How to clean jewelry — Directions for cleaning and taking care of your fine and costume jewelry
January 14, 2020
Whether you like accessorizing every outfit with a carefully chosen array of jewelry or you stick to a basic favorite or two most days, it’s a good idea to know how to clean jewelry to keep it looking its best—and lasting as long as possible. After learning how to clean jewelry, consider some storage and handling tips, too.
You can find all kinds of directions online for cleaning gold jewelry, using everything from beer to catsup and denture tablets! For most gold jewelry, though, the best bet is some mild liquid soap and warm water. Simply swish your jewelry in the suds, rinse, and dry well. You can also soak most gold jewelry (as long as it doesn’t have fragile gemstones) for 15 minutes or so, if you like.
• Choose a soap that’s mild and natural—castile, dishwashing soap, soap for delicate clothing, or pure hand soap. (If you use hand soap, make sure it doesn’t contain any moisturizers or fragrances.)
• I recommend putting your jewelry in a little strainer for rinsing and putting the stopper in the sink for good measure!
• To get dirt out of little crevices and the links of chains, try using a soft brush, such as a baby toothbrush or makeup brush. Anything stiffer might scratch the jewelry.
• A soft chamois cloth or a soft cotton cloth works well for drying and buffing.
A soak in mild, soapy water as described above will also clean diamonds, emeralds and many other non-porous gemstones. If your piece is especially dirty, the Good Housekeeping Institute recommends using seltzer water instead of plain water with the soap. Apparently the carbonation helps loosen any debris. Use a soft brush to clean, then rinse under running water and buff dry with a clean cloth.
Note that porous stones, such as turquoise, opals, and pearls should not be soaked or dipped in water. Instead, lay the jewelry on a soft towel. Dip a little makeup brush in the soapy water and use it to wash the surface of the stones. Wipe them with a damp cloth, then a dry one.
If you’re washing a strand of gems (a necklace or bracelet), lay it flat until it’s completely dry so you don’t stretch the string.
As with gold, most sterling silver jewelry can be washed using mild soap (see directions above).
For heavily tarnished sterling, some people prefer to use a silver polish or tarnish remover. These contain ingredients made to dissolve and remove the tarnish. Some also leave a protective coating. You can find polish in liquid or wipes. Read the directions carefully; it’s not safe to use on some jewelry, such as soft gemstones. Also read the ingredients list; most contain some pretty toxic substances.
For tackling tarnish, I prefer to make a mix of baking soda and water (just enough water to make a paste). Apply with a soft cloth, rubbing gently to get the tarnish off. Then rinse well and buff with a soft cloth. If your silver is plated, be careful not to rub too energetically!
White paste toothpaste (not gel) is also sometimes recommended for cleaning silver (and gold, for that matter). But experts caution that it can be too abrasive and scratch the metal (even removing little pieces of it), so if you go this route—or the baking soda route—be gentle.
Why is it called costume jewelry? Makes me think I’m a little girl playing dress up when I put it on! (On the other hand, “fashion jewelry” makes me feel like I should be some kind of fashionista, which I most definitely am not!)
You won’t want to soak most costume jewelry (glued settings can come loose), but you can still use mild soap and water sparingly on a cloth or soft brush. Gently wipe the jewelry clean with the soapy cloth, then wipe it again with a wet (without soap) cloth, then a dry one. Lay the pieces upside down on a towel so that any water that does get in the setting drips out.
In addition to knowing how to clean jewelry, you’ll want to store it properly. Some jewelry tarnishes when it comes in contact with air, acids, oils, and/or moisture. That’s why sealing sterling silver (which is prone to tarnishing) in a plastic bag—with the air squeezed out—is often recommended.
Because I try to avoid plastic when possible, I like to store mine in fabric pouches. (Have you noticed that jewelry often comes in those sweet, soft velvet pouches? Keep them—they’re terrific for storing your jewelry!)
Wherever you like to store yours, follow these tips:
• Store your pieces of jewelry separate from each other, either in separate bags or in a jewelry box but not touching. (Piled up jewelry can become tangled and scratched.)
• To absorb moisture, place a piece of chalk (or a silica packet) in with sterling silver jewelry—or other jewelry that’s prone to tarnishing, such as brass and sometimes plated pieces.
• If your jewelry isn’t inside a bag or box, keep gemstones out of direct sunlight. Too much light can fade some stones and bleach or darken others.
• If you store jewelry in a cloth bag, make sure the fabric is soft, like velvet or a soft cotton rather than a netting or linen, which can be a little abrasive.
• Knowing how to clean jewelry doesn’t necessarily mean you should tackle your most valuable pieces. If you have antique jewelry that’s valuable (monetarily or sentimentally), get advice from a jeweler about the safest way to clean it. You don’t want to remove any alloy on the surface.
• Experts advise taking off jewelry before swimming in a chlorinated pool, washing dishes, cleaning, or gardening. That’s because it’s best to keep your jewelry dry, but also because chlorine, the ingredients in cleansers (such ammonia and bleach), and dirt can all harm your jewelry. I imagine if you use more natural cleansers those would be less of an issue, though even vinegar and lemon juice can damage some metals. (Note that this tip is an example of my giving you expert advice rather than advice that I strictly follow. I don’t think I’ve taken off my wedding ring or my grandmother’s wedding ring in years! Except to clean them. Ahem, regularly, of course.)
• It’s a good idea to take off jewelry when you’re doing some sports or other activities that might ruin the jewelry. It would be smart to take off your rings when weightlifting, for example, but not necessarily when you’re running. I ruined a delicate gold ring by wearing it when I was pushing a reel lawn mower. (It’s no longer round!)
• Put your jewelry on last, after you dress, and take it off first. You’re less likely to damage it (and your clothing) this way—when pulling on a sweater or putting your hand through a delicate sleeve, for example.
• Don’t put on lotion or perfume or other toiletries after your jewelry. All of these contain potentially harmful ingredients.
• If you find you’re sensitive to some of the metals in your costume jewelry (some people are more sensitive than others), you might try applying a thin layer of clear nail polish on any part of the jewelry that touches your skin.
• Invest in a jewelry case for traveling. My friend Beth made a lovely case for me, with separate little pockets for each piece. I dislike packing for trips in general, but I love packing my jewelry!
• Check your jewelry now and then for loose stones and weak clasps.
• Once in a while, take your fine jewelry to a jeweler to have it checked for any loose stones and to get it professionally cleaned.
• Wear your sterling silver to discourage tarnishing. (Yep, using it helps prevent tarnishing. The oils in your skin clean off the tarnish—which comes from the small amount of copper or brass contained in most sterling silver. Without it, the silver would be too soft.)
• Different jewelry requires different care. When you buy fine jewelry, ask about the best way to care for it.
• Ultrasonic cleaners are good at getting dirt out of small crevices, but they don’t remove tarnish, and they’re not safe on all stones. Also, using one too often can wear away the metal on your jewelry and/or loosen stones. (Did you know there was such a thing as an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner? Me neither.)
Have you had success using other jewelry cleaning methods? Let us know!