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10 top tips to help care for & clean jewelry

10 terrific tips to clean and care for your gold, silver and gemstone jewelry.

Let's face it, like many people you've noticed your precious jewelry getting tarnished or just plain grimy and you're not quite sure what to do about it.

All jewelry needs some cleaning, care and attention to be kept at its sparkling best - especially precious metal jewelry - and we're here to help.

Because many people aren't sure where to start with looking after their jewelry, here are our top 10 info-packed tips to help you learn about precious metal jewelry and how best to easily clean and care for it, including our magical low-tech Yeah, science! jewelry cleaning method.

(Our new jewelry shop in the USA opens soon. Join us to be first to know when we launch & get great bonuses as well)

Let's get started:

1. Sterling silver always tarnishes over time

Sterling silver is a precious metal alloy made with 92% pure silver and 7.5% copper. The copper makes the silver stronger, making it much more suitable for use in jewelry making than pure silver, which is very soft.

Pure silver does slowly tarnish by reacting with chemicals in the air, but it goes a dull grey color. However, copper is a much more reactive metal which forms a brown-black oxide on the surface.

Given the mix of the two metals you will get grey to black tarnish on your sterling silver jewelry, especially when exposed to air and even more so in a humid environment.

The more you wear your silver jewelry, the less tarnish it will accumulate as it will be worn off.

Read on for the best ways to clean your beautiful silver jewelry.

2. Pure gold doesn't tarnish, but gold alloys can

Pure gold is the most non-reactive of all metals: it won't react with oxygen, meaning it won't tarnish. 

However, gold alloys commonly used in jewelry can tarnish somewhat, especially at lower carats (8-10ct). This is caused by the other metals used in the alloys reacting with air and liquids, similar to the way that the copper in sterling silver reacts to form tarnish.

In general tarnish isn't as much of an issue with gold as it is with silver. So what's the downside of gold? That's easy: cost. Currently 18ct gold is over 50 times more expensive per gram than sterling silver.

We rarely make entirely gold jewelry in our range due to the expense, but we do include gold highlights and other gold plated finish.

3. Not all metals are what they seem

White gold:

What you see on the surface of white gold jewelry is very unlikely to be gold. White gold is actually a warm grey color: not the bright white you see in most jewelry shops. This coloring is the result of the metal being plated with a layer of rhodium.

Rhodium doesn't tarnish, but the plating will eventually wear through, showing some of the greyer gold underneath. If this happens you can take your white gold jewelry to a manufacturing jeweler to be re-plated.

Sterling silver:

Sometimes manufactured sterling silver jewelry may also be plated with rhodium or with a layer of pure silver. The latter can tarnish a bit with a matte grey finish.

If your sterling silver is plated you may find it reacts differently to your skin compared to regular sterling silver.

Most of the handmade silver jewelry we sell in our online shop is un-plated sterling silver.

Gold vermeil:

Vermeil is made from sterling silver which has been coated (usually heavily) with high carat gold.

This gives you the luminous color of gold for a fraction of the cost and with the upside of a precious metal under the gold plating. We think it's a great solution to the cost of purchasing solid gold jewelry and we use it often.

The downside is that the gold layer can fade or wear off over time. You should always polish your vermeil jewelry carefully and to store it in a way that keeps it clean so you need to polish it less often.

Gold filled:

Elizabethan etched and gilded earrings in sterling silver and 23ct gold.

Gold filled jewelry is not actually filled with gold: quite the opposite. It's a base metal which is coated with a thick and hard wearing layer of gold. Again this is vastly less expensive than solid gold.

Your gold filled jewelry can generally take a bit more wear and tear than vermeil, but you should still take care to avoid removing the outer layer of gold given that you won't want to see the base metal beneath.

Again, be careful when polishing and cleaning it to avoid removing the outer layer of gold and try to keep your gold filled jewelry clean and free from tarnish so it needs polishing and cleaning less often.

Gilded metal:

Gilded jewelry has been covered with usually high carat gold foil (slightly thicker than gold leaf) using an ancient technique to bond the foil to the other metal (usually sterling silver).

This creates a really beautiful finish, particularly when 23ct gold is used as the color is luminous.

