Preserving Your Heirloom Jewellery
Do you remember as a child admiring your grandmother's – or great-grandmother's – beautiful jewellery? Did she wear pretty scarf clips or brooches, or fancy earrings from the stylish art-deco era? Were you lucky enough to be allowed to use her jewellery in games of dress-up, or to sort through her jewellery box to admire the coloured gems? There's no wonder that with so many cherished childhood memories the sentimental value of heirloom jewellery can be far greater than any actual insurable value! One day the responsibility for looking after that heirloom jewellery will pass to you, so how do you make sure your preserve it for generations to come?
Here are the hazards to look for in preserving antique jewellery, and the measures you can take to keep those pearls and gems sparkly clean. 1: WEAR & TEAR OK, it's obvious, with old jewellery one of the biggest hazards is ... age! Age can weaken jewellery and loosen clasps, or wear the metal fastenings thin. You can take your piece to a jeweller for a professional repair or replacement of damaged parts, but if you're a purist (like me) you probably want to keep your heirloom jewellery as original and authentic as possible. Regularly check your fastenings and closures and take preventative steps as soon as you notice a problem. If you have a necklace or bracelet with a weak clasp consider having a safety chain fitted. The chain attaches to both ends of a necklace or bracelet and measures between 2cm and 5cm. If the clasp comes undone the chain will hold the necklace or bracelet ends together to keep your jewellery from falling off. You can DIY a safety chain with findings from a craft store, or they're available to buy from many sources online. All you need is a short length of chain and two round spring or lobster clasps. Fix a clasp to both ends of the chain and clip to strong links on your necklace or bracelet. If your necklace or bracelet has fine links, or is solid, it might be worth asking a jeweller to weld a chain securely and neatly to your jewellery to keep it safe.
2: LOOSE STONES
Modern fashion jewellery uses strong glues or welding to hold stones in place, but antique and fine jewellery is more likely to use claws. The claws are tiny prongs that fold up around the side of the stone and over the top edge to hold the stone securely in place. Over time the prongs may bend or become broken from knocks and damage. Every so often check your stone jewellery over to look for stones that have moved in their clasps or become 'rattly' and loose. You might be able to carefully fold the claw back into place, or take your jewellery to a qualified manufacturing jeweller for a proper repair. If you are tempted to DIY a fix yourself with glue please be sure to use a glue specifically designed for use on jewellery. The wrong kind of glue can dry discoloured, or dull the natural gleam of the stone!
3: TARNISH & DIRT
Jewellery is designed to be worn and admired, and heirloom jewellery will have spent many years adorning several generations of your family! All this wear may have taken its toll on your jewellery, resulting in dulled metal and lack-lustre stones. There are several tricks to remove tarnish and dirt from your jewellery. Gold: Gold is a metal that naturally does not tarnish, but it can become dirty, and gold in jewellery is often alloyed with other metals for strength and durability. The cleaning method for gold is gentle enough for most types of jewellery and a great first method to try on everything. First, try simply polishing with a soft jewellery cloth that can be found at many jeweller's stores, and even supermarkets in the cleaning aisles. If that doesn't work you can soak your gold jewellery in a solution of warm–not hot!–water and a mild detergent such as woollen wash. After soaking for 5-15 minutes, gently brush with a very soft toothbrush to clean inside the crevices, rinse in clean water, and buff with a soft jeweller's cloth. This method is perfect for jewellery with hard non-porous stones such as diamond, ruby, sapphire, cubic zirconia, aquamarine, topaz and garnet. Silver: Silver, sadly, DOES tarnish but it can be brought back to life. The important thing to remember is that soaking for a long period of time can damage silver even more but you can still start with the cleaning method for gold by repeatedly dipping and polishing your silver jewellery without soaking. This method is better if you're not sure of the porosity of any stones (see below). For heavier tarnish in stoned jewellery, work a solution of baking soda and warm water into the silver using a soft lint-free cloth (not paper towel!), followed by wiping with a clean damp cloth. If the jewellery is silver without any stones, or with stones that you know are non-porous, a great tarnish removal trick is to line a tray with tin-foil and add warm water and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), then simply dip your jewellery in the solution and the tarnish will disappear like magic! Rinse under clear running water to prevent the baking soda drying to a crust on your jewellery, and lay it on a towel to dry completely. (Tarnish that has been there several years may also require a polish with a lint-free cloth afterwards.) Stones: Dirt, grime, and old shed skin can work its way into the claw fittings of stone jewellery and dull the lustre of the gem. A soft brush dipped in a solution of gentle detergent and worked into all the nooks and crannies, followed by a 'rinse' with a wet cloth should clean things up nicely!
Pearls and Porous Gems: Pearls are a delicate natural gem and require extra care because they are porous. Opal, turquoise, coral, amber and emerald are also porous and should be treated in the same way. We have our own blog dedicated to pearl care which will tell you the best ways to preserve your pearl jewellery, but the important thing to remember is to always dry strung pearl jewellery, such as necklaces and bracelets, flat so that their delicate threads don't stretch. Click here to see our pearl care blog. Porous stones can be gently cleaned in the same way as pearls, by dipping a soft brush in a solution of warm water and mild woollen detergent and gently polishing. Always make sure they are fully air-dried before storing again. If you're not sure if your gems are porous the safest thing is to treat them as if they are. You don't want any contaminants working their way into your precious gems!
If you enjoy wearing your heirloom jewellery regularly it's important to minimise its contact with chemicals if you're going to keep it looking its best. Always remove your rings before washing your hands or doing the dishes, and put all jewellery on last after make-up and perfume have been applied. Chemicals in perfumes and oils can dull stones and cause tarnish, and in the case of costume jewellery they can also damage any plating that has been applied.
5: STORAGE Whether your jewellery is heirloom or not it should always be carefully stored to prevent scratching and tangling. A velvet or fabric lined box with individual compartments and chain hanging space is great, but if you don't have that it's worth investing in (or making) some little fabric pouches. Jewellery that contains natural gem stones needs to breathe so it's best to avoid storing it in plastic or zip-lock bags, or in an area that's very hot and dry. Velvet drawstring pouches are ideal as they won't scratch your gems and will protect from bumping against other delicate jewellery pieces.
If you don't wear your jewellery regularly, set a date in your calendar every year to check on all your heirloom pieces and give them a gentle polish with a soft cloth. It's a great opportunity to enjoy a little time-travel back through your happy childhood memories, and to share the joy with your own daughters and future grandchildren!
Next week: "Know Your Style: A Buyer's Guide to Earrings". If you've ever struggled to describe the style of earring you're looking for a quick glance at our buyer's guide will soon tell you if it's a stud, drop, hoop, or shoulder duster - or any other style in-between!