acids and excessive heat - so never use an abrasive cleaner on your coral. Avoid showering and swimming in coral jewelry- and if you're planning on sweating a lot, maybe skip the coral.



Storing Antique Jewelry:

Where you store your jewelry is important. Some stones and materials are more porous than others, and some even respond to sunlight over time. To preserve your antique jewelry, It's best to have a routine where you "put it away" in the same place every time you are done wearing it. It takes 66 days to form a new habit. I believe in you!


- Be cautious storing hard gemstones (like diamonds and sapphires) next to softer gemstones (like opals and garnets) because the harder stones can scratch the softer ones.

- Store your gold and silver separately if you can. Remember, gold is a soft metal. If you are storing gold for a prolonged period of time, you can wrap it in a soft cloth.


- Separate your jewelry pieces, so they aren't touching. It's so easy to take off your jewels at the end of the day and put them in a pile, but storing them separately will prevent unnecessary friction and scratching.


- Your storage area should be dry, dark, and cool. Places like bathrooms have a lot of moisture in the air. Be cautious of where you keep your treasures. Think dry.


- Some gemstones respond to sunlight and can fade over time. Porous gemstones can also become more brittle and prone to breakage with UV exposure.

  • opals and pearls are known to become brittle, dry out, and even crack in the sun

  • natural red coral, which we find in Victorian jewelry, is very sensitive to acid and heat. Corals are prone to fading over time and shouldn't be stored in direct sunlight

  • rose quartz has been known to fade under bright lighting

  • don't take your fragile, rare, and antique pieces to the beach

  • emeralds often have a treatment called "oiling" This can wear over time which can make the emeralds more prone to damage.

  • Avoid getting lotion and other products on your jewelry. Some stones, like turquoise, will change colors with excessive exposure to lotions.


- Most importantly, have fun with your jewelry, and don't be afraid to wear it. Don't overthink it. Just be cautious, and don't dunk your rings in lotion or mayo.



 

Image credit: JOHN BLUNT, After PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN WEARING FANCY JEWELRY

Museum images samples can be found here:







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