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How to Care for Vintage Jewelry

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Like any other 5-year-old, I loved playing dress up. Sometimes it was to mimic some beloved character or persona, but mostly it was just to get dolled up for a tea party. In fact, some of my fondest memories of this favorite pastime involve trying on my grandmother’s jewelry. Hey, I’m a Southerner and it just isn’t a tea party until you’re wearing pearls. The many boxes that sat atop my grammy’s dresser were an incredible treasure trove that brought peals of giddy laughter from me and my sisters. Being the good sport that she was, grammy would let us dig in with abandon — nothing was off limits. A little something from Tiffany might sit cozily around my neck beside a Bakelite bib necklace and a dangly pair of Napier clip-on faux pearl earrings. And as any 5-year-old will tell you, the more, the better. Bracelets — bangles, charm-laden and cuffs — up to our elbows, and enough necklaces to make even B.A. Baracus happy. Then with a brooch (or four) and a fancy pair of “earbobs,” we were all set.

Fast-forward a few decades and many of you with similar memories probably find yourselves now the keepers of those precious treasures. Whether you want to wear any of the items or simply share them with your own little ones for their pre-tea glamboree, you need to know how to take care of these vintage heirlooms. Doing this pretty much boils down to two things — storage and cleaning.

First and foremost, assess the storage situation. If you’ve got everything in a jumble inside one big jewelry box, it’s time to do some sorting and separating. Go through and pick out any precious metal and precious and semi-precious gemstone pieces. Next, gather any hand-strung necklaces or bracelets; depending on their age, the integrity of the stringing material could be compromised. If everything seems OK, store these pieces flat because hanging them can cause them to stretch over time, especially if the stringing material is silk. If the stringing material does seem brittle or stretched, you can have a professional jeweler restring the pieces for you. And speaking of professional jewelers — if you’re planning to integrate any of the higher-quality pieces you’ve identified into your accessory wardrobe, it’s a good idea to take them to a jeweler to be inspected. There, you can have the jeweler check the clasps, links and settings to see if anything needs to be fixed or replaced. It’s better to do this now than to risk losing a treasured keepsake. And while you’re there, get the pieces cleaned. When you bring everything back home, store the pieces in individual, sealable cloth bags or in fabric lined jewelry boxes with multiple compartments, so that the pieces can be stored without scratching each other.

Not everything you find will be made of precious or semi-precious materials — but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Lots of vintage costume jewelry is considered collectible. But most importantly, it likely holds sentimental value. No matter what its actual value, you’re going to want to take care of it just as well as the more costly items. Like those, you should try to separate the costume pieces so they don’t scratch or damage each other. Check clasps, links and settings to see if anything needs to be repaired or refurbished. You’ll also want to check for verdigris. If you don’t know what that is, consider yourself lucky. If you do, then you know you don’t want to find it on your jewelry. If you’ve ever seen a metal sculpture  partially covered in a bluish-green, matte-finish-almost-powdery patina, then you know what to look for. Except, on your jewelry, it won’t seem as interesting and you’ll be inspired to refer to it as gunk. The biggest culprit of verdigris is moisture — hence the importance of good storage.

Once you have the storage situation all sorted, you can start to get a handle on cleaning. Unfortunately, there isn’t an across-the-board method that you can use for everything. For the precious metals, precious gems and semi-precious gems (silver, gold, platinum, diamonds, sapphires, rubies, amethysts garnets, etc.), you have the option of having a pro do it or you can do it yourself using jewelry cleaner or a specially treated polishing cloth. If you go the do-it-yourself route, just be sure to use the right cleaner on the right item and pay close attention to the label — some cleaners are OK for certain metals, but not OK for certain gemstones. And for particularly delicate or porous stones (like opals, pearls and turquoise), you’ll want to just stick to polishing with a super soft, clean cloth.  And for costume jewelry, it’s easier to just go over what not to do.

For a piece of costume jewelry, especially anything with rhinestones (the foil backing is delicate and easily damaged), you want to avoid highly acidic and abrasive cleansers and you definitely do not want to soak or submerge it in anything — not even plain water. Usually, it’s best just to use a soft, clean cloth (old, worn t-shirts work great) or a super-soft, new child’s toothbrush (don’t use an old one because it could still have toothpaste remnants on it, which can be abrasive) to gently wipe or brush away dust and debris (the dry brush method can be used on verdigris, too). If you do try to use some sort of liquid, use it sparingly and never place it directly on the costume jewelry. Instead, mist a cotton swab, cloth or toothbrush with the liquid and then use it to clean the item’s surface.

And one final note — if you are going to wear any of these pieces, be careful about when you put them on and where you wear them. Wait until you’ve finished fixing your hair to put on those earrings or that necklace — you don’t want to get hairspray or any other styling product, makeup or perfume on your jewelry. In fact, it’s probably best to just avoid wearing any perfume or lotion that could potentially come in contact with your jewelry. And as for where you wear the jewelry — avoid moist settings. No matter how lovely those vintage earrings would look with your new swimsuit and sarong, leave them at home.

Do you own any vintage or heirloom jewelry? Have any storage or cleaning tips to share? We’d love to hear them!

Oh, and while you’re pondering those questions, don’t forget to follow How-to Stuff on Facebook and Twitter!

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