Cleaning And Caring For Pearls Naturally | Anyclean

updated: 18/11/2023

 It needs to be stated at the outset that pearls should always be cleaned with delicate natural cleaners rather than harsh ammonia-based cleaners, or any other proprietary cleaner used for getting jewellery nice and sparkly. Pearls are very delicate natural organic substances, unlike the metal and crystalline rocks that make up most jewellery (other exceptions are ivory – if you have inherited some – amber and coral, and also polished wood.

However, don’t reach for the natural cleaning product that you use for most other domestic cleaning purposes, vinegar. Vinegar is an acid and reacts with alkaline substances. Pearls are made from calcium carbonate, which is an alkaline substance, so vinegar is even worse for pearls than commercial jewellery cleaning products. Readers may recall the related legend about Cleopatra that is parodied in the Asterix cartoons. If you haven’t heard this legend, the story says that Cleopatra and Mark Antony (possibly – it could have been Julius Caesar) had a bet on as to which one of them could put on the most lavish, most expensive feast. Cleopatra had pulled out all the stops, but her efforts failed to impress Mark Antony. Her response was to snap her elegant fingers for a cup full of vinegar, and she promptly took off one of her priceless pearl earrings – the pearls were extremely large and worth, according to the various sources, 15 provinces – and dropped it into the vinegar. A few stirs (or a few hundred), and she promptly drank his health and won the bet. The moral: don’t get vinegar anywhere near pearls, and try not to mess with Roman generals.

The best way to get pearls glowing with that gentle lustre is to let them sit next to the skin frequently, moving gently. In other words, pearls look their best when worn frequently. The combination of natural body oils at the neck and/or wrist (assuming that you have a pearl necklace or a pearl bracelet) mixed with the gentle buffing of a soft substance that is similar to but much finer than chamois leather – your skin, even if Father Time and Mother Nature have left fingerprints all over you – is perfect for cleaning pearls. Pearl earrings of the long and dangly kind manage to get enough buffing and oils as well, and also should be worn frequently.

Pearl rings, however, are another story. These should be kept for special occasions only, as hands are exposed to many more substances than necks. Handwashing, for example. Soap is no good for pearls, and alcohol-based hand sanitizer is even worse. Take your pearl ring off – carefully – if you have to wash your hands if you are wearing a pearl ring. And you’d probably take care of your pearl bracelet, too.

Make sure that your pearl necklace and earrings are protected from the chemicals that do go on your neck – namely moisturizer and perfume. Even home-made lotions and fragrances will do pearls no good. Put your pearls on last as a finishing touch after your moisturizer, makeup and perfume.

But sometimes, pearls will get a little grubby and the natural oils from your skin can build up too much (especially mixed with makeup, skin flakes and everyday grime). This grime will need to be cleaned off. Water is about the only readily available thing that will not damage pearls, so you should rub your pearls with a soft cloth dampened in a little warm water. Technically speaking, salt water can be used to clean salt water pearls, but the problem here is the string that holds the pearls together doesn’t like the salt water. If the grime is visible, you can scrape at it gently with your fingernails, as fingernails are the same hardness as pearl and won’t scratch it. But gently is the operative word.

Pearls should not be steam cleaned. Other natural cleaning methods and products to avoid include baking soda, milk (too acidic), talcum powder and ultrasonic cleaners. Don’t use a toothbrush, which is perfect for other jewellery, or a scouring pad. Just stick to water and a soft cloth, with the occasional poke from a fingernail.

Once you have cleaned your pearls, they should be dried with a soft cloth. Just pat them. Leave them to dry thoroughly before wearing them, as the silk they are strung on will stretch if it gets wet. Resist the temptation to dry them with a hair dryer, in front of the radiator, in an oven or in direct sunshine, as this will dry the pearls out too much. Pearls should have a moisture content of 2%, and they will crack if they get too dry. So if you have had a last minute invitation to a place you want to wear pearls to and your pearls are a little dull-looking, resist the temptation to try cleaning them in a hurry. Leave them off or just wear them anyway.

It is a wise idea to have your pearls restrung by a jeweller periodically, and you can get the jeweller to clean the pearls at the same time. He/she knows how to do it.

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About the author 

Nick Vassilev

Nick blogs about cleaning. He is a cleaning expert with more than 25 years of experience. He is also an NCCA-certified carpet cleaner. Founder and CEO of Anyclean.