— A Practical & Comprehensive Guide from Heart of Hearts Jewels —
While antique jewelry does require special care, keep in mind that these pieces have endured centuries of wear; they are survivors of history and tougher than one might fear. With mindful and informed care, you too can safeguard these jewels for the next generation.
— Basic Damage and Loss Prevention —
Employ common sense and keep your jewelry from situations or environments where they are more likely to be subjected to loss or damage.
Remove jewelry for:
- Sleeping (this applies especially for ornate chandelier earrings, pieces with delicate chains, large statement rings, or rings with prong settings or tiny stones)
- Gardening, house work, or strenuous activity
- Swimming, day at the beach, long showers or baths
- Activities or sports where jewelry might be subjected to unnecessary wear or damage (e.g. rock climbing, fishing, volleyball, basketball, tennis etc.)
When not to wear jewelry.
Keep your jewelry away from these household chemicals.
Chemicals to avoid:
- Chlorine and bleach will damage your gold. Both are powerful oxidizing agents with the capacity to dissolve gold and tarnish silver. Even prolonged exposure to chlorinated pool water can make your gold brittle.
- Iodine—even weak 2% topical solutions—will tarnish karat gold and silver.
- Do NOT clean antique jewelry with hydrogen peroxide; it will tarnish silver and discolor antique gem foiling.
- Ammonia can damage porous gems like opal, lapis, malachite, and pearls.
- Remove jewelry when using nail polish remover. Acetone is an organic solvent, and will damage certain stones and dissolve the jeweler’s epoxy holding together some jewelry mounts (such as tiny pave-set split pearls)
- Certain commercial jewelry cleaning solutions designed for gold and diamonds are not suitable for certain colored stones (emeralds, opals, turquoise, pearls, coral).
— Cleaning Your Jewelry —
Clean your jewelry with warm water, soap (dish soap ok, but avoid ones with citric acid), and a soft toothbrush. It’s best to do this in a large bowl rather than over a sink to avoid loss. Dry immediately afterwards with paper towel.
“Professional” cleaning via ultrasonic cleaner machine is unnecessary and dangerous for antique jewelry. The chemicals in some cleaning solutions can etch, discolor, or damage certain stones. Ultrasonic waves during the cleaning process itself can loosen or outright displace gems.
Also avoid the internet-promoted “trick” of boiling your jewelry to clean it. Too often, owners are distracted by something else and the jewelry is left to burn dry in a pot. It is possible to burn and ruin a diamond!
Please note that ivory-painted miniatures and foiled stones should never be submerged in water! I generally do not recommended cleaning for miniatures and foiled stones. However, if you are extremely intent on cleaning, do so in isolation to targeted spots in need of a clean, and never all at once by submersion in water. Always dry immediately with paper towel. Please note it is impossible to clean a painted ivory miniature; doing so will ruin the picture.
Clean over a large bowl rather than a sink. Avoid ultrasonic and chemical solutions. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush. Keeping things gentle and simple will save you from grief.
— Tarnish Prevention & Removal —
The silver bezel of this c. 1760 Portuguese rococo ring has tarnished to a gunmetal gray. This is a natural sign of age.
Natural age-related tarnish can be seen on the back of this rose gold Georgian sentimental brooch.
Do not be alarmed if your precious metal jewelry darken or discolor over time. Tarnish is a thin layer of corrosion that forms over metals as their outermost layer undergoes a chemical reaction with the surrounding natural environment (which contains oxygen and sulfur-bearing pollutants). This is natural, expected, and not a cause for concern.
Tarnish is common with silver, the white metal of choice for pre-1900 antique jewelry (platinum was not widely used in jewelry-making until post-1895; white gold was not commercially available until 1912).
