Antique Jewelry Care and Cleaning Tips

Posted by Gregory DeMark on

Before You Begin Cleaning Your Jewelry

   Nothing beats the look of a bright and sparkling jewel, right!  Well stop right there. This may be fine for some new pieces of jewelry but the care and cleaning of Antique and Collectible Jewelry requires a little more thought.

    It is important to know that removing the natural patina on gold and silver items that have developed over many years cannot be restored with the same results once they have been removed. Furthermore, some surface treatments used on 19th century and earlier jewelry such as depletion gilding (an acid treatment used on gold and silver to remove the surface layer of alloys, leaving a thin pure layer of precious metal with a frosted finish) or gilding (the process of adding a fine layer of precious metal to the surface) should never be heavily polished or removed. 

  Delicate gems, enamels and non-precious elements may be destroyed by an overzealous cleaning. 

   Before you begin to clean any piece of jewelry it is best to learn what you have and how to care for it from a knowledgeable and reliable source. Look for a professional with experience handling Antique and Vintage jewelry. Jewelers, appraisers, goldsmiths and silversmiths that are well versed in modern jewelry, may or may not have the same expertise with older jewelry.

    Learn to check mounted stones and small parts to see if they are loose before you begin any cleaning procedure. This can be done with a small straight pin, tooth pick, fine tip tweezers or your finger nail. Using caution not to damage any gems, lightly push against the side of the stones on each side to see if they rock in the setting.  If any stones or parts seem loose it is best to stop and seek a professional jeweler that is accustomed to working on Antique Jewelry.

  Dirt and lotions can dry under prongs holding them tight and once removed could loosen gemstones so it is important to check them again after cleaning. 

   A Jewelers Loupe of 10 power (10x) or a magnifying glass will be a great help seeing things up close to check for damage.

   Collectors that are very serious about Antique and Vintage Jewelry may wish to invest in a Microscope with dark field illumination and an overhead light source. 

   Although it may seem obvious, I must mention to plug the sinks drain while cleaning your jewelry since many valuable gems have been lost in this way.  It is also a good idea to remove jewelry when washing or bathing for the same reason.


Simple Cleaning Tips 

  Always use the least aggressive methods first and work your way to more aggressive cleaning procedures if needed. 

   Heavy duty and aggressive equipment such as steam cleaners and ultrasonic machines should be left to the professionals but home ionic cleaners may be helpful on some items such as gold, silver or platinum jewelry that does not contain delicate gemstones or materials that might be damaged. 

   Jewelry that has been previously cleaned and properly stored may only need a light wipe with a soft cotton cloth or a dusting with a small camel hair makeup or artist brush. 

   For items that need a slightly more rigorous cleaning try using a mixture of liquid dish soap and water with a soft toothbrush followed by several rinses in clean water. Another good mixture but slightly more aggressive is Mr. Clean ultimate Orange multi-purpose cleaner or its equivalent and water (mix approximately 1 – 2 ounces of cleaner to 6 – 8 ounces of water). It is generally recommended that you do not use ammonia or ammonia based mixtures and if it is necessary to use them never leave any item to soak for extended periods without checking them. 

   Never use bleach. Bleach as well as the various chlorine type products used in pools and hot tubs can and will do permanent damage to delicate gemstones as well as gold and silver. The damage may not be visible at first but long soaks or repeated use will cause gold and silver to pit and become brittle allowing fine filigree, small parts and prongs to break. It is highly recommended that you remove all jewelry before swimming or relaxing in a hot tub. 

   Never Ever mix bleach and ammonia together since this will create a poisonous and deadly gas. 

Some Delicate Materials 

   Some of the materials that should not be soaked for extended periods of time include but may not be limited to Emeralds, loose or peg set pearls, coral, turquoise, malachite, ivory, amber, lapis lazuli, tortoise shell and opals. 

   It is best to clean these materials by dipping a soft toothbrush into the cleaning solution and lightly scrubbing the item followed by rinsing and drying.  If you must soak these items for any length of time due to a large buildup of dirt it is important to do it for as short of a period as possible and only use soapy water. 

   Some of the items found in antique and vintage jewelry that should never be soaked include Jet, miniature paintings, celluloid, micro mosaics, pietra duras, all strung beads including pearls, foil back rhinestones, hair jewelry, mountings with closed back settings, bog oak, gutta percha, wood and shell cameos.

   If in doubt, do not soak the item before seeking guidance since it may cause permanent damage. 

Storing Your Jewelry 


  When you are finished cleaning your jewelry make sure to dry it completely before storing it away.

    Since all jewelry can be damaged it is important to use proper storage techniques when it is not in use.

  Separate acid free boxes, compartments in a jewelry box, small acid free ziploc bags or pouches should be used.  Chains can be hung but do each one separately.

  Acid free tissue paper works very well for wrapping delicate items before storing them.

  Never use plastic food wrap or other wrapping materials that contain acid as this will do damage to your jewelry when it is stored for any length of time. 

 Learning about what materials have been used in your antique and vintage jewelry and how to care for them is part of the joy of collecting and with proper care you can expect your collection to give you many years of enjoyment.



Happy Collecting!



Copyright: Greg DeMark - all rights reserved

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