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How to Clean Silver and Gemstone Jewellery

silver polishing cloth


1. Looking After Jewellery
2. Keep Silver and Gemstones Covered
3. Removing and Preventing Tarnish
4. Protect from Corrosives
5. Hardness and Toughness
6. Looking After Gemstones

Looking After Your Jewellery

  • Some gemstones should not be allowed to get wet
  • Keep silver jewellery and gemstones covered
  • Silver is very soft so scratches easily
  • Moisture and sunlight increase tarnish
  • Few gemstones are tough not even diamond 

Looking after your silver and gemstone jewellery will ensure your favourite pieces remain in pristine condition.

There's so much information online about how to clean silver and gemstone jewellery that it's difficult to know where to begin.  Whilst some methods being recommended are great, others are genuinely awful.

In one article we read the author recommended dropping gold jewellery with gemstones into white vinegar.  She said leave it soak for fifteen minutes and then scrub with a soft bristled toothbrush.

Whilst gold will not react to vinegar many gemstones will.  If your stone happens to be calcite or eudialyte you'll find there's not much left after a treatment like this.  Many gemstones including turquoise and lapis lazuli do not react well to acids and should not be allowed to get wet.

Our easy to read guide explains how to clean silver and gemstone jewellery safely.  It also offers top tips for keeping your jewellery in pristine condition.

Keep Silver Jewellery and Gemstones Covered

All jewellery should be stored somewhere cool, dry and dark.  If possible place items on something soft.

Keeping silver and gemstones covered with soft material will protect both from marks and scratches.  

Silver is a very soft metal so will scratch if it rubs against a harder material.  That may be the box in which it's being stored or another piece of jewellery.

Mohs Scale of Mineral hardness is a tool widely used to measure the scratch resistance of one mineral against another.  All known minerals are graded 1 to 10 with 1 being the softest, 10 the hardest.  Silver grades 2.5 so can be scratched by a mineral with the same grade or one that's higher.

Gemstones can also be soft, one example is malachite which grades 3.5 to 4.  If amethyst and turquoise rub against each other the turquoise could become scratched.  This is because amethyst is a much harder stone.

Scratches on silver and gemstones can be avoided by keeping pieces separated and covered.

Removing and Preventing Tarnish

Although sterling silver tarnishes pure silver does not.  This is because sterling silver is alloyed with other metals.  Copper which is the industry standard tarnishes.

Pure silver is too soft to be used for many household items so is normally alloyed with at least one other metal.  This improves strength and durability but reduces resistance to tarnish.

Tarnish is a reddish brown substance that forms on the surface of some metals.  It's caused by sulphur containing gases in the atmosphere.  The process is similar to what happens to an apple if not eaten soon after being peeled. 

Humidity speeds up the rate at which silver tarnishes.  For this reason jewellery should not be kept in a bathroom.  Perspiration and bright sunlight have the same effect.

Tarnish forms a fine layer that only covers the top surface of the metal so doesn't cause any damage.  It can usually be easily removed with a soft lint free cloth.  Better still use a branded silver polishing cloth.

Where possible try to avoid using chemical dips for cleaning silver jewellery.  With repeated use these can leave marks which may be difficult if not impossible to remove.

Where silver is heavily tarnished or the shape of the item makes using a polishing cloth difficult, you may have no choice but to use a solution.  Should this be the case choose a good quality product.  Dip the jewellery in for a couple of seconds then dry it immediately with a soft cloth.

A silver polishing cloth should then be used to remove any remaining tarnish.

If using a brush the bristles must be soft.  If too hard you may well end up with fine scratch marks on the silver.

Chemicals should never be used for cleaning jewellery with gemstones.

Protect Jewellery from Corrosives

Silver and gemstone jewellery should always be removed before using a swimming pool or jacuzzi.  Both contain chlorine which is a chemical and a corrosive.  The salt present in seatwater is also a corrosive. 

Perspiration also contains salt so jewellery should preferably be removed but if not be well covered during strenuous exercise.

Silver and gemstones should not be worn in a sauna.  Many stones react negatively to moisture or heat and in some cases both.  Add salt and it's a recipe for disaster.  

Household detergents can leave marks on silver and gemstones.  Try to wear gloves to protect rings or remove them completely.  There is some evidence which suggests latex may speed up the rate at which silver tarnishes.  Many household gloves contain latex.

When out and about if you remove your rings before washing your hands hold them in your mouth or put them in your bag.  Try not to put them in your pocket.  If you forget about them and then sit down they'll likely to become squashed.  Squashing the setting will usually loosen the gemstone.

Even after being alloyed with copper, sterling silver is still very soft. 

If silver is wrapped in paper, cardboard or plastic for any length of time it will tarnish.  This is because of the presence of moisture.  Small packets of silica gel can often be found inside packaging because they absorb moisture.

silica gel packets

Gemstone Hardness and Toughness

Rocks and minerals have evolved over millions of years but if not well looked after will quickly become damaged.

Most people think of stones as being hard and resilient but that's not always the case.  Although some will scratch more easily than others, hardness should not be confused for toughness.

Diamond which is the hardest known substance on the planet grades 10 on Mohs scale.  That means it can't be scratched by any other mineral.  Not even a knife will scratch a diamond but a diamond will scratch a knife. 

Just because a mineral is hard it doesn't make it strong or tough.  Pure gold grades 2.5 to 3 on Mohs scale but pound it with a hammer and it won't crack or break.  A small piece of gold when repeatedly struck will just get flatter and flatter.  Strike a diamond with something hard and you'll smash it to smithereens.

Look After Your Gemstones

For gemstones to remain in pristine condition they must be well looked after.  Chrysocolla and malachite are widely used in jewellery yet are soft and fragile.

Many gemstones including amethyst, citrine, topaz, fluorite and turquoise will gradually fade or change colour if exposed to bright sunlight.  The colour of opal is said to shine brighter in sunlight but heat will cause it to dehydrate.  A dehydrated opal will crack.

Although many gemstones can tolerate heat, some may crack internally or externally if exposed to a sudden change in temperature.

Despite its popularity turquoise is particularly fragile.  It's sensitive to heat so is prone to cracking and changing colour.  Contact with perfumes, hairspray and cosmetics can also cause damage if not removed.

Before putting silver and gemstones away try to wipe them with a soft lint free cloth.  This will remove any pollutants that may have built up.  Lint free means it doesn't give off fluff caused by fibres used in its manufacture.

Dust contains solid matter which can include microscopic particles of quartz.  Quartz is relatively hard so wiping dust off a soft gemstone may leave minute scratches.   

Whilst it's okay to clean many gemstones in warm soapy water others should not be allowed to get wet.  Malachite is one example because it's an ore of copper.  Turquoise and pyrite must also not be allowed to get wet.  Lapis lazuli doesn't react well to water because it's included with pyrite.

Some jewellery can be cleaned in an ultrasonic cleaner but many stones will crack if cleaned in this way.

Doing some research on how to clean silver and gemstone jewellery before you start is a great idea.  Try to read a few articles and cross reference the information carefully.  What sounds like good advice may end up causing permanent damage to a much loved gemstone or piece of jewellery.

When it comes to looking after silver and gemstone jewellery, prevention is always better than cure.

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