Unsightly fine scratches on silver jewellery mars a mirror like finish.
Photo credit: Kashgar
It's a fact that silver tarnishes to black as it oxidizes on exposure to air. Silver is also a relatively soft metal and can easily scratch or dent, even with the pressure of a firm fingernail. Maintaining the look of silver jewellery is a balancing act between polishing and preserving an unmarred surface finish.
One of the simplest ways to keep your silver jewellery clean is to wear it. The contact with your skin and clothing will gently polish the silver to a lustrous glow.
To remove light tarnish, sweat and finger marks, wash your silver jewellery in lukewarm soapy water, then rinse and dry immediately with a soft 100% cotton nub-free cloth. Many jewellers sell tubs of liquid "jewellery cleaner" which will also clean your jewellery, although not necessarily any better than the warm soapy water.
Heavily tarnished silver requires more work. A jeweller's polishing cloth is a good option, as they are made especially for this purpose and are infused with material that leaves a protective coating on the jewellery to retard further tarnishing. When a polishing cloth becomes dirty, replace it - never wash and attempt to reuse it. Keep a spare for use on your travels - at a pinch it can double as a storage cloth. When using your cloth, rub the item gently in one direction rather than in a circular pattern, using only the pressure of your finger pads. Any dust particles, grit or dirt should first be removed by rinsing or washing; otherwise they will grind into the surface of the jewellery, leaving unsightly scratches behind. Don't be tempted to use commercially available silver-cleaning products meant for silverware and do not use the "lifehack" toothpaste - both are extremely abrasive and will lead to serious scratching.
Cleaning silver tribal jewellery can be difficult. Most of it is intricate in design, incorporating complex and elaborate features designed to display the skills of the silversmith. Antique tribal jewellery may also have a pitted and eroded finish, resulting from decades and sometimes centuries of service. For this type of jewellery - and ONLY this type - I use a thick paste of bicarbonate of soda and water, or even the bicarbonate powder on its own. This is worked into the crevices of the jewellery using fingers or sometimes a soft toothbrush, akeup brush or paintbrush. Thorough rinsing is important otherwise a residue will result. Blot with a towel (for some very elaborate pieces I use a hairdryer on low-heat setting), and then polish with a soft cotton cloth. Note that bicarbonate can be used on this type of jewellery because maintaining a mirror-like finish is not relevant. This method should not be used on gilded, plated or enamelled jewellery as it will eventually damage the finish. Note also that collectable antique jewellery should not be cleaned at all as it may potentially decrease the value of the piece. Consult a professional for advice in this regard.
Silver can technically be worn in both freshwater (i.e. the shower) and sea water, however salt water will speed the tarnishing process and is not recommended for any silver with a high quality finish as the salt crystals left behind can potentially scratch the jewellery. Silver jewellery (in fact jewellery of any description) should never be worn in swimming pools as the chlorine will corrode metals and stones.
22k gold, pearl and emerald earrings, India. Photo credit: Kashgar
Gold is inert and when exposed only to air is immune from rust, corrosion and tarnishing. Gold jewellery does not therefore require the constant care that silver jewellery does to maintain its good looks. As with silver, gold jewellery should be removed before entering swimming pools, as the chlorine in the water will corrode the gold surface. Gold jewellery should also be kept away from harsh chemicals such as household cleaning fluids as they may abrade the surface and reduce lustre. Cleaning gold jewellery is best done with a soft cloth, or warm soapy water. A very soft-bristled brush can also be used to clean gold jewellery as necessary.
Antique Himalayan agate and silver necklace. Although sturdy, it must be looked after with care to protect both the antique beads and the cord they are strung on.
Photo credit: Kashgar.
Stone-Set and B eaded Jewellery
Stone-set jewellery must be cleaned with care. Soap and water is the best choice for most gems; however soft or organic gems such as amber, coral, emerald, jade, lapis lazuli, opal, and turquoise should never be immersed in water for extended soakings as it may harm the polish on the stone - a wipe with a soft dry or damp cloth and a careful cleaning of the setting with a wet cotton tip suffices in most cases. Harder gems can be soaked in warm, soapy water for several minutes and then gently cleaned with a soft-bristle brush to remove any build-up of grime. If in doubt about a particular gemstone, ask a professional for advice, or have your piece of jewellery professionally cleaned.
For stone-set jewellery, settings may loosen over time. Tribal and ethnic jewellery may also be placed with gums and resins not normally used by western jewellers. When jewellery is worn over a period of many years, the only thing holding a stone in place may literally be grease and dirt. For these reasons, stone-set jewellery should never be cleaned in a hand-basin or sink, in case loosened stones are lost. Examine jewellery closely after cleaning for loose stones and take to a jeweller for repair if you spot them. This is also the ideal time to look for any cracks in or damage to your stones.
