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Dirty Diamonds Don't Shine

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Dirty Diamonds Don't Shine

Revival of the Lifeless
Due to its optical properties, a diamond’s sparkle dazzles the eye with its fabulous mix of fire, brilliance, and scintillation. UNTIL IT GETS DIRTY. Then, its hardness, the long process the gem has taken from mine to cutting to jewelry, all of the inroads in cutting technology are for naught. Light enters the diamond and instead of reflecting brilliantly back to the eye with all of its spectral colors, the light leaks out of the grimy bottom. This is no way to treat a girl’s best friend!

Spring Cleaning
It is time for a little jewelry cleaning. Generally, no special or expensive tools are needed to bring all diamond and colored gemstone jewelry back from the dead. A little mild soap, a soft toothbrush, and some lukewarm water will change dull to dazzling. While most gems and jewels can be cared for and cleaned at home, problem cases may need a jump-start of professional detailing. With careful attention, jewelry shops use ultrasonic cleaners (pots of warm soapy water that vibrate to dislodge dirt) and steam cleaners (a hot blast of steam) for a more powerful and extensive cleaning. With a little patience, these cleaning results can be replicated at home.


Steps to Cleaning (a list follows for specific gemstone considerations)
1. Mix a mild soap in lukewarm water in a plastic container. A gentle bar soap such as Ivory is ideal. Mild liquid hand soap works, too, but only use a dab. Remember, toothpaste contains abrasives to remove plaque and this could hurt a gem.

2. Place the jewelry inside the container to soak. If the jewelry is not too dirty, a few minutes should suffice. If it is extremely dirty, longer soaking may be required. Half an hour (to overnight) can help for tougher buildup – especially on diamonds. It is preferable not to crowd too many pieces in the container as they can scratch each other.

3. Gently scrub the pieces with the soft toothbrush – paying particular attention to the undersides of gems and the openings of the metal settings around them. An old, soft toothbrush is perfect for this. A baby’s toothbrush also works. You may need to brush and soak (or agitate slightly in the soapy water) a few times. With highly polished shiny metal surfaces, you may want to use a Q-tip to help minimize scratches. With too much brushing, any dirt on theses surface can be ground into the metal and leave tiny scratches.

4. Rinse the piece in clean lukewarm water. If you are doing this over the sink and not in a separate clean water dish, you may want to put a fine mesh strainer over the sink drain to prevent calls to the plumber.

5. With all gems and cleaning, you should avoid extreme temperature changes. Lukewarm or room temperature water will do the trick in maintaining a clean piece of jewelry. You won’t expedite the cleaning or get a deeper clean by blasting with hot water and then following with a cold rinse. Such extreme temperature changes can lead to stress fractures in a gem. Stick with a lukewarm water and avoid ‘quench crackling’ your jewels.

6. Pat the jewelry dry with a soft, clean cloth. No need to rub very hard. You can even let the piece air dry first for a few minutes and finish the drying with the cloth to remove any water spots.

7. With this newfound desire to clean your jewelry, no need to go overboard. If the jewelry isn’t dirty, no need to wash it. If you are not sure if your jewelry is clean or dirty, I’d say ‘clean it.’ Chances are it could use a cleaning.

8. Lastly, some people prefer to use an alcohol, or even vodka, for diamond cleaning. This will work and give an extra sparkle, but take care that you are only cleaning diamonds and metal. Certain gems, such as pearls and emeralds, will not hold up to such strong chemicals.

Prevention of Dirt
With more frequent maintenance, you won’t need to spend as much time fighting dirty buildup. Cleaning a jewel from time to time will keep it from getting that buildup in the first place. If you are planning to wear a special piece, try washing it the night before. It will sparkle more and look so much better!

In general, you can do a lot to prevent a dirty or scratched jewel by removing it when washing (dishes or yourself) or doing heavy labor (like moving or gardening or athletics).

Beaches are no friend to jewelry. Sand, a quartz, is a 7 on the Mohs scale of hardness and will scratch metal. Diamonds and corundum (ruby and sapphire) might be safe, but many other gems can be damaged. One method of texturing metal to have a brushed or satin finish would be to take the piece to the beach and drag it through the sand. I’ve brought the sand to my workbench in the form of sandpaper, but you get the general idea.

