Homemade Jewelry Cleaner

Q: Can I make my own jewelry cleaner from household ingredients?

A: It’s not really all that complex. A little ammonia, a little detergent. Don’t make it too strong, cause then it smells bad. Actually, the ammonia is optional. Any decent detergent, ranging from plain dish soap to Mr. Clean or Top Job, or laundry detergent, mixed up with warm to hot water in about the same ratio that you’d use for any other reasonably thorough cleaning task around the house, will work. The addition of a little ammonia will make it a better grease cutter. If it’s strong enough to do the other ordinary household cleaning chores, it will clean your jewelry as well.

Some folks I know use just plain Windex, right from the bottle, which seems to work. My own recommendation is the above mild detergent mix, noting that the water being quite warm is more important than the exact concentration. Allow the jewelry to soak for a bit, and then rinse and dry with a soft cloth. Before cleaning your jewelry, use your common sense. be sure that you’re not attempting to clean something that will come apart, simply should not be cleaned, or needs professional care.

Your good condition diamond engagement ring is probably okay to clean without worry, so long as you now and then have a jeweler check it for loose stones, worn prongs, and general condition and or needed repairs. Your antique victorian locket with the woven hair ornament on one side and a photo on the other, shouldn’t get wet. And if you scrub a piece of costume jewelry with glued-in rhinestones, you might clean all the rhinestones off the piece as well as the dirt.

Even with fine jewelry, it’s not uncommon for prongs and setting to become so worn over time that half of what’s holding the stones in is the accumulated dirt. Cleaning such stones can loosen them or cause them to be lost. It’s generally a good idea to check the stones gently, both before and after you clean your jewelry, by gently probing them with a fine tweezer or pin. If they move at all, or if it seems there’s not much metal holding them in, or you’re just not sure what you’re seeing, then let a professional check it. A couple of notes: Ammonia will damage some of the softer opaque stones, especially amber. It’s fine for diamonds in gold or platinum, but stronger solutions get risky with some of the other metals, which sometimes can be tarnished, depending on exactly what cleaner you’re using and how strong. It’s not usually a problem, but sometimes can be bad.

Strong cleaners of any kind can sometimes damage pearls, malachite, turquoise, peridot, and glued-in stones, (including rhinestones in costume jewelry, ivory, wood, marcasites, and a number of other, similar materials.) Most of these will be okay with mild dish soap or Woolite, in lukewarm water, except for the turquoise and anything glued in, like rhinestones and marcasites. (these may not be harmed, but often can become unglued and lost). Also, pearls on a strand should not be cleaned in anything other than distilled water (And even here, a simple damp soft cloth is better), as detergents soak into the cord inside the pearls, and don’t get rinsed out, deteriorating the cord. After cleaning, they need to be carefully set out to dry.

A few stones, while probably able to withstand cleaning, should nevertheless be left to professionals. These include emeralds, which are often oiled. You don’t really want to clean out the oil, which might make it look broken, or at least worse than it started. Opals can withstand cleaning, but they are fragile, and cannot stand heat shock. Use only lukewarm water, not boiling ho, and don’t drop them in the sink. Soft stones like tanzanite and apatite, and other less common ones are also probably best left to the pros.

While you can usually use a soft brush, like an old toothbrush, to gently loosen dirt from around a stone or in the back of one, be careful with this, so as not to loosen the stones, and-for heaven’s sake-don’t use toothpaste or any other abrasive cleaner on that brush. It will dull the metal’s polish. If this sounds like a lot of cautions, you’re right. You can easily clean most pieces of jewelry, but if you’re talking about cleaning all kinds of jewelry there are plenty of places to be cautious. Be sure that the specific pieces you wish to clean are suited to the process you are going to use. Once you’ve gotten the go-ahead from your jeweler about specific pieces, then have at it. And if you’re not sure about all this, then just stop in and have your jeweler clean it for you. Might take a little longer, but we’ve got equipment you don’t have that will do a better job, we are better able to evaluate the jewelry for any potential problems, and we usually don’t charge much if anything for simple cleaning services.

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.