Wondering how to go about cleaning jewellery that's tarnished, grimy or just not looking as sparkly as it once was? Whether it's silver, gold or gemstone jewellery, all of it needs good care and cleaning from time to time. So how do you go about caring for and safely cleaning your jewellery?
You're in just the right place to find out from a jewellery professional: here is our comprehensive jewellery cleaning guide to help you care for and clean your sterling silver, gold and gemstone jewellery to keep it in great condition well into the future.
Also check out our handy 10 tips to quickly clean jewellery article for some quick (and not so dirty) jewellery cleaning tips. It's not as comprehensive as this page, but it will help you make a start if you're in a hurry.
Also take a look at our very helpful jewellery glossary if you're not sure about any of the terms used in this article.
Let's dive in ...
Jewellery storage and use
Always keep in mind that most jewellery is delicate to some degree. Jewellery pieces should never rub up against each other, other types of metal, gemstones or any harsh surfaces as they will scratch and wear. Nor should they ever take too much weight or force. You should also avoid harsh chemicals from coming into contact with your jewellery.
It's a great idea to store your precious jewellery in small boxes or pouches when not being worn to help keep it clean and prevent it from being scratched. All jewellery purchased from our jewellery shop in Australia comes in small gift boxes which are perfect for this.
A note about gemstone care:
Other jewellery articles
Here are some other jewellery articles you'll find helpful:
Most gemstones don't require any special care, aside from the care you'd take with your jewellery in general.
However, softer gemstones do need more consideration. Pearls and opals especially don't get on well with too much water exposure (see below).
Pearls can also absorb makeup and perfumes, which can discolour them, so we recommend applying these things and washing you hands before putting your pearls on.
Make sure you read below for further gemstone considerations, including cleaning tips for specific types of gemstones.
Jewellery and water
Aside from the potential risk of losing precious pieces down the drain when showering, you'll find that your earrings, necklaces and gemstone rings are likely to get gummed up over time by residues from shampoos, conditioners and soaps. This is especially the case with stud earrings, which also have the potential to cause an infection if not kept clean.
If you do keep some pieces on when you shower, then make sure you take them off occasionally to give them a good clean.
You should especially avoid wearing opals or pearls in the shower as repeated contact with water and other chemicals can permanently discolour and damage the stones.
If you're going for a swim, you really should leave your precious jewellery safely at home: swimming in pools or the sea while wearing precious metal or gemstone jewellery is never recommended, especially if you do it regularly.
Chlorine used in pools or jacuzzis can discolour silver and many gemstones. It can even potentially weaken gold by corroding the metals it is alloyed with. As for salt water, it can dull even diamonds and erode soldered parts in metal jewellery.
Gold jewellery tarnish
Solid gold jewellery of 14ct (or 14K if you're in the US) or greater generally won't show any tarnish or discolouration with regular use and care. If the discolouration is just grime on the surface it should wash off with soap, water and a soft brush (see below for cleaning tips).
Gold vermeil jewellery may show tarnish over time. Although this finish has a heavy gold plating, the tarnish from the silver underneath the plating can still leech through to the surface. The tarnish cleaning methods below will clean gold vermeil just as well as silver. Read more about silver tarnish below.
Finally, gold filled and especially gold plated items may eventually wear through to the base metal underneath, which can discolour. If this is the case you could ask a local manufacturing jeweller if the piece can be re-plated.
Gold jewellery turning skin black or green:
It is possible that real gold jewellery can turn your skin black or green, although it is fairly rare in our experience. Here are some clues as to what could be going on:
- It's not really gold: It is possible that gold coloured jewellery which turns your skin green in particular isn't real gold and is instead brass. If your gold jewellery was cheap then it's highly unlikely to be gold, which is a very expensive metal. We don't recommend wearing base metals like brass against your skin. If you're worried about whether your jewellery really is gold, then a local jeweller should be able to test it for you. However, real gold can turn some people's skin green or black in the right circumstances, so read on to learn more.
- Metallic abrasion: While still relatively rare, this is the most common cause of blackened skin from gold jewellery. It's most likely to be seen under gold rings. Most often it's caused by cosmetics or sometimes cleaning compounds which contain particles that are harder than gold. When they stick to your skin and rub against closely worn gold jewellery, they can cause tiny particles of gold to be removed which combine with sweat and skin oils to develop a black smudge. If this is a problem for you, we recommend you change cosmetics if you can. Otherwise make sure you apply and remove them with your jewellery taken off and wash your hands well before putting your jewellery back on.
- Metal corrosion: Gold itself doesn't corrode, but the metals that it is often alloyed with can in certain circumstances (almost all gold jewellery is an alloy: only 24ct is pure gold). If you're sure your jewellery is gold, then the green or black colouring could come from the corrosion of small amounts of copper or other metals which are in your jewellery. Copper is most likely to turn your skin green, while other metals may turn it black. This could be caused by having particularly acidic skin (if so, you should get a health check up: it may be a sign of anaemia), living in a high humidity or seaside location or in a place with a lot of air pollution. Other potential causes may be swimming with your jewellery on, certain medications, cleaning chemicals and some types of make up or skin care products. Try changing what you're doing in some of these dimensions and be careful about taking your jewellery off and washing your hands when coming into contact with some products. Also consider wearing a higher carat (or karat if you're in the US) of gold which will have less alloyed metal in it.
