At some point in my teens, I adopted a large white opal ring of my grandmother’s and claimed it as my own. It is set on a pale gold band amid 12 delicate claws. Its depth is so impressive that people often comment on the way it gleams in the light.
Every time I wear it, I’m intrigued that my grandmother (who died long before I was born) had hands exactly the same size as mine. Embarrassingly, in the decades I’ve owned it, I’ve never cleaned it. I will be rectifying this, following the expert advice I was provided for this column: most jewellery is inherently fragile and needs to be properly cared for and cleaned often.
Rules of thumb
If you want jewellery to last long enough to hand down, always remove it before swimming, showering, doing housework, exercising, sleeping, gardening or in extreme heat (like a sauna) or cold (at the snow).
Jeweller Holly Ryan suggests being careful when applying perfumes, lotions or sunscreen, as these can influence jewellery in different ways, causing discoloration and other issues.
Finally, always store your unworn jewellery in its original box or a special jewellery box so it isn’t sliding around in drawers and rubbing up against things, says jeweller Seb Brown.
Ryan suggests you make sure your sink is plugged before taking jewellery anywhere near it. It’s also worth breaking out a new toothbrush and a polishing cloth for metal that you will only use for cleaning jewellery. Ryan also recommends a mild, natural degreasing soap. Her favourite is Saya handwash.
Generally, rings and earrings can be cared for in a similar way, with soapy water and a soft-bristled brush like a toothbrush, which will gently get into the nooks and crannies behind set gemstones.
Pay special attention to the part of the earring that goes through your lobe and any butterfly clips, as these can tarnish quickly.
When cleaning fine chains, Ryan suggests opening the clasp and holding the chain by the links, then running it slowly through a folded polishing cloth. For thicker chains, she suggests using a toothbrush and a polishing cloth, but keeping the clasp closed to avoid tangling the links.
Know what you’re cleaning
How you care for jewellery is determined by what it’s made from. “Identify the type of metal, gemstones and any other special finishes or plating the jewellery has before cleaning it,” says Sarah Munro, the cofounder of jewellery company Sarah and Sebastian. “Typically, delicate or porous gemstones like pearls, opals and emeralds require gentler cleaning” she says. “Hardier gemstones like diamonds and sapphires can withstand more intense cleaning.”
Silver tarnishes easily, so regular cleaning is needed to keep it looking its best. But Brown says wearing silver frequently can actually help prevent it from oxidising.
When it is time to clean silver pieces, Munro suggests specific tools: either a silver polishing cloth, which will “gently buff away the tarnish”, or specially formulated silver cleaner solutions, in which you soak jewellery to remove tarnish. “Avoid using abrasive cleaners or brushes,” she warns. “These can scratch the silver.”
Whether your gold jewellery is plated or solid, you should avoid cleaning it with harsh chemicals or abrasive cleaners. Munro suggests “soaking it in lukewarm water with a few drops of dish soap and then gently scrubbing it with a soft-bristled brush” like a toothbrush. Afterwards, be sure to rinse it properly with clean water and dry it with a soft cloth – glasses cloths work well for this.
If your gold jewellery is plated, it won’t be as resilient as solid gold. This means treating it more gently. Ryan recommends thoroughly cleaning plated jewellery after any contact with sweat, salt water or chlorine, as these will decrease the life of your plating.
Harder than silver and gold, platinum can withstand more intense cleans. “If the piece doesn’t have stones, soak it in a diluted detergent solution for a few minutes and use a gentle toothbrush or cloth to clean and dry,” says Ryan. “If the piece has gemstones do not let it soak – just a light gentle wash with a soft toothbrush will do.”
Brown says that because pearls are delicate and porous, they require special care. Make your pearls the last thing you put on before leaving the house and the first thing you remove when you get home. Even smoking or spraying perfume near them can turn them yellow.
“Pearls shouldn’t be submerged in water – just a very gentle clean with a damp tissue to remove any cosmetics or fingerprints,” Brown says.
Ryan says soaking is likely to weaken the string too, since pearl jewellery is often made using a combination of silk cord, precious metal and plated precious metal – and the pearls might even be half drilled or glued. Be sure your pearls are completely dry before storing them too, as leaving a cord damp will weaken it.
“Take your pearls to a jeweller once a year to check the elasticity of the cord is intact and for a safe, thorough clean or restring if needed,” Ryan says. “If you buy your pearls from a reputable jeweller, there should be knots between each pearl – so that if there is any breakage of the bead cord, you won’t lose an entire strand of pearls.”
“Though diamonds are the hardest natural substance on Earth, they do attract grease and grime,” says Ryan.
Munro suggests using a mild soap or jewellery cleaner specifically designed for diamonds, mixed with lukewarm water. Soak the jewellery for a few minutes and gently brush it, then rinse the diamond and pat it dry using a lint-free cloth.
“Always clean behind the stones with the toothbrush method for maximum sparkle,” says Brown.
The TikTok method: ultrasonic cleaning
If you’ve spent any time on #CleanTok, you’ve probably seen people using mini ultrasonic cleaners on their jewellery. Munro explains that ultrasonic cleaners use high-frequency vibrations to move cleaning solution into the tiny crevices in jewellery that can be hard to reach with traditional cleaning methods.
But while ultrasonic cleaners are effective at removing deeply ingrained dirt, dead skin and built-up grime, you should be careful about what you put inside them. “Soft or porous gems should never be put in an ultrasonic cleaner, as they will be destroyed,” says Brown. “This includes pearls, opals, emeralds, glass, lapis lazuli, turquoise, onyx, bloodstone and aquamarine.” Rose gold can also be ruined by ultrasonic cleaners, but “an ultrasonic cleaner is great for diamonds, as they are very hard”.
When to see the experts
If you’re not interested in buying a buzzy internet gadget, but you’ve got a piece of jewellery you just can’t get clean, take it to a professional (they all own ultrasonic cleaners anyway).
Care instructions are sometimes provided when you buy jewellery new, but for secondhand or inherited pieces, it can be much harder to know what you’ve got. In this likely event, take your jewellery to a professional.
A jewellery valuation service should be able to tell you what the piece is made from and may clean it for you at the same time. If you’ve got valuable gemstones, like diamonds, Brown suggests that every so often you take them to a professional so they check the settings and perform a thorough clean.
Many jewellery stores also offer cleaning and major fine jewellers will even clean their own products free of charge. Watch repair stores can also clean jewellery.