Even karat gold will tarnish over time. A common misconception is that all gold jewelry is tarnish-proof. Pure 24k gold is indeed resistant to tarnish and corrosion. However, nearly all jewelry is made from some form of alloyed karat gold for improved durability and greater coloring possibilities (i.e. rose, white, ‘green’ gold). Your standard 14k gold is in fact an alloy of 58.5% gold and 41.5% copper + silver + zinc. It is this latter component of silver and copper in your karat gold that’s responsible for tarnishing: they react with sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere, leaving an outermost layer of dark or yellowish corrosion (think: your grandmother’s silverware, darkened to a gunmetal gray; bright copper roofing darkening to a verdigris green).
Silver and karat gold tarnish as a result of humidity and exposure to the atmosphere. According to the UK Birmingham assay office: “Silver and gold tarnishes in environments containing various sulfuric gases, even in very low concentration. The amount of tarnishing is determined by the relative humidity, ambient temperature, gas concentration, and the length of exposure to the gases.”
Unworn jewelry should not be left exposed to react with moisture and pollutants in the surrounding air. This is especially the case if jewelry is left unattended for prolonged periods. Many owners leave piles of mixed jewels in an open tray. This storage method is not ideal and will result in excessive tarnish formation. Furthermore, jewelry with base metals (e.g. Berlin iron, cut steel, copper-backed enamels, etc.) will expedite tarnishing in surrounding gold and silver if stored in close contact.
For maximum tarnish prevention, store your unworn jewelry in an air-tight bag, along with an anti-tarnish strip (available on Amazon).
Ideal storage method for unworn jewelry: in an air-tight bag, with an anti-tarnish strip.
The gold & silver tarnish on this c. 1830 German Biedermeier ring should be left alone and preserved.
Traditional hand-polishing with a silver cream, solution, or cloth will remove tarnish from both silver and karat gold.
Before seeking tarnish removal, always consider whether it’s absolutely necessary. Antique jewelry should be left as-is whenever possible; the tarnish on old gold and silver can be an important mark of authenticity and charm. Antique gold in particular will develop a warm patina over time; this depth of coloring will be lost if the piece is subjected to tarnish removal.
Nonetheless, tarnish removal is sometimes appropriate if a piece has been subjected to damage (e.g. fire or heat discoloration, exposure to excessive humidity), or if the tarnish is aesthetically displeasing. Lower karat gold (9k, 10k, 12k) watch chains are especially susceptible to tarnish due to interaction with skin oils and acids. In these cases, a dull-looking piece of gold jewelry can be improved in appearance via tarnish removal.
Tarnish discoloration can be removed with various silver polishing creams, solutions, or cloths. These traditional silver tarnish removal methods work just as well with karat gold. However, remember not to dip jewelry set with porous gems like coral or turquoise in a silver polishing solution.
Occasionally, inexperienced jewelers will offer to polish “off” tarnish using a power rotary tool or buffing machine. This is unnecessary and should be avoided. Without the correct tarnish removal solution, tarnish can be removed only if a surface layer of gold is polished away, resulting in an over-buffed piece with its antique character lost.
— Caring for Soft or Porous Gemstones —
Soft and/or porous gems like turquoise, opal, emerald, coral, and pearls are frequently featured in antique jewelry. Special considerations must to taken in caring for these gemstones:
- Turquoise is especially porous and lacking in stability (i.e. poor resistance to environmental stressors such as heat, light, skin oils, and chemicals). Please keep your turquoise away from chemicals of any kind. Never rub the stone surface directly with oily or dirty hands, and please remove for intensive sports or exercise.
- Opals are soft: it scratches, etches, and chips easily. Thermal shock (sudden extreme changes in temperature) can cause it to craze. Heat can damage or change its color. Opal jewelry should never be subjected to a jeweler’s torch.
- While emeralds are relatively hard, they are brittle and susceptible to parting breaks and fractures. By nature emeralds tend to be heavily included, so never subject these stones to a bench jeweler’s torch; extreme heat may cause emeralds’ three-phase inclusions (which may contain liquids or gases trapped inside during formation) to burst and therefore damage the stone.
- In general, it’s wise to avoid chemicals when handling the above-mentioned stones. This especially applies to porous gems like turquoise, coral, and pearls.
