the art of fine jewelry

Properly caring for your jewelry means Whitney, (and Alyvia), might not see it at the workbench for big repairs.

General jewelry care guidelines

Below are some tips and solutions to jewelry care issues. Fine jewelry is an investment that can last for generations with proper care and upkeep. Should the unfortunate happen, we recommend insuring your fine jewelry. Depending on your policy, an arts and antiquities rider is sometimes recommended. It is best to discuss this topic with your agent.

We are happy to work with Jewelers Mutual Insurance, who offer coverage to both businesses and individuals. Jewelers Mutual was founded by jewelers in 1913 and remains the leading insurer solely dedicated to insuring jewelry and the jewelry industry. You can visit their website at or stop in to see us for more details.

Knowing what to reasonably expect from your jewelry is key to maintaining it properly. In many years as a jeweler I have found that lots of otherwise rational people believe jewelry is somehow exempt from the ravages of time and wear. My theory is that it is easy to unconsciously confuse the timeless sentiments and family bonds symbolized by a piece of jewelry with the jewelry itself.

The truth is, all jewelry metals are relatively soft--even platinum--and will scratch and eventually wear out. A ring that is worn daily will need prongs rebuilt or replaced every few years, and the shank (back) of the ring will eventually become thin and need to be replaced. Any jewelry with moving parts or places where two pieces of metal come in contact (the links in chains come to mind) will wear thin and eventually break. Surface finishes will wear down and disappear completely in time. Stones will scratch and chip, facet junctions will become worn; stones may fall out, either because they shatter into pieces or their settings give way. Even a diamond isn’t necessarily “forever”--it, too, can chip and fracture.

Recommended jewelry maintenance includes regular professional checkups to insure that stones are tight--a loose stone will wear out its prongs from the inside--and that the prongs have sufficient metal left to be secure. This is especially important in these days of mass-produced lightweight jewelry, when the life span of most commercial jewelry can be counted in years, not decades. Most jewelers will gladly oblige you with a free “clean and check”. Pearl strands and bead necklaces should be restrung every couple of years or whenever the silk begins to bag or fray.

Cleaning your jewelry

Gems and jewelry always look their best when they are clean. There are many metal cleaners, tarnish removers and polishes on the market; most of these are fine for metals but may damage or discolor certain gems. A rouge cloth, a soft cloth impregnated with red diatomaceous earth (also known as jewelers’ rouge), available at most hardware stores, is good for removing fine scratches and tarnish from metal surfaces. Buy one for each type of metal you want to polish--silver, gold, platinum--and keep them separate. Toothpaste is NOT a good metal polish and may damage certain gems. Ultrasonic cleaners are fine for plain gold jewelry, especially chains, but they can fracture opals, pearls, emeralds, or in fact any gem with open inclusions, and most ultrasonic cleaning solutions are not suitable for organic gems and certain precious stones like turquoise and malachite.

When wearing jewelry, apply common sense liberally: don’t sleep with your jewelry on, especially chains. Water will make rings slip off, so leave rings at home when you’re enjoying water sports. I can’t count the number of sad tales I’ve heard about vain attempts to retrieve a beloved wedding ring from the lake. Remove hand jewelry before gardening, housecleaning, or any work where your jewelry may come in contact with hard or rough surfaces. You’d be surprised how much damage can be done by a steel filing cabinet or a car door. And if you have to remove an earring or ring (or any other jewelry, for that matter) when you’re out and about, don’t put it in a coin purse or in a pocket with coin or keys.

Two chemical hazards to jewelry are bleach and mercury. A quick dip in bleach to kill germs, followed by a good rinse in water, is no problem for most jewelry. (Malachite, turquoise and organic gems like pearl and coral are the exception and should not be dipped in ANY chemical cleaner.) But if gold jewelry is soaked in bleach for any period of time, the alloy metals start to dissolve. This damage is subtle but can result in cracks appearing if the metal is stressed.

