Toothbrushes, cloths or hand soap? How to care for jewelery at home | Australian lifestyle

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 glows 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 rectify this, following the expert advice I was provided for this column: most jewelery is inherently fragile and needs to be properly cared for and cleaned often.

Rules of thumb

If you want jewelery 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 (in the snow).

Naomi Campbell
What not to do: unlike Naomi Campbell, make sure you remove all jewelery before swimming – if you want it to last longer. Photograph: Julio Donoso/Sygma/Getty Images

Jeweler Holly Ryan suggests being careful when applying perfumes, lotions or sunscreens, as these can influence jewelery in different ways, causing discoloration and other issues.

Finally, always store your unworn jewelery in its original box or a special jewelery box so it isn’t sliding around in drawers and rubbing up against things, says jeweler Seb Brown.

Cleaning basics

Ryan suggests you make sure your sink is plugged in before taking jewelery 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 jewelery. Ryan also recommends a mild, natural degreasing soap. Her favorite is I handwash.

toothbrushes
A toothbrush can make a great soft-bristled cleaning tool to get gentle into the nooks and crannies of rings and earrings. Photo: Rostislav_Sedlacek/Getty Images/iStockphoto

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, he recommends 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 jewelery is determined by what it’s made of. “Identify the type of metal, gemstones and any other special finishes or plating the jewelery before cleaning it,” says Sarah Munro, the cofounder of jewelery 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
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.

Silver jewelery
Silver jewelery – like Billy Porter’s rings – needs to be cleaned regularly since it tarnishes easily. Photograph: Caroline Brehman/EPA

When it’s 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 jewelery to remove tarnish. “Avoid using abrasive cleaners or brushes,” she warns. “These can scratch the silver.”

gold
Whether your gold jewelery is plated or solid, you should avoid cleaning it with harsh chemicals or abrasive cleaners. Munro recommends “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 jewelery is plated, it won’t be as resilient as solid gold. This means treating it more gently. Ryan recommends thoroughly cleaning plated jewelery after any contact with sweat, salt water or chlorine, as these will decrease the life of your plating.

Platinum
Harder than silver and gold, platinum can withstand more intense cleaning. “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 don’t let it soak – just a light gentle wash with a soft toothbrush will do.”

Pearls
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.

Pearls
Pearls are very delicate – so they shouldn’t even be submerged in water. Photo: Streetstyleograph/Getty Images

Ryan says soaking is likely to weaken the strings too, since pearl jewelery 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 damp cord will weaken it.

“Take your pearls to a jeweler 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 jeweler, 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.”

Diamonds
“Though diamonds are the hardest natural substance on Earth, they do attract grease and grime,” said Ryan.

Munro suggests using a mild soap or jewelery cleaner specifically designed for diamonds, mixed with lukewarm water. Soak the jewelery 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 jewelery. Munro explains that ultrasonic cleaners use high-frequency vibrations to move cleaning solutions into the tiny crevices in jewelery 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 jewelery you just can’t get clean, take it to a professional (they all have ultrasonic cleaners anyway).

Adam Sandler
Having trouble with a home clean? Call in the experts – most jewelery stores also offer cleaning. Photo: AP

Care instructions are sometimes provided when you buy new jewelery, but for secondhand or inherited pieces, it can be much harder to know what you’ve got. In this likely event, take your jewelery to a professional.

A jewelery 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 recommends that every so often you take them to a professional so they check the settings and perform a thorough clean.

Many jewelery stores also offer cleaning, and major fine jewelers will even clean their own products free of charge. Watch repair stores can also clean jewelery.

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