However, the surface is fragile to some extent and care should be taken when cleaning these pieces. Again, careful polishing and keeping your jewelry clean for as long as possible is helpful to protect the surface.

4. Tarnish on precious metals is easy to clean

High quality precious metal polishing cloth for cleaning jewellery.

So how do you solve the problem of tarnish on precious metals? Here's the deal:

Using a silver dip (available from many supermarkets, hardware shops and jewelers) with suitable jewelry will almost instantly clean tarnish off silver.

Always follow the instructions and rinse thoroughly after. Note that you should not use silver dip on silver which has blackened areas as part of the design or with some porous gemstones.

Alternatively use a precious metal polishing cloth. Or you can use our nifty and eco-friendly Yeah, Science! jewelry cleaning method below.

The tarnish on silver is not like rust which eats into metal: the surface underneath the layer of tarnish will still be pristine once it is cleaned correctly.

5. Silver tarnish can be removed using Yeah, Science!

This is an eco-friendly way to clean jewelry and it does a good job removing tarnish.

How does it work? Here's the deal:

Place a piece of aluminium foil which covers the bottom of a small bowl. Then pour a cup of hot water over the foil and mix in:

  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon of baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon dish washing detergent

Put the jewelry to be cleaned into the bowl so it sits on top of the foil and is covered by the solution. After 5 to 10 minutes you can rinse your jewelry in cool water and dry it with a soft cloth. Discard the solution and the foil. Repeat if necessary.

6. Jewelry doesn't just tarnish: it gets dirty

Like anything else, your jewelry will accumulate grime in crevices from being worn and even dust from sitting around unworn. You may not even notice this happening because it's a slow process, but you'll find that a good clean will make the world of difference to how your jewelry looks.

You can use a cheap ultrasonic cleaner to remove dirt and grime from your jewelry - it will do a good job quickly. However, see the special care section below to learn when not to use it.

Alternatively use a soft brush or cloth with warm soapy water to wash away accumulated grime and dirt.

7. Using toothpaste to clean jewelry is a bad idea.

Toothpaste is used by some people to clean jewelry as its gritty composition can remove tarnish and dirt from the surface of metal.

So what's the problem?

Unfortunately toothpaste also removes some of the metal itself, which is definitely not a good thing.

While this may not be immediately noticeable for solid silver or gold pieces, repeated cleaning in this way over time will reduce the quantity of metal and will eventually cause problems if the piece is delicate. It will also lightly scuff a highly polished surface and remove any plating or similar finishes.

It's an extremely bad idea to use this or other harsh cleaning methods with plated, gilded or vermeil finishes which have a layer of precious metal on the surface - or any other sort of coloring.

8. Some metal jewelry requires special care

Geometric panel pendant in silver and gold pigment.

If your jewelry is gilded, plated, has a vermeil finish, is patinated (chemically colored - including blackened) or has any other coated finish, you should take care with cleaning so as not to damage or remove the surface.

The geometric panel pendant shown here is sterling silver, but the interior has been coated with a gold wax pigment for color. This is an example of a piece of jewelry that requires extra care.

In these instances never rub the metal too vigorously and try to keep the jewelry generally clean and free of tarnish so it doesn't need much effort to clean.

Silver dip is not recommended for use on patinated surfaces.

9. Also take care cleaning jewelry with gemstones

Jewelry designs with diamonds, rubies and sapphires are generally safe to clean in an ultrasonic cleaner, but other gemstones may not be. If you have any doubt don't use an ultrasonic cleaner with other gems.

In particular opaque gemstones, including pearls, opals, turquoise and lapis lazuli, can be porous. You should take care cleaning them and never use an ultrasonic cleaner or any chemicals (including silver dip). A soft cloth with some water should be fine to use on the stones and you should be able to carefully clean the metal around them with a precious metal polishing cloth or similar.

Finally, pearls in particular are organic and can be discolored by perfume, soap and make up, so take care.

10. Jewelry storage is important

Keeping your jewelry in a dry environment without circulating air can help to slow down tarnish and prevents dust from accumulating. A jewelry box or pouch can help.

Avoiding humidity in storage areas is important. The bathroom really isn't a good place for your jewelry to be kept unless it's in a well sealed container.

If you live in a humid location it's a good idea to take extra care to keep your jewelry stored away from damp air.

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