- It is also wise to avoid repair or resizing work with traditional soldering torches; exposure to extreme heat can ruin or discolor many soft or porous stones. Any work should be done with a laser welder.
Turquoise is especially susceptible to discoloration. Keep away from heat, chemicals, and skin oils.
Emerald, opal, coral, and pearls are soft and heat-sensitive. Never subject these jewels to a jeweler’s torch. Organic porous gems like coral, pearls, turquoise, shell (cameos), jet, gutta percha, and amber likewise should not be exposed to heat and chemicals.
— Caring for Foiled Gemstones —
The splendid beauty of foiled gemstones can be ruined if exposed to excessive moisture or heat.
It was common practice to mount gems in closed-back settings prior to about c. 1840. Stones would be enclosed against a thin foil of silver for increased brilliance and scintillation (and sometimes, additional color). However, the beauty of foiled stones can be ruined if the silver foiling is exposed to excessive moisture and allowed to oxidize. To prevent your foiled stones from turning black, take the following precautions:
- Protect foiled gems from moisture: never shower, bathe, or swim while wearing foiled jewelry.
- Remove foiled rings while washing hands or doing housework involving water or chemicals
- If you forget to remove your jewelry following exposure to water, dry immediately with paper towel. I also recommend following up with a hair dryer (in the cool setting) to eliminate residual moisture.
- If you live in a humid environment, it’s store your foiled jewelry in an airtight bag with anti-tarnish strips.
- Never clean foiled jewelry with solutions containing hydrogen peroxide. Doing so will turn the foil black.
- Some historic foils will discolor with heat exposure. Always use a laser welder (instead of jeweler’s torch) if resizing or repairing foiled jewelry.
— Caring for Miniature-work Jewels —
A great deal of mourning and sentimental jewelry made during the late 18th – early 19th centuries feature miniature-work panels set beneath cover glass. These jewels range from portrait miniatures and various watercolor compositions to what are essentially mixed-media dioramas combining woven hair, wire, enamels, beads, carved ivory, mother of pearl, and even paper and cloth.
The glass covers of these miniature-work jewels rely on preciseness of fit to stay in place; most were never soldered or sealed shut, and are not watertight. The gum and collagen adhesives used to secure various elements are water soluble. Portraits and other images were executed with watercolors, which will dissolve with moisture. Hairwork can develop mildew or mold if there is trapped moisture. Ivory backing panels may warp or crack in response to humidity.
As a general rule, miniature-work jewels should never be submerged in water or exposed to moisture of any kind. Always store your jewelry in a dry environment, and always remove prior to washing hands or showering.
These historic miniature-worked sentimental or mourning jewels feature glass covers that are tightly fitted but rarely sealed or watertight. These pieces should never be exposed to moisture.
— Avoid Inexperienced Jewelers —
“I only work with soldering torches.”
“If I size your ring, it must be re-polished afterwards.”
“Let me throw that into the ultrasonic cleaner.”
“Never mind this is a basic re-size, re-tip, or prong job. I’m going to charge hundreds of dollars.”
“Your antique diamond should be taken out and re-cut into a modern brilliant.”
“Let me modify this historic setting into a modern prong setting.”
“Your antique jewelry is only worth its scrap value in raw materials.”
— utterances from inexperienced, uninformed, or unscrupulous jewelers
This c. 1880 German Historismus brooch has been acid-treated for a matte high-karat ‘bloomed’ finish. Re-polishing would destroy this original finish.
Would you take an 18th century Chippendale chair to an IKEA specialist for advice?
Many local jewelry stores are staffed with jewelers to handle repairs and resizings in-store. Some of these jewelers lack significant training and experience. Others may have only ever worked with modern mass-produced jewelry with standardized settings and shanks. Jewelers working in modern retail may have never seen or handled early jewels; many know nothing about the market conditions for antique jewelry.
The value and desirability of antique jewelry is closely tied to its superior craftsmanship, history, and original character. Do not ever allow an uninformed jeweler to tamper with, modify, or remove existing features in an antique piece.