The good news is that gold jewellery turning skin black or green is pretty rare. If it's happening to you, try making some changes and it should help a lot.
Sterling silver tarnish
Tarnishing is a natural process which is caused by oxygen and moisture coming into contact with various types of metal. If your once shiny metal has turned dull and dark or even looks like it has dark stains, this is likely to be the reason why.
Understanding tarnish is key to cleaning your jewellery. All precious metals can tarnish to some degree. Platinum and pure gold are the most tarnish-resistant metals and will show very minimal (if any) tarnish over many years.
By contrast, sterling silver jewellery will tarnish relatively easily, meaning it will turn a brown, grey or black colour over time. This is a normal process.
You may have read that pure or fine silver won't tarnish, but that isn’t true: it does, just more slowly and in a less noticeable way than sterling silver. Pure silver can be cleaned in the same way as sterling silver.
The reason sterling silver tarnishes more easily is because it is an alloy of pure silver with copper. This has the benefit of making the metal harder and much more suitable for making jewellery than pure silver, which is too soft for many uses. The downside is that the small amount of copper content will tarnish more noticeably over time. For more info, read our article: what is sterling silver?
How to prevent tarnish on silver:
It's important to keep pieces out of flowing air and humidity when not being worn. In particular it's not a good idea to store your jewellery in your bathroom. If you live in a humid place you should take extra care to protect your jewellery from humidity. Keeping a humidity absorber near where you store your jewellery can help.
Cleaning your silver jewellery more regularly will also help to keep tarnish at bay. The longer you leave it, the more tarnish it will have and the harder it will be to clean.
Finally, wearing your silver jewellery regularly can help to slow down the process of tarnishing as the metal moving against your skin and itself will help to keep it clean.
However, a very small number of people seem to have something about them which speeds up tarnish a lot when they wear silver jewellery. This could be caused by environmental, chemical or biological factors which can be hard to pinpoint. If you're one of those people, then it simply means you'll need to clean your jewellery more often or try switching to a less reactive metal (gold or platinum) that works better for you. Sorry about that!
Cleaning your jewellery
You should clean your jewellery whenever it's needed - and pay close attention to how it looks so that you don't miss the signs. When you're wearing certain pieces every day it can be easy to miss that they are looking increasingly dull and grimy.
You wouldn't neglect cleaning your clothes, but jewellery is often overlooked, even though it's just as 'up close and personal' when being worn.
We also recommend that you do a thorough check of your jewellery at least twice a year and properly clean all of the pieces that need it, including your costume or fashion jewellery. Doing this in spring and autumn when you're transitioning to different clothing is a great routine to get into.
When to get professional help:
If you have high value jewellery and especially complex pieces with settings of expensive gemstones, including pearls or opals, we recommend you talk to a local jeweller about having them clean these pieces for you. They will know the best and safest methods to use for each piece and will have specialist equipment to do the job.
This is also a good opportunity for them to check your valuable jewels and let you know if there are any lurking problems, such as settings that need tightening. For this sort of jewellery, ongoing professional maintenance is a great idea.
For other jewellery or if you just want to clean your jewellery yourself, read on.
Soap and water:
Solutions that remove tarnish from jewellery won't necessarily remove general dirt and grime, so simpler cleaning solutions are a good starting point.
A warm, soapy water solution and a soft bristled brush is great, especially if you're being careful and don't want to go straight to ultrasonic cleaning (see below). We recommend using a gentle colourless and fragrance free soap, such as castile.
Work carefully and only use the brush where it's needed: in crevices where grime accumulates in particular. Take care not to leave soft gems like opals and pearls in this solution for too long. As mentioned above, repeated and lengthy exposure to water may damage these gems.
Once you're happy with this step of cleaning, make sure you rinse the jewellery well and pat it dry before proceeding.
Ultrasonic cleaning removes embedded dirt, grime and debris by way of ultrasonic waves moving through water, often with a mild detergent added to it.
It's a good alternative starting point to clean your jewellery as it will work more easily and often better than simple soap and water. In particular it will dislodge grime from difficult to reach areas, especially around gemstone settings. However, it will not remove tarnish, which you'll still need to deal with next step.
Be aware that using an ultrasonic can be risky in some circumstances, especially when it comes to softer gems or delicate finishes: make sure you read our exceptions below to learn more.
Jewellers use professional standard ultrasonic cleaners on a regular basis to clean away the grime that builds up from the process of making jewellery. However, domestic cleaners are available and are often quite inexpensive: we highly recommend getting one to help keep your jewellery sparkling.
To use an ultrasonic, just follow the instructions that come with it. We generally recommend using a warm water solution with a small amount of gentle soap mixed into it, but if your device tells you differently, then go with that instead.