Beaded jewellery should never be allowed to get wet and should not be immersed in water. No matter what beading or stringing material has been used, water will damage and weaken it and cause it to deteriorate, leading to stretching or breakage. Commercial liquid cleaners are also unsuitable for beaded jewellery as they cannot be rinsed off and will leave a residue. Beaded jewellery is best cleaned with a soft dry cotton cloth, by gently bending the string over the fingers and carefully wiping between individual beads, or by gently and repeatedly running the string between the folds of cloth.
The spiritual "cleansing" of stones by washing them in hot or cold water or leaving them in the sun is not good practice. Soaking a gemstone in hot water, for example, can damage the stone, cause colour to leach out of it, or cause it to fracture or break. Even leaving a stone on a windowsill to "cleanse" it in sunlight can lead to overheating and damage - amber and opals may be ruined in this way within minutes. If a stone is strung on a necklace or set as a pendant, it should be regarded as a piece of jewellery and cared for accordingly.
As organic gems, pearls should be treated with particular care. They should never be washed or immersed in water, left in sunlight, exposed to strong perfumes or exposed to household chemicals - all of these can wear away the nacre and cause colour change. As a rule of thumb, pearls should be restrung once every couple of years or as soon as the stringing thread shows signs of fraying or a build-up of grime. Wipe your string of pearls with a soft dry cloth after every outing and then store safely away until next time.
Because pearls are very soft they are best stored in soft cotton or chamois pouches - never in plastic bags. Each piece of pearl jewellery that you own should be stored separately and away from other kinds of jewellery that may scratch and abrade your pearls even within their pouches.
General Care and Maintenance
Jewellery should be the last thing you put on in the morning and the first thing you take off at the end of the day. The chemicals in make-up, lotions, hair products and perfumes can be harmful for your jewellery. Chlorine and related chemicals in cleaning products (for example alcohol, turpentine, acetone, and ammonia) can severely discolour and dull or pit the surface on softer gemstones as well as loosen stones and settings. Petroleum based products (even Vaseline) can melt amber if allowed to remain on the stone and can do significant damage to pearls.
Many of my customers ask me if it is ok to wear jewellery in water, in particular the shower or at the beach. The bottom line is: don't. If I had a dollar for every time one of my customers told me a story about jewellery lost at the beach, I'd be wealthy beyond my dreams. Salt water can discolour and darken jewellery. Water will get into strings and cords and rot them over time. Wooden jewellery will swell and then shrink again, but never return to its original shape. Avoid even getting your jewellery wet, and that includes exercising, bathing, and washing dishes.
Don't fold, spindle or mutilate your jewellery, then expect it to look good when you put it back on. Believe it or not, golf is particularly hard on bracelets, watches and rings, because of the force used to swing a club - and the same goes for tennis. Be sensible about the activities you engage in when wearing jewellery - extreme sports and jewellery do not mix well. Neither do some careers. You will never see a chef or helicopter pilot wearing jewellery on the job. Think about it.
There is nothing worse than loosing a special piece of jewellery. Long curly hair can wind around earrings and literally push them out of your ears, so always make sure that your earring hooks are tight to the back of your ear lobes. Tighten the back of butterfly backs occasionally with your fingertips so that they fit snuggly over the posts (and if you do loose one earring, consider turning the remaining one into a pendant). Examine your jewellery on a regular basis for signs of cord stretching or fraying - as a general rule, necklaces and bracelets should be restrung every three to five years - and test clasps and hooks every to make sure they are still working properly. And once again - don't wear your jewellery to the beach!
Rigid, hammered or beaten jewellery has reasonable flexibility and can take a certain amount of shaping to fit your arm or neck, even after it leaves the jeweller's hands. However, any such modification should be done carefully using two hands and a constant even pressure. If not, the piece will bend unevenly at one point, leaving an irregular and unsightly bulge that may be impossible to remove. If in doubt, consult a professional for advice. Constant opening and closing of a rigid bracelet or neckpiece can also result in stress that may cause your piece to snap in the future. Set your piece of jewellery to the smallest size that you can comfortably put on and take off, then leave it like that.
To keep jewellery protected and looking its best, your collection should be stored carefully, rather than thrown together into a single drawer or box. Invest in a compartmentalised jewellery box or use sets of pouches and bags - they don't have to be expensive items, small cloth gift bags with drawstring tops work particularly well and can also double as storage for your jewellery when you travel.
In order to prevent necklaces from becoming tangled, always be sure the clasps are closed when being stored. Store beaded jewellery, especially necklaces, flat so that the stringing material does not stretch.
Keep your jewellery in a place that is free of dust, as well as protected from changes in temperature and light. Dust is abrasive to jewellery, while extremes of temperature and light may cause deterioration if jewellery is left exposed to them for long periods of time.
Store silver jewellery in acid-free tissue paper inside plastic zip lock bags, remove any excess air then and seal. This will slow down the oxidisation process and minimise the amount of polishing you will have to do.
This list is not all-inclusive and only provides recommendations for cleaning, maintaining and storing jewellery. It is not designed to be the ultimate authority on jewellery maintenance. If you have any tips, hints or suggestions, feel free to contact me with them. And as with everything in this world, when it comes to looking after your jewellery, use common sense!