The pearl. Oh, where do I begin? It is one of the most incredible creations of both nature and man. A shiny bead of unbelievable depth and character, spun inside such an unassuming creature, from particles of earth and shell. All it takes is an oyster and some sand or shell to create these stunning jewels. Drooling, yet? I am. I love pearls. Perfect or imperfect, cultivated or natural, they are beautiful, lustrous, and seductive. Anyone who owns pearls knows what I mean. But not every lucky pearl owner knows the ins and outs of these gorgeous miracles, or even how to handle and treat them. Like a lady, if I may!
The first rule of thumb when wearing any pearl jewelry is “Last on. First off.” (No, not your bra. Your pearls!) This means that when you are getting ready to go out—little black dress, red lipstick, perfume, hair pulled up with a few pieces brushing your ear and sprayed, just a tad, with your Aveda hairspray—your pearls should be the very last item you put on. When you get home, they should be the first item to be taken off, too. This goes for every type of pearl jewelry—rings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches, and earrings.
Why? Because pearls are beyond delicate.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear your pearl jewelry, of course, but you should do all you can to preserve it for maximum longevity. Pearls are simply very sensitive. They can be damaged easily by perfumes, oils, abrasives, and chemicals, for one thing, which can break down the outer layer of a pearl (called the nacre), where all the luster and beauty is found. This is a very thin and fragile layer . Not only can those lovely perfumes destroy the nacre, but a tiny snag of your pearls on your clothing, for example, could send them flying to the ground, picking up dirt and dust, which can also cause ruin to these precious jewels. Underneath the layer of the nacre, a pearl is very chalky and dry looking, so if you wear down a pearl’s pretty exterior, you get that less-than-appealing lower layer to show for it. Trust me, you don’t want those beauties getting grubby or damaged! I’m a fan of luster. Chalk's good for art, not for wearing. ‘Nuff said.
If your pearls do get a bit dirty, though—it’s bound to happen eventually!—there are safe ways to clean them. The process of cleaning your pearls varies depending on the type of jewelry you have.
Pearls and Silk
The most common way to string fine pearls into necklaces or bracelets is by using silk. But pearls strung this way are the most delicate of all. Silk, under normal conditions, is quite strong and long lasting, but it can wear and stretch with time like any fabric can, so you’ll want to take extra-special care of these pieces.
When cleaning pearls strung on silk, the most important thing to remember is not to use any liquids, including water. If the silk gets wet, it will absorb any dirt, oils, and chemicals that may be on the surface of your pearls, causing discoloration and premature erosion of the silk. And the dirt is there even if you don’t think it is, so don’t risk it!
When cleaning your pearls at home, take a soft, dry cotton cloth and gently wipe the pearls down. If your piece is in need of a deeper cleaning—more than a cloth can do—take them to a jeweler and have them restrung. Ask the jeweler to clean the pearls before restringing the piece. They will know exactly how to clean them, and your pearls will come back looking fresh, glossy, and tight.
Pearls and Metal
For gold, silver, or platinum pearl jewelry some people recommend using a liquid jewelry cleaner. But I say, don’t do it! One tiny mistake with such a cleaner, and you can ruin your pearls for good. Poof! Now you have chalky balls! It’s definitely a no-no. Instead, pearl jewelry that is not on silk, such as pearl studs or rings, can be cleaned with a little warm water and mild dish soap (Dawn is a good choice). Use a very soft toothbrush to lightly and gently scrub the pearl and metal of the jewelry with the solution. After you are done cleaning, make sure to rinse the jewelry with clean water and dry them well with a non-abrasive cotton cloth. Make sure to thoroughly dry them by hand; do not just allow them to air dry.
Once and a while, you may need to do a more intensive cleaning job if your pearls are made with silver specifically. As you are mostly likely aware, silver can—and usually does—tarnish. This is no different with silver-and-pearl jewelry. To clean tarnished silver-and-pearl jewelry you can use a silver polishing cloth, which should be available most places jewelry is sold, to rub the tarnish off the metal and shine it up. Be very careful not to polish the pearls, though. These cloths are infused with anti-tarnish and tarnish-removing chemicals that are not all that great for our friend the pearl. After cleaning tarnished metal, wash the jewelry down with soapy water (scrub lightly with a very soft toothbrush, if you’d like), rinse it with fresh water, and dry it well, as we discussed earlier.
Tip: After towel drying your jewelry as best you can, leave it sit out in the open for a day or so until it is completely dry. This will ensure any leftover moisture is gone before storing your pearls. Moisture can lead to tarnish quite quickly in an enclosed space such as a jewelry box.
Pearls can be complicated and tricky to clean, so if your pearls need some TLC and you’re afraid to give it, just take your piece to a jeweler and ask them to polish and clean it. It’s less hassle and will cost you much, much less than replacing it down the road. They know what to do, and will keep your pearls looking new and beautiful so you can wear them again and again!