• Antique Animal Jewelry

Caring For Your Antique Jewelry: A Guide

Antique jewelry is classified as antique when it's over 100 years old. That means that a lot of antique jewelry is fragile and needs to be worn with care. That’s not to say that you should keep them hidden away in a jewelry box or a display cabinet, you should absolutely be showing off your beautiful antique finds, but you should consider where you’re wearing them and how to keep them looking at their best.

Wear With Care

As with most jewelry, it’s not recommended to wear your antique jewelry while exercising, as this can scratch or dirty your pieces, and sweat can cause reactions in some materials. You should also avoid wearing your antique jewelry while cleaning or gardening, because the harsh chemicals often found in cleaning products and common gardening products can have a damaging effect on antique gemstones and metals.

Take off your antique jewelry, especially rings, while cooking. Not only can they come loose and get lost or dirty while you’re kneading dough or crumbling pastry, but the heat from whatever you have simmering in your pots and pans can also cause some jewels to crack or discolor. Even with great settings that have been professionally checked, the age of the precious metals and the stones in antique jewelry mean that they can come loose easier than in more robust modern jewelry, so be careful with them.

Make-up, deodorant, perfume, hairspray, and lotions can all cause problems with antique jewelry. For instance, antique gold and silver can get stained, and the surface of antique pearls can begin to dissolve when exposed to these products. For this reason, you should remove your jewelry when applying any of these, or make sure that your jewelry is the last thing you put on when you’re getting ready. This can also help to avoid catching your pieces on your clothes. Your products should be perfectly dry before you put your jewelry on.

Cleaning Your Antique Jewelry

Firstly, and most importantly, you should consider carefully when and how your jewelry needs cleaning. Cleaning antique jewelry too aggressively or in the wrong ways and with the wrong things can damage the pieces beyond repair. In some cases, the jewelry may not need cleaning at all, and you might just be scrubbing off what makes the piece special.

Antique jewelry is not meant to look pristine, new, and gleaming bright. With that in mind, patina - which is slow oxidation resulting in a kind of green or brown film on some metals - is sometimes viewed as a flaw that needs to be "cleaned off". However, patina can only be achieved through many years of aging, lending greatly to the antique character of the jewelry, so much so that it's often mimicked in fakes or non-antique pieces to make them look more realistically vintage. In a way, patina is the physical manifestation of the rich history that makes the piece antique. Polishing away patina on old rose or yellow gold antique jewelry can not only erase a lot of its character but can also leave it more vulnerable since patina acts as a kind of seal that protects against destructive rust. Removing patina can also destroy the value of a piece.

Another fundamental note is that some antique pieces are extremely fragile. In these cases, the pieces may be dirty and it may not be possible to clean them, at least not more that a gentle brushing and buffing with a cloth, because any kind of pressure from cleaning could break them or the dirt accrued over time may actually be holding the pieces together. This does not detract from their collectability as beautiful records of workmanship and historical fashions, but it may mean that the piece is not as wearable, and you should be very wary of cleaning these pieces.

If you want an rare antique piece totally dismantled, inspected, cleaned, stones replaced and so on as I have seen suggested be aware that you are inherently changing what that antique piece is, and its history.

What to Clean with

When your antique jewelry does need cleaning, it's important to know that different materials, settings, and stones require different methods and mixtures. For example, it's strongly recommended that you avoid using any harsh chemicals like ammonia or household cleaning products that contain bleach. While gems like modern diamonds can handle stronger chemicals, antique jewels need much gentler care. You should also steer clear of salt water, as it can corrode certain metals.

You can make your own, gentle cleaning solution with lukewarm water and mild, non-ionic soap. Bear in mind that dirtier items don’t need more pressure or more aggressive cleaning, they simply need more time and patience, so go gently but persistently with soft cleaning tools. Some materials or antique pieces shouldn’t get wet at all, so you may not even need a cleaning solution.

Ultrasonic machines for cleaning jewelry should also be avoided with antique jewelry. Unless your antique pieces are made from very sturdy metals with very tight settings, the vibrations of ultrasonic machines can knock stones loose and damage your piece.

