How to Clean Antique and Vintage Jewelry

Vintage jewelry is captivating, romantic, innovative, and each object tells a personal story, whether about its provenance or current ownership. Collectors love antique and estate pieces for their beauty and uniqueness. If you are lucky enough to own an amazing piece of antique, vintage, or period jewelry, you’ll need to know a few basic maintenance tips as well as when to seek professional help.

Lot 527, Jean Schlumberger for Tiffany & Co. gold and enamel bangle bracelet,
mid-20th century, Eldred’s (April 9)

How to Clean Modern Fine & Estate Jewelry

Modern fine and some estate jewelry can be gently hand-cleaned at home. For post-20th century jewelry pieces that are mounted in platinum, gold or silver and have modern, open-back settings, use a soft toothbrush and very light solution of dish detergent and warm water. But, if there is any question as to the age of an estate, or second-hand item, take it to a trusted professional to find out if DIY cleaning is advisable.

Pro Tips:

1) Never clean an item if it has any damage or irregularity in the settings or loose gemstones. All repairs must be made prior to cleaning.

2) When cleaning jewelry with a soft toothbrush and a light dish detergent mixture, use light strokes in and around the gemstones and on the metal. Never scrub.

3) Tarnish can be removed from sterling pieces by using a small amount of silver polish and a soft cloth. Once the tarnish is removed, wash off the polish by hand with the light detergent mix.

4) Antiquarian jewelers generally offer free maintenance and cleaning. Don’t hesitate to take them up on this.

Lot 478, Lapis lazuli cameo with Venus & Cupid, enamel decor,
16th/17th century, Auctionata AG (April 6)

Cleaning Antique Jewelry Requires a Professional

“Antique” technically means the piece is more than one hundred years old. Not everyone knows how to handle these properly. If antique jewelry is over-cleaned, the piece could get damaged or ruined and its value could drop significantly. Both antique and some estate jewelry is delicate and requires the professional skills of a reputable jeweler to maintain it.

Pro Tips:

1) If the gemstones are mounted in closed-back settings that are lined in foil, immersing them in water will damage the foiling and the gems will appear dark and dull.

2) Another delicate jewelry technique found in antique pieces is enamel. Its glass-like surface can be scratched or damaged by too much scrubbing, even with a soft toothbrush.

3) If gemstones are loose in their settings, DIY cleaning can result in loss.

4) The mechanical elements of these pieces, for example clasps, pin stems, and bails, can be bent or broken if held or pinched improperly during a cleaning.

Lot 124, Multi-cut diamond, pearl, and gold necklace, Kodner Galleries (April 6)

Organic & Soft Materials Need Special Care

Certain organic materials like amber, coral, and pearl are used in place of gemstones in jewelry. Much of this material is soft and requires hand cleaning. To keep these pieces looking their best, follow some simple rules.

Pro Tips:

1) Keep perfume, make-up, and facial creams away from pearls, turquoise, and coral. These porous materials will darken or discolor when exposed to chemicals, perfumes, and oils.

2) Clean pearls separately with a light detergent mix and allow them to dry on a clean towel. Leave pearl strands on a towel until completely dry—the silk thread used to string them will stretch when wet.

3) Never immerse wood jewelry in water. Clean it with bees wax instead—the scent is organic and amazing.

Lot 625, Coro Duett costume jewelry brooch with enamel, Henry’s Auktionhaus (April 28)

Keeping Costume Jewelry Fun

For costume jewelry, first determine if the crystals in the piece are set in open- or closed-back mountings. Flip the piece over to see if you can see the bottom of the gemstone as it sits in its setting. If you can, it’s an open-back setting.

Pro Tips:

1) If the crystals are set in open-back mounting without foiling, you can immerse them in water and gently clean them with a toothbrush and light detergent mix.

2) A lot of crystal jewelry is foiled and set in a closed-back mounting: they can’t be immersed in water, ever. Just wipe with a soft cloth after each wearing to remove make-up, oils, or perfume.

Lot 157, Walnut jewelry box with brass inlay, Northgate Gallery (April 9)

When Condition is Everything, Storage is Key

Proper jewelry storage is the easiest and most effective way to maintain your jewelry in prime condition. There are a wide variety of storage ideas available, from expensive cases and armoires to creative drawer arrangements that not only delight the eye but also give cast-off containers a clever re-purposing.

Pro Tips:

1) Necklaces and bracelets are probably the most difficult jewel to store properly because they can be cumbersome or get knotted.

2) If you have the original box, use it. Can’t see inside the box? Try taking a picture of the necklace, print it out and tape it to the box.

3) Love seeing an array of options when getting dressed? DIY: go to an art supply store that carries top-loading floating frames (they have hinges). Open the frame, and line it with cotton batting. If you prefer a more finished look, cover the cotton batting with a piece of decorative fabric.

Lay your necklace on top of the batting and secure to the batting with a safety pin. The frame can then be stored in a drawer of your closet; all you have to do is take it out without rummaging through boxes.

4) If you’re on a budget, plastic baggies will do nicely. Professional jewelers keep much of their pieces in small, thick, re-sealable plastic bags that come in a variety of sizes—you can purchase these online or at a crafts store. Zip-lock snack baggies from the supermarket are fine, too.