When taking your antique jewelry to a local store for a repair or resizing, take the following precautions:
- Ask if the staff jeweler has any experience with antique jewelry. Stress your piece requires extra care.
- Ask for the work to be done with a laser welder. Traditional solder torches can easily ruin a piece. Avoid stores unequipped with a laser welder.
- If your jewelry has a special antique finish (e.g. bloomed or matte gold, an oxidized silver finish you prefer not to lose), ask the jeweler not to repolish afterwards. It’s industry standard to repolish pieces after a resizing or repair. If you do not speak up, that unique finish will be lost and gone, and your piece will be returned to you with a brand new “mint” finish.
- Avoid ultrasonic cleaners.
- Unscrupulous jewelers will sometimes fleece consumers by offering unnecessary services or overcharging basic work:
- Old cut diamonds should never be re-cut into modern brilliants
- Original settings should never be “modernized” or modified
- Ring resizing should cost between $25-75 (sizing up is more expensive, especially if the shank is wide or thick)
- Re-tipping: $10-30
- Re-pronging: $20-40
- Solder: $20-60
— How to Prevent Stones from Falling Out —
To safeguard against gem loss, consider the following preventative measures:
- Pay attention to the current condition of settings, prongs, connectors, bails, and jump rings. These elements are the most fragile but important components in a piece of jewelry, responsible for holding gems in place and connecting various sections. Accidental wear and tear can ground down settings, dislodge bails, or open jump rings. If damage or loose stones are detected, have the issues repaired in a timely manner.
- Apply common sense; avoid subjecting your jewels to intense wear. Setting beads, collets, and prongs on rings are especially vulnerable to damage.
- Bring jewelry to a jeweler for periodic check up. This ensures that gems that have become loose can be tightened, missing or damaged prongs repaired, and diamond setting re-tipped. Most jewelry maintenance work is inexpensive and quick to perform, but will save you the expense of replacing a missing gem.
- Consider reinforcing tiny pavé-set gems with jeweler’s epoxy along the setting edge areas. This is especially recommended for tiny rose cut diamonds and split pearls. Jeweler’s epoxy is optically clear and inexpensive to apply, but will last for over 100 years (unless you choose to have it removed with acetone).
Always pay attention to the condition of areas encircled above: settings, prongs, connectors, bails, and jump rings.
— What To Do if A Stone Falls Out? —
The lower left rectangular emerald (highlighted in magenta) on this pair of 18th c Spanish pendeloque earrings was lost some point in history. It has been restored with a matched replacement.
Do not panic if a stone falls out. The most important task after realizing a gem is missing is to find the stone. In most cases, re-setting a loose gem is a simple job for jewelers, a matter of tightening settings or re-tripping prongs and beads.
Even if a stone is lost, in most cases it can be replaced. A gem cutter can custom facet a rough to match. Loose split pearls and old cut diamonds can also be sourced from gemstone dealers.
— Other Practical Considerations —
- Avoid sinks. If your bathroom mirror is directly over a sink, avoid putting on your earrings or necklace directly over a sink. If it goes down the drain, recovery will be difficult to impossible.
- Store individual pieces separately in properly cushioned boxes (even better if in an air-tight bag with an anti-tarnish strip). It’s not a good idea to dump and mix everything in one large jewelry box. Fine jewelry made from soft materials such as high-karat gold and soft porous stones are susceptible to scratch and wear. Diamonds from a neighboring piece can leave scratches.
- Stack with care. It’s trendy to wear several rings, bracelets, or necklaces together in a ‘stack’. However, keep in mind that pieces can rub against each other and impart damage. Ring shanks consistently placed together will wear each other down. A suggestion: don’t wear the same stack in the same formation all the time; think of a stack as a fashion “treat” rather than a 24/7 requirement; be mindful of how you stack and avoid formations where there’s excessive abrasion between pieces.
- If you consider yourself to have a “clumsy” or “heavy” hand, remove or put on jewelry in a carpeted area of the home to minimize damage if something is dropped.