Mercury, the liquid metal in many thermometers, will bond with gold to form a poisonous amalgam that can’t be removed. If you get mercury on a ring, take it to a jeweler immediately. The affected area can sometimes be ground off or cut out and replaced if the mercury hasn’t migrated too far up the ring shank.

Storing your jewelry

Store your jewelry in separate containers or compartments, not mixed together, because harder gems will scratch softer ones and almost all gems will scratch gold or silver. Pearls and beads should be stored flat so the thread doesn’t stretch out.

Don’t store jewelry in plastic bags. Some plastics emit vapors that can pit and discolor metal and corrode the surface of pearls and certain other gems.

Opals, amber, and pearls and other organic gems should not be put in long-term storage in a safe deposit box, because the dry air there can cause them to crack or craze.

Opals should not be stored at freezing temperatures because they may craze. Opals should not be subjected to rapid changes in temperature.



(The following care advice pertains to all types of pearls, coral and mother-of-pearl (shell) material).

Because they are an organic gem comprised of calcium carbonate, pearls require more specialized care than most other gems materials.  They are particularly subject to deterioration from contact with chemicals, including components in household cleaners, perfumes, cosmetics and hair care products of all kinds.

The surface of a pearl is soft and is easily damaged.  Pearls set in rings and bracelets are more subject to scuffing and scratching than pearls set in brooches, earrings, necklaces or strands.  A pearl ring or bracelet should be considered a special-occasion piece, not for daily wear and DEFINITELY not to be worn while working with the hands.

A good rule of thumb is that pearls are THE LAST THING YOU PUT ON when dressing and THE FIRST THING YOU TAKE OFF when you get home.  NEVER apply perfume or hairspray when you are wearing pearl jewelry, especially a strand of pearls.

Pearl strands should be stored separately from other jewelry because the surface of a pearl is soft and easily scratched by other gems.  A silk bag, velvet-lined box or pearl folder--a satin-lined leatherette envelope with snaps to hold a strand in place--are all good places to store pearls.  Your local jeweler is a good source for these items.

Never store pearls in a plastic bag.  Some types of plastic emit a chemical that will cause the surface of your pearls to deteriorate.

Don't store pearls in a safe or safety deposit box for long periods.  The same ultra-dry atmospheric conditions that extend the life of paper documents may dry out your pearls and cause them to craze--to develop small fractures in the surface.

Pearl strands should be stored flat rather than hanging so the thread won't stretch out prematurely.

Pearl strands should be restrung every one to two years or more often if the thread begins to bag or fray. Silk and nylon beading threads are the most commonly used materials for stringing pearls.

Knotting between beads offers the most security for your pearls; no matter where the strand breaks, you only stand to lose a single bead.  The look of the knotted strand is not to everyone's taste, however. Whether you string your pearls with or without knots, the first three or four beads on either side nearest the clasp should be knotted because this area takes the most stress and is the commonest place for a strand to break.

It’s best to have pearls professionally cleaned.  If you must do it yourself, here’s how:

Lay the strand flat on a clean soft cloth or towel.  Make a mild solution of soap flakes (I use Ivory soap flakes) and warm water, and apply with a new pure natural bristle complexion or manicure brush, scrubbing gently.  Being careful to support the strand so as not to stretch the thread, turn the necklace over and repeat.  To rinse, submerge the strand in cool water flush with cool tap water for a minimum of five minutes. Carefully remove the strand from the water and lay it on a fresh towel to air dry. Don't move it until it is completely dry.
Other pearl jewelry:
The principle is the same: use only a mild soap and a natural bristle brush, then rinse with cool water for at least five minutes.


Never use your pearl cleaning brush for anything else, and store it where it will not become dusty or soiled. Pearls will naturally darken slightly with age and wear.  The golden or creamy tones that come with age cannot be removed.

~Questions about gems and jewelry may be addressed to gemologist Hanna Cook-Wallace at Studio Jewelers, 1306 Regent Street, Madison, WI  53715, telephone (608) 257-2627. You may email her at: