Just like anything else you wear, your jewelry needs consistent cleaning. However, there are special considerations for different jewelry types, especially antique jewelry. Read on for advice from M.S. Rau’s team of experts on how to clean jewelry and keep your collection of antique jewels in pristine condition.
Why is Cleaning Antique Jewelry Important?
To be “antique,” a piece generally has to be at least a hundred years old. A lot of wear can happen in that time! Antique jewels from the Renaissance era as well as regency jewelry can continue to dazzle with a little dedicated upkeep. Due to the age of antique jewelry pieces, they are often delicate and require a gentle hand in their care. There are even many substances you may use day-to-day that can cause your jewelry piece to deteriorate gradually, but that can be avoided with proper jewelry cleaning. From different types of earrings to types of brooches, it is essential to take extra precautions when cleaning these antique works so as not to cause any damage in the process.
How to Clean Antique Jewelry: Some Do’s and Don’ts
DO check your piece with a loupe first
“Always loupe your jewelry before cleaning, especially with antique jewelry,” says M.S. Rau Sales Consultant and Jewelry Specialist George Peralta. “Then you can check the condition of your piece — if any of the prongs holding the gems are bent or missing, or if there are any cracks or weakened spots.” A 10x loupe is a standard jeweler’s magnifying tool that allows professionals to analyze gems and different types of jewelry metals, and can be easily found online. Antique jewelry will have some normal wear and signs of age; that’s part of its story! By checking your pieces with a loupe before starting any cleaning, you can avoid any further damage and schedule necessary repairs.
DON’T use an ultrasonic cleaning machine
A heavy-duty cleaning machine may be tempting — you just turn it on, and you are done. But for antique jewelry, the key is being gentle, and an ultrasonic cleaning machine is anything but. Washing your piece in harsh chemicals at a high temperature can have a disastrous effect. “Organic gemstones and semi precious gems, like pearls and opals, can dissolve in that environment. It’ll even pull the oil out of emeralds!” warns Sales Consultant and Jewelry Specialist Audrey Martinez. Be cautious when putting diamond jewelry in these machines as well. Though diamonds can withstand intense cleaning, the ornate diamond rings common in Georgian jewelry and Victorian styles often include intricate mountings with smaller accent stones that can dislodge. When it comes to cleaning jewelry, you’ll want to be just as careful and meticulous through the process. Instead of an ultrasonic cleaning machine, try cleaning your metal jewelry with a soft toothbrush or soft cloth. When you clean vintage jewelry by hand, you can apply pressure where needed to reach any tiny grooves or nooks.
DO dilute your cleaning solution
Rather than using heavy-duty cleaning fluid consisting of corrosive chemicals like ammonia, dilute a gentle jewelry cleaning solution (or even a mild dish soap) with warm soapy water and wash your piece by hand. Take a soft brush (toothbrushes are common tools) and dip it into the cleaning solution, then lightly brush away any build-up. Some materials, such as different types of pearls and enamel, should not be scrubbed since they can be easily scratched. Instead, delicately wipe them off using a soft, lint-free cloth. The objective is not for the piece to look brand new — it is an antique, after all — but to extend the life of your high jewelry collection by keeping it clean.
After you’ve washed the piece, use a soft cloth to dry it off. “I like to spray pieces with some compressed air,” adds Peralta. “That will get rid of any debris that has been dislodged during cleaning and make sure the piece is fully dry.” This is especially helpful with pieces such as estate rings, in which liquid could get stuck in the gem carriage. Any moisture left on or inside of your piece can be very damaging. Once you’ve thoroughly dried your jewelry, it can then be stored safely until the next wear.
Edwardian Old Mine-Cut Diamond Ring
Edwardian Black Opal Ring, 2.75 Carats
How Often You Should Clean Your Jewelry
Part of what makes antique jewelry special is the history it carries. When cleaning your antique jewelry, the goal is to preserve, not reverse, the years. How often you should clean jewelry depends on several factors. How often do you wear the piece? Is it a necklace, ring, bracelet or brooch? What is it made of? You are ultimately the best judge of which pieces you own that need some extra TLC.
Some of the products you use daily may require you to clean your jewelry more often. “For a piece worn daily like a ring, a good cleaning should be done maybe every few months,” says Jewelry Operations Manager Mallory Whitten. “If you use hand sanitizer a lot, you need to clean your rings regularly.” The same goes for antique earrings and hairspray. Perfume, lotion, makeup and sunscreen can all promote deterioration and discolorations, especially in porous materials like pearls and opals. A good practice is to wipe off your jewelry after each wear with a microfiber polishing cloth, even if it is just to clean off any fingerprints or oils from your hands.
Storing your Antique Jewelry
Knowing how to store fine jewelry matters when you want to keep the condition intact. We recommend keeping the original boxes for your antique and old jewelry pieces when possible, such as velvet pouches and cotton-lined boxes. Soft velvet or cotton will prevent any scratching that could occur on the rough surfaces of a jewelry box. If those are not available, keeping pieces separated in small plastic bags works well also. “The important thing is to try to prevent gems from knocking into each other and causing damage,” says Martinez, “so keep your jewelry box organized!”
If you want a more eye-catching storage option, consider investing in specialty displays for your antique pieces. Stands for different necklace styles, bracelets and brooches can help mitigate the obstacles to storing these non-uniform shapes. In the M.S. Rau gallery, all types of antique jewelry are kept on fitted velvet stands suited to their unique shape.