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Costume jewelry by definition is made of inexpensive materials and imitation gems, but that does not mean it is of lesser value. Some pieces are so rare and of such extraordinary quality that they are worth thousands of dollars.
Also, there is the aesthetic and sentimental value, as they become an essential part of a family’s legacy passed from generation to generation. So the better care you take of costume jewelry, the longer it will be a treasured part of your family’s history.
We love the intricate and elaborate designs of costume jewelry—the clusters, the filigree metalwork, the juxtaposition of gemstones and beads. Moreover, it is due to those intricacies that we must take great care as we restore vintage jewelry to its original splendor.
Here, we are sharing what we have learned about cleaning vintage costume jewelry and hope that you will find it, as we have, a labor of love.
Before You Start
Before doing anything at all, dust off the piece with a soft brush.
The tiniest particles can scratch the surface of your costume jewelry. In fact, this is such an important step; you would be wise to invest in a loupe or magnifying glass for the particles that can’t be seen with the naked eye or are hiding deep in crevices.
Once you have cleared off the dust and debris, you are ready to clean your vintage costume jewelry.
Metals accumulate verdigris (aka “gunk”) due to being exposed to the air. You’ll know it's verdigris when you see what looks like a green or blue-green mold.
If the verdigris is not cleaned off promptly, it will spread, becoming more challenging to remove or it can be severe enough that it actually corrodes the metal.
It would help if you also kept in mind that verdigris can be “contagious” and contaminate nearby jewelry, especially when a jewelry drawer or box is in a tangled mess.
- Soak the metal in white vinegar for 15-30 minutes.
- Wipe dry.
- Use a cotton swab or a soft toothbrush to clean out nooks and crannies.
- You can use toothpicks for gently scraping off the verdigris in tight places or near individual beads.
If the finish has already become corroded and cleaning it leaves small bare spaces, remember that those spaces are preferable to allowing the verdigris to continue growing or getting rid of the piece. There is no shame in a spot where the metal has worn away. In fact, it often adds character to vintage jewelry.
There are two kinds of rhinestones on vintage jewelry: open back and foil back.
Open Back Rhinestones
Open-back rhinestones are not backed with a silver or gold foil. If you look at the back of them, you see the glass the same as you do in the front. This makes cleaning the rhinestones easy.
- Stir a drop or two of clear dishwashing liquid into a small bowl of cold or lukewarm water. You don’t want it bubbly.
- Immerse the rhinestones into the mixture, clean with a soft toothbrush and dry thoroughly.
Foil-backed rhinestones must be treated more carefully because the foil is fragile. The smallest scratch in the foil or the slightest indication of peeling will ruin the look of the stone. The color may darken or get cloudy or fade significantly.
Do not ever immerse foil-backed rhinestones—not in anything! Cleaning must be done very gently and with a minimal amount of water.
- Use Windex* to lightly moisten a soft toothbrush, soft cloth or cotton swab, then shake it out and even dry it some. You want it only slightly damp.
- You can also use a wooden or plastic toothpick to dislodge dust from out-of-the-way places.
- When you are through, buff dry with a polishing cloth or a soft microfiber cloth.
*You may also use rubbing alcohol or one drop of greatly diluted baby shampoo. The main concern is that foil-backed rhinestones never get wet.
Both Types Must be Completely Dry
In either case, open-back or foil-back, leave the rhinestones out for at least an hour. They must be completely dry before you put them away. Even the least amount of moisture on them will cause deterioration.
Semi Precious Gemstones
There are so many semi-precious stones with different properties that it would be impossible to list them all here and how to clean each.
However, some generalizations apply to all or most, such as, do not ever immerse semi-precious stones in anything. Do not soak, steam clean or use ultrasonic cleaners or jewelry dips.
Some examples of care for popular semi-precious stones are below. To be safe, ask a trusted jeweler.
- Turquoise, Lapis Lazuli, Coral, Moonstone: Wipe with a smooth, barely damp cloth.
- Topaz, Onyx, Chalcedony: Use a soft brush and soapy water. These stones can be rinsed, albeit quickly.
- Pearls: Wipe your pearls as soon as you take them off. If the pearls are cultured, you can wash them in mild soapy water.
Enamel jewelry attracts debris, such as chemicals, lotions (particularly oil-based), dust, and whatever pollutants might be floating around. Perhaps none of it is all that noticeable at a glance, but you will notice the loss of shine. Also, you are risking damage to the structure of the piece.
- Carefully place your enamel jewelry into a nylon jewelry bag or an old nylon stocking. Zip or tie shut.
- Fill the sink with warm water and add enough (about a few squirts) of dishwashing liquid to make the water soapy.
- Place the nylon bag into the water and move the jewelry around gently, being careful not to hit it against the sink.
- Let the jewelry bag soak for about 10 minutes.
- Delicately remove each piece and place on a lint-free cloth.
- If you see any remaining debris, clean off with a very soft toothbrush.
- Drain the water from the sink.
- Rinse one piece at a time under running water and place on a second dry soft cloth.
- Buff with a special polishing cloth and your vintage enamel will be as lustrous as new.
Even with all your costume jewelry lovingly cleaned and in “protective custody,” waiting to add glamour, drama or intrigue to any outfit, you may be thinking about adding to your collection.
It’s time consuming (but fun) going to estate sales or flea markets or any of the many places where you have discovered those exquisite pieces. You will be a more focused and more discerning shopper if you take the time now to learn about the Best Vintage Costume Jewelry Brands.
Let us know in the comments below if you have any questions! We love to help 🙂
Happy Jewelry Cleaning,