Many gemstone owners enjoy wearing their treasures. Few things can ruin that enjoyment faster than the discovery of damage such as scratches, chips, or discoloration. Unfortunately, some damage is permanent. The good news is that proper cleaning and care prevents most gemstone damage.
The biggest favor you can do for your gemstone jewelry is to keep it clean. Dust, body oils, and chemicals are villains waiting for an opportunity to destroy the beauty of your gems. You can eliminate most problems by simply wiping all your jewelry with a soft cloth after wearing it. Be careful with dust, however, as it contains little particles that can scratch most jewelry. Dust must be gently whisked off using a soft-bristled brush. Small camel’s-hair brushes, like those used by artists are good dust removers.
There is no one safe way in which to clean all gems. You must consider both what the jewelry is made from and how it is made. While a gentle soap and water solution is safe for many pieces, it can harm other jewelry.
Soft, porous gems, such as pearls, turquoise, and opals will absorb water–and anything that is in it. The water will evaporate, but the chemicals and minerals it contained will remain in the gem, often ruining it. Opals need moisture, and an occasional overnight soak in pure water will revive them. If the opals are rarely worn, periodically dip them in water to which a few drops of glycerine or mineral oil have been added. Wiping with a soft cloth after each
wearing is usually all that the other soft stones need.
Most of the hard and nonporous gemstones, such as rubies, sapphires, and diamonds, may be dipped in alcohol to dissolve fingerprints and body oils. They can also be washed in a weak solution of ammonia.
Strung gems should never be immersed in water. Moisture often will not evaporate from the stringing material, which causes it to swell or deteriorate. That often leads to breakage and potential loss of the beads. If the stringing material doesn’t break, the trapped moisture can damage the inside of the bead. Ivory beads, especially, are quickly ruined by dampness on their inside surfaces.
You can find a variety of commercial jewelry cleaners on the market. Use these with caution. Follow the manufacturer’s directions very carefully and never use them on any stone or metal not specifically listed as safe on the label. The same advice applies also for ultrasonic cleaners. If you are sure your metal jewelry is gold or silver, it can be safely soaked in a water and detergent solution to which a few drops of ammonia have been added. If the metal is brass
or gold-filled, the ammonia will ruin it. Ammonia also corrodes copper. There are many commercial cleaners that are safe for sterling, silver-filled, and silver plate jewelry. Those cleaners, however, are generally not safe for any gemstones mounted in silver jewelry. In that case, apply the cleaner with a cotton swab, taking care to avoid getting it on any part of the piece that is not silver.
The guidelines for silver cleaners apply also to copper cleaners–never use them on non-metal surfaces and follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
One easy way to keep your jewelry clean is to put it on after you’ve applied makeup, perfume, or hair spray. Hair spray in particular is destructive to many kinds of gems. For example, it permanently dulls amber. Take rings off before using hand creams or lotions, to prevent a buildup of oil and the dirt it attracts. Removing jewelry before cooking, housework, gardening, and similar tasks is also highly recommended. Dishwashing detergents and most cleaners will remove the finish on even good electroplated jewelry. The acids found in many types of cleaners will discolor, if not destroy, most jewelry.
Many gemstones are sensitive to sudden temperature changes or extreme temperatures. For example, wearing an opal ring while handling frozen foods can cause the opal to crack. Prolonged periods of heat or cold can destroy other gems. Leaving a piece of jewelry on the dashboard of a car on a hot, sunny day can ruin the color in many stones. Topaz is especially sensitive to both heat and light and fades quickly when overexposed to either. Amber melts when it gets hot.
Many of us store our gemstone jewelry in a tangled mass in a jewelry box. That’s a sure way to ruin most of it. Any time a gemstone comes into contact with another, the softer piece suffers damage. If you can’t keep each piece in a separate compartment or box, then wrap them before storing. Plastic bags are convenient, but materials like flannel or chamois offer better protection for your treasures.
All the organic gems, such as amber, pearls, ivory, and coral, need to breathe. They should never be stored in plastic. Pearls love satin-lined boxes. The porous stones, like turquoise and opals, also need exposure to fresh air and humidity. They will deteriorate if stored in dark, dry places. Wrapping the “breathing” gems in a soft cloth is recommended.
Sterling silver may be wrapped in cloth impregnated with an anti-tarnish agent only if it isn’t set with gems. The anti-tarnish agent can be destructive to many gems. Treated cloths should not be used on gold electroplate.
Rescue your treasures now from the bottom of your jewelry box and treat them to a gentle cleaning, then wrap and store them individually. Your gems will reward your TLC with many years of beauty and pleasure in return.
Sandra I. Smith, Writer