Timeless but not Indestructable

Author: Nanz Aalund
Released: 6/30/2008 2:38:47 PM

In 1780 the Conquistadors smashed one priceless Colombian emerald after another, believing that true emeralds should withstand any blow. In 1960, during one of their infamous fights, Elizabeth Taylor pitched the flawless Taylor-Burton diamond at Richard Burton. The impact of its landing on a marble floor cracked the diamond’s edge and thereby dropped its clarity grade and value. In the spring of 1994, one of my clients was horrified to realize that in her attempt to keep her pearls from being stolen, she had ruined them by hiding them in her freezer.

Ignorance of the proper care for jewelry and gemstones was the cause of these and many other small disasters. Of the many erroneous beliefs that surround jewelry, one of the most dangerous and pervasive is the misconception that jewelry does not wear out. The danger of this misconception is twofold. First, without being aware of the special care jewelry and gemstones require, most people may not store or clean their jewelry properly, running the risk of destroying their cherished heirlooms, like my client did with her pearls. The second danger is, while harboring the idea that jewelry does not wear out, a person may wear their jewelry during inappropriate activities or in damaging ways.

For example, it has been fashionable to wear a pearl or gold bracelet on the same wrist with a stainless steel Rolex watch. Yet, after wearing the bracelets of softer materials against the stainless steel, the constant abrasion will cause the gold to break and wear grooves into the pearls. Large hoop earrings are very popular but, if worn to bed the hoops can catch on bed linens causing pierce ears to tear and bleed. A gentleman may purchase an opal ring and proceed to wear it to work on a construction site. In my many years as a goldsmith and jewelry designer, I have often heard clients comment, “I wasn’t doing anything and the stone just fell out!” Upon closer examination, the piece of jewelry shows signs of prolonged wear, such as missing prongs, bent shanks, dents, and gouges in the metal.

If an owner is unaware of the special care their jewelry requires, it is tempting for them to jump to the conclusion that, should their jewelry become damaged, it must be an inferior product. What most people don’t realize is that every time we grasp a handle, turn a knob, or wash our hands, we leave minute traces of gold from our jewelry behind. The skin on the palms of our hands is being totally replaced every seven days due to this kind of abrasion, yet we do not notice its loss because it is on a molecular level. While our skin replaces itself, our rings, watches, and bracelets do not fare as well, and with time, the damage adds up.

This misconception that jewelry shouldn’t wear out seems to be particularly difficult to dispel. Perhaps some people have subconsciously interpreted the wonderfully romantic DeBeers advertising slogan, “A diamond is forever” to mean literally “a diamond cannot be broken” or “diamond jewelry will last forever.” While the youngest diamond in any jeweler’s showcase was formed approximately 97 billion years ago — which is pretty close to forever, even the Diamond Information Center (DeBeers marketing division) admits that a strong blow will chip or break a diamond. Another factor compounding this misconception is the abundance of “estate” jewelry, which is often mistaken for “antique” jewelry, thereby giving the erroneous impression that lots of jewelry lasts a hundred years. What is the difference between antique and estate jewelry? Federal law requires proof that a piece of jewelry be at least one hundred year old to be classified as an antique, whereas estate jewelry is simply jewelry that has been previously owned and maybe only a few years old.

The fact about most surviving antique jewelry is that it was not worn on a daily basis. Antique jewelry and pieces from the 1920s and 1930s that we see in the market today have endured because they were kept in safe deposit boxes for most of their existence. The reason you are able to wear grandmother’s ring is because grandmother (or great-grandmother) kept it in her jewel box and would only wear it on special occasions. Like her best china and finest linens, grandmother kept her best jewelry and heirloom pieces safe from the damages that daily wear would cause. While grandmother would not have dreamt of wearing her finest jewelry during household chores or yard work, today’s active woman does not think to remove her jewelry during such activities. Current marketing surveys show that over 80 percent of jewelry sold is purchased by women for themselves, and often modern women continue to wear their jewelry while gardening, at work, and while playing sports.

To help you get more years of enjoyment from your jewelry, it is important to learn the proper care considerations for your fine pieces. First, it is best to remove all jewelry before engaging in sports, household chores, yard work, and at bedtime. It is obviously dangerous to wear neck chains, bracelets and rings while participating in sports such as football and basketball, but tennis and racquetball are equally damaging to your jewelry. Even the seemingly harmless sport of swimming can have disastrous effects on jewelry. Chlorinated water in pools, spas, and hot tubs attack gold alloys, causing them to become brittle and break. During house cleaning or gardening, you will come into contact with many abrasive surfaces, compounds, and chemicals that can scratch and discolor gold, platinum, and gemstones. While it maybe true that “diamonds are a girls best friend,” a porcelain sink is a diamond’s worst enemy and is known to chip its facets. Finally, I discourage friends and family from wearing their jewelry to bed. The wearable lifespan of your jewelry can be reduced by 50% due to its being caught and snagging on bed linens and sleepwear, not to mention the possible injury necklaces and earring may cause the wearer when worn to bed.

Cleaning gold and silver jewelry is easy and, when done properly on a regular basis, will lengthen the wearable lifespan of your jewelry. The first step in cleaning your jewelry at home is to give it a good soak. A simple solution of one part degreasing dish soap and four parts warm water will help remove dulling films like hairspray, hand lotion, and soap film. Allow the jewelry to soak overnight, and then scrub the jewelry lightly with a soft bristle toothbrush, getting into the back and side areas. Strung beads and pearls should not be soaked but rubbed gently with a damp cloth. The second step is polishing. Many jewelry stores give out small polishing cloths with purchases, but you can also purchase them from jewelry tool suppliers. These cloths are treated with mild polishing compounds and, when rubbed against the metal of a jewelry item, will bring back its luster.

Finally, rinse your jewelry in clear water and blot it dry on a soft hand towel. Any discoloration or dirt that this process cannot remove should be brought to the attention of a professional jeweler, who can have the piece cleaned ultrasonically and steamed. Professional polishing can also be performed by your local jeweler.

If any jewelry item has loose gemstones, it should be brought to a professional jeweler for repair before the gemstones are lost. Taking your jewelry in to your local jeweler for biannual checkups is a great way to catch wear before it becomes a serious problem. This service is offered free by most professional jewelers. Don’t hesitate to ask your jeweler any questions you might have about caring for your jewelry. The more you know about caring for your jewels, the greater — and longer lasting — your enjoyment of them will be.

This article first appeared in the January/February issue of “Jewelers Quarterly” magazine in 1995. It has been reprinted on dozens of independent jeweler’s websites and translated into 4 foreign languages. I am happy to update it and bring it home to my own website. — Nanz Aalund