Metal by Metal

Closed Settings:

Not pieces to wear in the shower! - A Spanish openwork spray of flowers set with garnets in closed settings, c.1800-1860 (left), a Spanish pendant earring set with five clear pastes in closed settings, c.1865-70 (right) - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Do not get stones in closed settings wet. It doesn’t matter what kind of gemstone it is or what metals the piece contains, if the stones are set in closed settings water can get trapped behind them and weaken the glue or cause corrosion. It will also damage any foils used in the piece. Instead, use a cotton bud dipped in pure, clear alcohol. After cleaning in this way, rinse very gently with another cotton bud dipped in water, then dry with new, dry cotton buds.

If your stones aren’t in closed settings, follow this advice for your metals:


Left: A platinum and gold woven basket filled with enameled and gem-set flowers, Paris, c.1890. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Right: Chased gold and platinum brooch set with a pearl in the form of a squirrel on a branch, with cabochon ruby eyes, c.1890. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Clean your platinum pieces with soapy water and a soft toothbrush. Dry with a soft, clean cloth. Platinum is a hard metal that’s more durable and less likely to break than silver or gold, but this also means that it can scratch other pieces when stored or worn together, so try not to store or wear platinum pieces with softer pieces.


Left: Gold slide with an enameled skeleton holding an arrow with the initials IC on a background of hair, England, c.1700. Middle: Chased gold brooch set in the form of flowers, c.1840-1850 Right: Gold sphere-ring or armillary sphere chased with scrolls and engraved with signs of the zodiac, stars, and other figures, German, c.17thC. - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London & © The Trustees of the British Museum

With gold, a higher carat weight means a softer metal, which means that it can get scratched or damaged more easily. Try to wear similar carat weight items together so that they stand less chance of damaging or scratching each other. Clean gold with a soft, lint-free cloth. This will help to make it look its best while maintaining the patina. Rolled and plated gold will wear if rubbed too much, so watch how often you clean your pieces.


Left: Silver shawl-pin with panels of animal interlace and scrolls in relief, British, c.1851. Right: Oxidised silver and gold demi-parure of a pendant and a pair of earrings with cupids, shell motifs, and pendant beads, Italy, c.1870 - © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Wearing your silver regularly will make it less likely to discolor and keep it in good condition. You can polish your antique silver with a clean, soft cloth like a dust cloth, or soak it in warm soapy water (it should be safe to immerse silver in water) and use a soft toothbrush to remove any more troublesome dirt. Allow the piece to air-dry on a few sheets of clean kitchen towel.

Both Gold and Silver are particularly susceptible to damage by chlorine, so don’t wear your gold and silver pieces to the pool!

Dos and Don'ts

DON'T GET THESE WET OR TOO HOT: Ivory brooches bearing stag, deer, and horse motifs with scrolling leaf ornament, c.1830-1860 - © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Don't submerge the following in water to clean them: Under no circumstances should you get closed settings, ivory, or enamel wet. Don't submerge opal, pearl, and turquoise, which are relatively porous and will lose their luster. Also, amethyst, aquamarine, beryl, citrine, kunzite, and quartz, all of which can discolor if overexposed to water.

Don't use warm water with: amber, carnelian, coral, malachite, pearls, and turquoise. Instead, use a moist cloth and dry immediately with a soft, dry cloth.

You can submerge the following in water: Jet and silver. If you are going to soak pieces to wash them, do it in a bowl so that you don’t risk losing them down the sink.

Don't expose the following to heat: Pearls, opals, and ivory, which crack and chip easily when exposed to heat. Additionally, aquamarines, emeralds, and sapphires can shatter when immersed in hand-hot water.

Don't expose to intense light for extended periods of time: Amethyst, Aquamarine, Beryl, Citrine, Kunzite, Quartz, Turquoise, and Topaz. These can all discolor if overexposed to strong light or direct sunlight.

Gem by Gem, Material by Material


Left: Pendant with a border of half pearls and embroidery of two birds under faceted crystal, England, c.1700. Middle: Pair of gold girandole earrings set with pearls and garnets, Italy, 1820-1867. Right: Gold and enamel pendant mounted with a wax relief under glass, framed in pearls, England, 1798. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Since pearls are extremely soft, you should always wipe them after wearing them with a soft cloth or slightly damp chamois leather to remove anything picked-up over the day that can do long-term damage. For the same reason, avoid wearing pearls with other, harder jewelry so as not to scratch them. That said, wearing pearls regularly helps them maintain their luster. Pearls don't do well with high heat, as they have a high water content so will crack, and they will begin to yellow if they get too dry.