Pools are no friend to jewelry. Swimming pools full of chlorine will not only dissolve pearls and affect gems but will also attack the alloys (like nickel and copper) in karat gold jewelry. This attack can result in pitted, or holey, metal. Household cleaners also tend to have a lot of chlorine, so beware of these, too. I learned about pools and pearls the hard way. I received a pearl ring as a child that I wore all the time - including in the pool. Once I started down the gemology track, I pulled the ring out to take a look. There was little left of the pearl, but I hadn’t noticed the gradual change over time. The pearl had to be replaced as it had entirely lost its luster.

Special Attention for Engagement and Wedding Rings
Since these are worn everyday, they usually get the dirtiest. For engagement and wedding bands with gems like sapphire, ruby, or diamond, a good rule of thumb (or ring finger, pardon the pun) is to leave the ring soaking overnight, every night, in a plastic container with a small amount of mild soap. A quick pass with a toothbrush and a rinse in the morning and you are off with a shine. You also have a routine and regular place to keep the ring when you aren’t wearing it.

(One quick aside on a slightly different subject: for prong settings on diamonds, you’ll want to be sure to have these checked every year or so. If you notice that the diamonds ‘rattle’ at all in their settings or that a prong is broken or missing, it’s time for a minor repair. When a ring is clean, it’s easier to tell a stone is loose since there is no sticky buildup holding it in place and functioning as a glue.)

Specific Gemstones and their Care
When wearing pearls, it is better to spray on perfumes and hairsprays and rub in lotions FIRST before putting on your pearls. This will minimize their contact with harmful chemicals. Pearls are organic in nature and the acids from the skin and perfumes will attack them over time if not removed. This will result in a less lustrous nacre, or pearly surface. After wearing pearls, wipe them gently with a damp, soft cloth. For example, after a night of dancing or a hot outdoor wedding, wipe the pearls clean.

Since pearl necklaces are generally strung with silk thread, washing them often can risk stretching the thread. If dirty, you can wash them quickly in mild soapy water and rinse them off, but after gently patting them dry, let them rest on a flat surface to dry so that the thread has no tension. Generally, I recommend looking at the knots on the pearls (particularly those by the clasp) to determine if they need to be restrung. If the knots are stretched, frayed, or dirty, it is a good idea to have the pearls restrung. If you wear them often, you may want to restring them every year to two years.

Specific Gemstones and their Care

With a fiery play of color, opals make a fabulous gem. However, because they are softer than many gems (a 5 to 6.5 on the Mohs scale), they require special care with wearing, cleaning, and storage. Special attention should be given to avoid wearing opals in rough situations where they can be scratched.

Opals are composed of silica and water (from 3%-10% water content by weight), and their structure and composition enable the great play of color that dazzles the eye. Because of this high water content, opals need to be protected from heat and drying. Soaps and other chemicals can dry them out and cause fine cracks called crazing. My recommendation - clean opals ONLY with water and a soft Q-tip.

Ideally, you should store opals in a humid environment - like a mini-greenhouse. Many fine opal collectors store their opals in sealed plastic containers with water inside. A certain amount of moisture remains in the plastic container, and the evaporation creates the same effect as a mini-greenhouse.

Opal doublets and triplets require slightly different care. These are assembled opal pieces made of a thin layer of opal with a thicker rock back for structure and support. This back is often the original rock where the thin seams of opal were found. As with solid opal, it is good to avoid using soaps that might dry out the opal doublets and triplets. However, with assembled stones (or with pieces with inlay), water can affect the glue or epoxy that bonds the parts together and cause a visible layer between these parts- or even cause a separation between the pieces. With opal doublets, triplets, assembled stones, or inlaid pieces, it is probably better to store them in a soft cloth bag rather than in water or a mini-greenhouse.

Tip: While it is a good idea to store solid opals in a wet environment, it is a bad idea to buy them from one. Often, cut and rough opals are sold in glass jars of water. While this water serves as a shiny surface to gauge the play of color in the opal, it can also mask any fine cracks in the stones. It is always best to buy a ‘dry’ opal to make sure there is no evidence of crazing. Also, certain opal localities are known for opals of very high water content levels. These opals can craze very quickly. Oregon opal tends to dry out and craze more often. Australia tends to have more stable opal.


