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  • Caring for Pearl Jewelry
  • Rusty Lowell

Caring for Pearl Jewelry

Caring for Pearl Jewelry
Pearl jewelry is a must-have for every well-dressed woman. Once deemed matronly and boring, pearls are back in a big way. From classic to trendy, there is a pearl look for every style. However, these natural, organic beads need a little special attention to ensure they remain a part of your wardrobe for years to come.

How are pearls formed?

Whether your pearl look is classic and demure or punk princess, it all started in the same place. When a small foreign object becomes lodged in an oyster or mollusk the irritation causes the creature to take defensive action. The mollusk begins to secrete layers of nacre, a smooth crystalline substance. Over time, the irritant becomes completely encased in the silky layers. What’s left behind is a lustrous pear.

Pearls form in both fresh and sea water and come in a variety of shades ranging from pure white to dark gray. Manmade, cultured pearls are formed when an irritant is intentionally inserted inside an oyster, forcing the process. While most cultured pearls are either perfectly round or teardrop shaped, natural varieties often form in irregular, uneven or elongated shapes known as baroque pearls. Though they are desirable for their even shapes and perfect color, cultured pearls are typically less expensive due to their wide availability.

General Care

Because they are formed within a living creature, rather than mined from the earth as other gems are, pearls are soft, porous and a bit delicate. Like most fine jewelry, they require some special care to keep them looking their best. However, with a little TLC, your favorite pearl pieces can last a lifetime.

  • Make them the finishing touch: Pearls should be the finishing touch to your outfit. Put them on last and take them off first to prevent them from snagging on clothing.
  • Keep them away from cosmetics: While makeup and hairspray give your look a little something extra, they can discolor and damage pearls. Keep jewelry away from beauty and hair care products.
  • Keep them out of water: Never swim and bathe while wearing your pearls. Submersing strands can weaken the cord that hold them together and cause it to break.
  • Take them off during activities: Remember that iconic image of a well-coiffed woman vacuuming in her heels and pearls? It’s not a good idea. Pearls scratch easily and should be removed during most activities. This is especially true for bracelets, which can rub against desks and keyboards while typing. 
Routine Cleaning

As with most jewelry, daily cleaning keeps pearls looking their best and protects them from damage. Sweat and perspiration from skin contains acid, which can erode the nacre layers and reduce the luster and glow of pearls. Each time you remove your jewelry, give pearls a quick wipe with a soft cloth to prevent damage from sweat and oils.

Even with ongoing cleaning, pearls need a more complete cleaning once in awhile to remove dirt and grime that can build up with frequent wear. Depending on how often they are worn, wash pearls every six months to one year.

  • Line a bowl with a soft cloth, fill with cool water and add a touch of a soft, non-abrasive soap.
  • Gently place your pearl jewelry in its bath.
  • Use a soft cloth to clean each bead.
  • Rinse with fresh water.
  • Remove the pearls, being sure to protect the cord by supporting the weight of the jewelry.
  • Lay the piece on a soft towel to air dry. 
Line a bowl with a cloth,
add water and soap
Place the pearls inside
and clean each bead

Rinse with fresh water Remove pearls and dry on a towel

Delicate pearls should never be cleaned with harsh chemicals or household cleaning agents. Ultrasonic cleaners, which use sound waves to clean jewelry, can also damage pearls.

Professional Care

While you can handle routine cleaning and care at home, your most-loved pearls also need a bit of professional care. Just like a yearly checkup does wonders for keeping you healthy, an annual visit with a jeweler can make your pearls last a lifetime.

A professional jeweler will give your pieces a complete cleaning, restoring the luster and glow that can dull over time. Plus, they will inspect the piece for damage and signs of wear. A jeweler can inspect clasps, prongs and cords to ensure that your prized pearl jewelry is sturdy and safe.

Restringing

Pearl necklaces and bracelets are typically stung on a nylon or silk cord. In high-end pieces the cord may be knotted between each bead. This reduces the risk of the cord breaking and ensures that, if it does snap, only one bead is lost. More affordable options are strung continuously, without knotting. This gives a more solid look and allows the pearls to move freely.

Both silk and nylon cords can weaken, stretch and fray, especially if the piece is worn frequently. To prevent breakage, a jeweler should inspect the cord annually. In most cases, pearls need to be restrung, replacing the cord with a fresh version, every two years.

Storing Your Pearls

Though there is pearl jewelry to work with nearly every outfit, you can’t wear them all time. When you do eventually take your favorite pieces off, it’s important to store them correctly by following these dos and don’ts.

  • Don’t store them in dry environments: Pearls crave moisture, which makes sense for a sea-born gem. Though a safe or safety deposit box seems like an excellent spot for storing valuable jewelry, the dry air can actually damage pearls. As pearls become dehydrated, the surface begins to form small fractures, cracks and pits.
  • Don’t store them in plastic: Plastic storage containers and zippered, kitchen-style bags are storage no-noes for pearls. Many types of plastic emit chemicals that can damage the surface of pearls, causing them to deteriorate.
  • Don’t store pearls with other jewelry: Pearls are relatively soft and can scratch easily. When pearls are stored with other jewelry, the chains, clasps and gems can damage the surface of the pearls.
  • Do give pearls a soft surface: To prevent scratching, store pearl pieces in separate compartments of a soft, lined jewelry box or tray. For travel, a silk or flannel bag provides plenty of protection.
  • Do store strands flat: The most delicate part of pearl necklaces and bracelets is what you don’t see. The silk or nylon thread that connects the individual beads can stretch, break or tangle. Protect the cord by laying pearl strands flat, rather than hanging them.
  • Rusty Lowell