Cleaning jewellery can be so satisfactory! To see those layers of grime and dirt dissolve and the soft shine of silver reveal itself…and seeing your newly acquired item for the first time in all its splendor! Cleaning jewellery is necessary from a maintenance point of view: it will help you prevent corrosion and subsequent damaging of your item. But, before you give your piece that first deep clean, here are a few thoughts that might help you enjoy your new acquisition even more!
Those dirty patches and accumulations may actually contain part of the history of your piece. Take these two Maria Theresia Thalers for example: they have spent a lifetime together, which is visible in their wear pattern. Halfway the lower coin, a trace of blackish patina follows the curve of the upper coin. It allows you to place them exactly as they would have sat together, tightly pressed together. I found these two in Jordan, and they have most likely been part of a Palestinian headdress: even though only these two coins remain, their wear pattern bears testimony to the piece they once belonged to.
Another example is this plait ornament from the Draa Valley, Morocco. The coral beads on top (look on the left and the right top beads of the ornament) still show patches of brownish paste. This would have been scented paste, used to style and fragrance the hair for festive occasions. It no longer bears any fragrance, but its presence adds a visible memory of an invisible aspect of personal adornment that is all too easy to discard, and eventually forget, if you are not familiar with its existence in the first place.
Quick tip: documenting
The simplest way to document these bits and pieces of information is to take a picture before and after cleaning. That can be as easy as taking a snap with your smartphone (when you carry these five items in your handbag, you’re prepared!). You can include these in your documentation: it’s always useful to have a record of any treatment of your pieces. Note down anything else you’d want to record, for example if the layer you want to remove is sticky or dry, grainy or fine, its colour…Finally, add a few notes on how you have cleaned it, with which products and utensils. This may come in handy later, for example in the unhappy event your new jewellery starts to show a reaction to cleaning: having a record of what has been done with it, is instrumental in attempting any follow-up treatment.
Especially for older pieces, a guaranteed silver content is not standard. The percentage of actual silver can vary greatly, and so do the components of copper, nickel or other materials. Silver was obtained by melting down older pieces (with their variable compositions) and coins. The first silver coin to have a guaranteed percentage of silver was the Maria Theresia Thaler, which grew wildly popular precisely because of its reliability. Hallmarks indicating sterling silver (925), 800 or 600 are only a century old. All this is important when cleaning jewellery with no hallmarks or known silver content: you will want to know how your cleaning method will affect other metals in the mix, and how in turn this will impact your piece in general. This is why I generally avoid the toothpaste-method or the squeezed lemons-method: both can lead to too aggressive results and damage the jewellery. Who knows what exactly is in toothpaste these days, anyway?
Know your materials
Having said that, there is more than just the silver content to be aware of when cleaning jewellery. If your piece consists of other materials, be sure to familiarize yourself with their properties and to identify their vulnerabilities. Coral cabochons on a bracelet for example, or coral beads in a necklace. Coral is a porous animal product (see more here), not to be confused with solid material like stones: the properties of this material bring a new set of parameters to the table. Traditional jewellery from the Arab world can contain a plethora of materials that all come with their own challenges: teeth, horns, claws, wood, scented paste beads, textile backings, and not to forget the stringing itself. When you come across a composite piece, it’s usually a good idea to have a good look at all elements before attempting to clean it. You may either want to take it apart completely and reassemble it later, or bring it to a professional restorer instead.
With these few pointers, I hope you will enjoy a new look at what stories your jewellery holds, and how to make sure they remain a part of its history!
In the Collection Management-series, I share best practices, tips and guides on the many aspects of collection management. I have listed a few pointers for you to get started in my free workbook, which is available for download here.