Specific Gemstones and their Care

With emeralds, cleaning with lukewarm, soapy water works best. Because emeralds are one of the few gems that are very prized despite their inclusions, you should take a little extra care with them. These inclusions are very common but can be areas of weakness in the stones. For this reason, you should never place emeralds under steam or in an ultrasonic cleaner.

Traditionally, for hundreds of years, most emeralds have been treated by soaking in oil to improve appearance. The oil penetrates the surface reaching fractures and makes them appear less noticeable. With oiled emeralds, you should avoid extremely vigorous scrubbing or prolonged soaking as the oils can be pulled out of the stones.

With tanzanite, I would suggest the same care as with emeralds: lukewarm, soapy water. Be sure to have a jeweler avoid ultrasonic and steam cleaners. Tanzanite can break (or cleave) in one direction with the right blow. It is softer than quartz, so some attention should be paid to not wearing it rough situations or the facets can be scratched and abraded.
Again, lukewarm soapy water is safe for apatite. This great blue gem is more of a collector’s stone and found less frequently in jewelry since it is a 5 on the Mohs scale of hardness. However, while it should be worn carefully in rings, it can be used in jewelry. Ultrasonic and steam cleaners should be avoided.
Amber is very soft (2 – 2.5 Mohs scale) and susceptible to attack from acids and solvents. Lukewarm, soapy water and an extremely soft brush are ‘musts’ to clean and protect it from scratches. If you hope to clone dinosaurs from the insects trapped inside, avoid rough handling so the pieces will last.
Coral is another soft material that should avoid rough wear. Lukewarm, soapy water works well for cleaning, but any acids or high heat, like steam, can be risky. Much coral sold today is often dyed, so avoid acetone (found in finger nail polish remover) that can remove the color.
Lapis Lazuli
I’d follow the same methods as with coral. Lapis lazuli is generally dyed, so be sure to avoid chemicals like acetone that can remove color. Hydrochloric acid can eat lapis lazuli away, but I doubt many will be working with such chemicals on ungloved hands with rings.
Final Note: While I have detailed the specific care steps for these particular gems, I do not intend to scare anyone with fears of their fragility. As with any materials of delicate nature, a little extra care and caution should maintain a fine gem indefinitely.
Don't Let History Repeat Itself: The Grease Table
It is very important to keep a diamond clean to maintain its sparkle. Diamonds have a high affinity for grease and will look dull very quickly if not cleaned regularly.

To demonstrate this tendency towards a ‘residue’ buildup, let me quickly mention the grease table. Since the 1800s, the grease table has been an efficient method of separating diamond rough from a concentrated slurry of rough diamonds and smaller rock pieces. This slurry is washed over a table covered in grease (or a grease conveyor belt). The rough diamonds have such a high affinity for grease that they stick to the grease belt while the rest of the particles and rock keep moving. The grease and diamond mixture is then scraped off and melted to separate the rough diamonds from the grease.

The patterns and activities of day-to-day life can act as a grease table for diamonds in rings. A good jewelry cleaning regime is not difficult to maintain and makes a very visible difference in a jewel’s appearance. In almost every case, lukewarm, soapy water and a soft brush work well for cleaning a piece of jewelry. A well-cut gemstone cannot sparkle if dirty- no matter how well cut.


While I wrote this article from memory and experience, I know that I have been heavily influenced by my studies at GIA, particularly of GIA’s Gem Reference Guide. In addition, Fred Ward, a writer, gem dealer, and former photographer for National Geographic wrote an excellent small guide to cleaning and caring for gems, Gem Care, which I highly recommend for detailed information.

There is no need to purchase special cleaning solutions for jewelry, but I do like a cleaning solution from Connoisseurs: Delicate Jewelry Cleaner. It is mild and has a soft brush and soaking dish built into the container. This product is sold at many places including drug stores, department stores, and grocery stores. For more specific locations, please visit Connoisseurs’ website: www.connoisseurs.com. Click on 'Find a Retailer- Click here for a detailed list' for the various locations.

I know of a few of you out there who adhere to the process of soaking your diamond rings every night. I send you a gold star/ A+ grade and my deepest appreciation. You rock!