Opal & Turquoise:

Top Left: Opal heart pendant set in gold and surrounded by diamonds, c.1890s - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Top Right: Brooch in the form of an eagle fighting a snake, pavé-set with turquoise, c.1860 Bottom Left: Earrings in the form of bunches of bulrushes and leaves, pavé-set with turquoise, c.1860. Bottom Right: Opal cameo with a border of dots flanked by silver leaves set with diamonds, c.1900. - © The Trustees of the British Museum

Do not use water to clean opal or turquoise, simply buff them gently with a soft cloth or slightly damp chamois leather.

Antique Diamonds:

Left: A gold ring set with a blue diamond surrounded by a border of diamonds and a triangle of diamonds on each shoulder, c.1825. Middle: Diamond bow brooch, possibly Russian, c.1760. Right: Enamelled gold ring with a 4-petal bezel with double cusps, set with a table-cut diamond, with volutes on the shoulders, 19th century. - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

To clean antique diamonds (which pick up grease easily), you can use the homemade mild soapy cleaning solution mentioned above and a soft-bristled toothbrush, taking care to dry diamonds with a clean, soft cotton cloth. You may have heard that diamonds are one of the hardest substances on Earth, but that doesn't mean that they can't get damaged. Putting diamonds in direct contact with other diamonds can cause them to crack and chip, so take care to store them separately.


Left: 16th-century hexagonal emerald in a white, black, blue, green, and red champlevé enamel frame with table-cut diamonds, c.1860-70. - Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021 Middle: Spanish pendant set with Colombian emeralds and table-cut diamonds, c.1700-1715. Right: Necklace and earrings of faceted table-cut emeralds in borders of brilliant-cut diamonds with briolette emerald drops, Nitot & Fils, France, c.1806 - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Emeralds are particularly sensitive to cleaning products and ultrasonic cleaning devices, so steer clear of these. Since a lot of emeralds are fracture-filled with oils, resins, or polymers, heat can damage emeralds by extending existing fractures, and light and chemicals can cause the materials used to fill fractures to alter in appearance, making them more obvious, or causing them to deteriorate.

Other Gemstones:

Left: Cannetille and grainti locket bracelet with foiled amethyst cabochons and other semi-precious stones, possibly French, c.1820-30. Right: Gold and turquoise 'REGARD' locket set with gemstones, c.1840.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

All gemstones will have a rating on the Mohs scale between 1 and 10. The lower the number is, the softer the material. The higher the number, the harder. Gemstones rated 7+ can be cleaned with warm water and mild soap cleaning solution and a soft toothbrush. For gemstones less than 7, you should use a soft cloth rather than a soft brush, but always check the Dos and Don'ts for the specific gemstones.


Left: Pierced and carved ivory brooch with three horses inside a border of oak twigs, c.1830-1860. Right: Ivory lily of the valley brooch with four petalled flowers, c.1850. - © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ivory absorbs stains and water, so clean with a soft-bristled dry brush and keep it away from heat, water, direct sunlight, or a very dry atmosphere.


Left: Enamelled ring with a hunting scene in gold on a blue enamel ground, Germany, 1800-20. Right: Snake finger-ring with braided hair, inscription, and engraving on a blue enamel ground, c.1848. - © The Trustees of the British Museum

Enamel is extremely fragile and should only be blown clean or dusted very gently.

Other materials: Other notes to think about - beware of getting the threads of bracelets and necklaces wet. It can cause them to shrink and eventually rot.

Storing Antique Jewelry

Antique Animal Jewelry - from the AAJ blog on Antique Jewelry Boxes

The best way to store your antique jewelry will always be in individual jewelry boxes or by wrapping them carefully in pure cotton or linen cloth to prevent scratches. The boxes can be fantastic collectors items in themselves. Equally important though is wearing your antique jewelry. Don't be too wary, although they require a bit more care than modern jewelry, they were made to be worn and flaunted, so show them off!

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