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How to Clean Dirty Jewelry–Part I

Or…The dirty secret about jewelry–part 1

We girls love our pretty sparklies. Even if you don’t wear jewelry much, I’ll just bet you’ll throw on a pair of earrings or a necklace for the office party. Maybe you wear your wedding ring religiously, but would like for it to look as good as it did they day it was first put on your finger.

This is going to be a primer series for what’s available to you as the general public. We’ll be going through the luxe items in jewelry cleaning, right down to the inexpensive, but highly effective methods, that you can do with common household ingredients and an electric toothbrush, dips, polishes and cloths.

First, let’s go over what machines and methods are available for professional jewelers, because the new jewelry cleaners for the general public consumers are spinoffs from these machines. We have ionic cleaners which remove tarnish; ultrasonic cleaners that remove debris, oil and dirt; steam cleaners for likewise removing oil, debris and dirt; and good old-fashioned elbow grease. We also have our bench polishers and flexshafts, with their different buffs and compounds, for actually polishing and removing scratches. There are a few other things that are available for removing caked on debris like lye (definitely not for consumers!) and other caustic methods, but you have to be trained to use them safely and know which stones can handle the different types of acids or bases. Chemistry does play an integral part in cleaning things for us.

Ultrasonic cleaning

Ultrasonic cleaners are ubiquitous in a jeweler’s shop. These produce powerful ultrasonic waves that scrub debris off. They have a transducer in the bottom, and some have them in the sides also. They are not silent. They will remind you of sounds you hear in a dentist’s office. They are one of the new luxe items for cleaning your jewelry at home.

A lot of the machines I’ve been able to find in the consumer area are ones that tout they are “ultrasonic,” but are not true ultrasonics.

Instead, they rely on sonic waves (think vibration) or an electrolytic process with an alkaline based soap. If ever in doubt, if it doesn’t have that high-pitched whine and put holes in aluminum foil, send it back with a big raspberry and get your money back.

A professional ultrasonic with a manual timer and a heater
However, there is one I’ve found that looks like a mini version of my ultrasonic and is made by the same manufacturer. It has the metal bottom with a raised area that typically houses the transducer. It is a GemOro, and no, I don’t get paid or given anything to promote their products. I noticed Amazon.com is selling these mini GemOros on their website for around $100 as of this date of Christmas 2011.
The raised area where the transducer is located beneath the stainless steel tank

If you put a piece of aluminum foil in the tank of a true ultrasonic, it will be full of holes within a few minutes.

If you think sticking your fingers in it to retrieve a piece is okay, prepare to have your fingernails start growing out pitted, or if more than a few times, your fingernails will just fall off. Just because it only seems to “tickle,” don’t be fooled. These are powerful machines!

The aluminum foil folded over a stick that will span the width of the tank
The aluminum foil added to the tank
There are large holes in the aluminum foil now. Particularly notice the ragged edge.
The aluminum foil unfolded. Notice the large missing areas.

Likewise, you have to be careful what kind of stones you put in them. If your stone is fracture filled (some diamonds are) or oiled (like emeralds) it will destroy them.

If they have natural fractures or inclusions in the stones, like tourmalines, rutilated quartz, cape amethyst, opals or diamonds with a lot of carbon deposits, it will likewise shatter or cleave them.

Oops. Check with your jeweler if you can’t bear to take a chance.

Things you should know

When you use an ultrasonic, make sure nothing touches the bottom where the transducer is located. It will cause vibrations that will wear out your transducer prematurely. The exception is soft materials like plastic and silicone. You will see various jigs that suspend jewelry away from the bottom, such as baskets and ring holders.

However, these soft surfaces and metal meshes tend to break up the action of the ultrasonic waves, so it takes longer to clean the jewelry. Jewelers tend to go out of their way to find some way to suspend the jewelry directly into the ultrasonic, using paper clips, bamboo tongs and hand-held glass beakers.

Rinse your jewelry thoroughly in clean water after removing it from the ultrasonic. This helps to remove any remaining debris and cleaning solution. Sometimes a quick scrub with a toothbrush is also needed to get debris out of very small spaces. Wipe the jewelry dry with a soft, clean cloth. Don’t put your jewelry in a sunny window to dry. Certain stones can lose their color or change color! Speaking from personal experience, amethyst is one of those stones.

The vibrations of a true ultrasonic will shake slightly loose stones out of their mountings, so take a needle across the face of the stone, pushing slightly and noticing if there’s any slight rocking. If there is, take it to a jeweler so the setting can be tightened and you won’t lose your stone.

Please check with a reputable jeweler first to make sure your stones will survive ultrasonic treatment.

If you don’t want to go to the expense of buying your own machine, or the vagaries of whether a stone will survive or not, then just take your precious to a real jeweler, where they will clean it for a pittance. Most will educate you about your particular piece of jewelry and how to keep it clean between professional cleanings.

Check back next week for the second part of this series with information on ionic cleaners, another luxe item, and why you want one, especially if you have silver.

Copyright Katherine Palochak 12-17-2011