Once you've finished cleaning, make sure you rinse your jewellery well and dry it.
You might choose to do a second round of cleaning with the ultrasonic once you've removed any tarnish using one or more of the methods below. This can dislodge any final lurking bits of debris, including fluff from polishing cloths.
We don't recommend using ultrasonic cleaners with pearls, turquoise, opal, lapis lazuli or other soft gemstones as this cleaning method may damage them.
We also don't recommend using them with jewellery that has a patina or blackening applied to the surface as part of the decoration. This includes gilded finishes which are created with very thin gold foil applied to silver. These finishes may be damaged or even removed by an ultrasonic.
Jewellery polishing cloths:
Jewellery cleaning cloths are generally the safest option to remove tarnish from your precious metal jewellery, so you may choose to use one rather than going straight for silver dip, which is an easier way to remove tarnish, but can be riskier (see below). Polishing cloths can also sometimes do a better job than silver dip of removing particularly stubborn tarnish.
Polishing cloths will also give your jewellery a good shine in the process - sometimes even I am surprised by the difference they can make.
Good quality jewellery polishing cloths for silver & gold, such as the ones in our online store, are impregnated with chemicals which remove tarnish and are soft enough to not scratch the metal. You can use these cloths until they are completely black, at which point they should be replaced.
To remove tarnish with a polishing cloth, rub your jewellery gently with the cloth, doing your best to get it into crevices. You'll find the cloth will get black marks on it as the tarnish is removed. Take extra care to not damage any areas that have a patina or blackening applied to them: excessive rubbing of these surfaces may damage them.
Once you're done, give your jewellery a quick clean with some soapy water and again rinse it well and dry it.
Check out our professional quality jewellery cleaning cloths.
For many silver jewellery designs you can instead use silver dip which will very quickly and easily remove tarnish, including in hard to reach spots. Having a pot of good quality silver dip on hand is a great idea as it will clean tarnish off in seconds, including in places you can't get to with a polishing cloth.
However, this is a riskier option for some jewellery, so read below for exceptions.
To use silver dip, make sure you follow the instructions provided with the dip. Then rinse the jewellery thoroughly and pat it dry.
As with ultrasonic cleaners above, we generally don't recommend using silver dip with pearls, turquoise, opal, lapis lazuli or other soft gemstones as they are porous and the dip may damage them.
We also don't recommend using silver dip with jewellery that has a delicate patina or blackening applied to the surface as part of the decoration as you may find it gets damaged or removed.
Homemade silver dip alternative:
This is an eco-friendly and low tech jewellery cleaning method and it will generally do a good job of removing tarnish. Best of all, you should have all the ingredients in your cupboard. This method can also help to remove scorch marks on silver.
Cut a piece of aluminium foil which covers the bottom of a glass or ceramic small bowl. Then pour a cup of hot water into the bowl and mix in the following:
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon of baking soda
- 1 tablespoon of gentle colourless and fragrance free detergent (castile is our favourite)
Put the jewellery to be cleaned into the bowl so it sits on top of the foil and is covered by the solution. After 5 to 10 minutes you can remove the jewellery and discard the solution and the foil, which is likely to have turned a grey colour. Repeat if necessary.
Once again, be sure to rinse your jewellery well after this process and then pat it dry.
Generally the same exceptions apply as for silver dip (see above). However, we have had success using this technique with blackened silver. You're free to try it at your own risk!
Bicarb soda paste, toothpaste and other harsh cleansers which are rubbed against metal are never recommended for cleaning jewellery.
These products will remove precious metal from the surface, causing scratches and slowly depleting the precious metal content. Seriously: just don't use them.
Gold vermeil, gold filled, plated or gilded finishes:
Plating, gilding, gold filled and vermeil are different ways of applying gold to other metals. Learn more about these different types of gold jewellery.
All of these finishes are delicate to some degree and should be cleaned carefully. The gold surfaces will wear over time, so treat them with care to protect them. Avoid polishing them too vigorously or using harsh cleansers.
Silver dip and ultrasonic cleaners are generally safe to use with these gold finishes, with the exception of gilding which shouldn't go into an ultrasonic. Keep in mind any other exceptions for gemstones and patinas outlined above.
When it comes to gemstone jewellery, the cleaning methods above can generally also be used. However, never use silver dip or ultrasonic cleaners with pearls, turquoise, opal, lapis lazuli and other soft gemstones. If you have any doubt, we recommend using the less risky options of soap and water, along with a polishing cloth.
We highly recommend you look at this article from the International Gem Society which gives specific details about how to care for different stones.
Necklaces made from natural silk thread, such as our very popular forget-me-not necklace, can be hand-washed with warm soapy water, taking care to rinse thoroughly.
If a silk necklace is laid flat or hung up it will dry straight. It can also be ironed using the silk setting.
Now you know how to care for your jewellery, isn't it a good time to add some new pieces to your collection? Check out our 15 top jewellery style tips for some inspiration.