Antique and vintage pieces of jewellery require special care, tools and knowledge. No two pieces are the same — whether they differ in setting, stone or metal hardness, you’ll need to tweak your cleaning tactics to suit your unique item. Scratches and harsh chemicals can damage an antique piece, leaving it looking less than its best.
Simply put, antique rings were not designed with our modern lifestyles or cleaning products in mind. You’ll need to be gentle. When cleaning older jewellery, the first rule is not to cause any harm.
Remember that these pieces were made over a hundred years ago using a range of styles and techniques. As with any precious item, extra consideration should be given when handling, wearing and cleaning your antique ring. Here, you’ll find out how to care for your precious pieces, helping them retain their charm and sparkle for years to come.
Caring for antique rings: Key things to remember
First of all, there are some general rules of thumb that will help prevent damage to your antique ring.
Things to avoid:
- Wearing your ring where unnecessary, such as while sleeping or working out.
- Wearing your ring when your hand is immersed in water, as your finger size could fluctuate significantly. Water can also damage some older ring settings.
- Wearing your ring while doing any physical task involving heavy objects, abrasive surfaces or slippery substances.
- Using any harsh cleaning products. Chemicals such as chlorine can damage and discolour metals like gold and platinum and slowly erode the finish and polish of gemstones.
There are also several things you can do to protect and prolong your antique ring’s sparkle.
- Protect your jewellery from tarnishing or fading by storing it in a dark, dry place and avoiding excess moisture.
- Regularly check that your ring is structurally solid, that the metal work is intact and that the stones are not loose.
- Consider getting your valuable ring insured. No matter how careful you are, accidents can happen.
- Use gentler materials and less concentrated cleaning agents where possible.
- Avoid wearing your ring while handling chemical or cosmetic substances that are corrosive, highly concentrated or reactive.
- Remove your gold, silver or platinum pieces when exposed to sandy or gritty elements as their abrasive nature will cause micro-scratches that will detract from the natural lustre of these metals.
- Make sure your ring is correctly fitted. Falling rings can become scratched or dented quickly.
The Mohs scale of hardness
The Mohs scale of hardness is an excellent guide to your gemstone’s general characteristics. The higher a material is on the scale, the more resistant it will be to scratching and damage.
Take a minute to check the level of hardness of your stone on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness below.
- Pearls are one of the softest materials used in antique rings, so take special care.
- Silver and gold jewellery is also relatively easily damaged. Platinum is slightly harder but still requires a gentle touch.
- Opal appears halfway on the scale.
- Turquoise, moonstone, jade, garnet and peridot appear at 6 and 6.5 on the scale.
- Amethyst, citrine, aquamarine and onyx all come in at 7 or 7.5/10.
- Emerald and topaz come in at 8 on the scale.
- Sapphires and rubies are popular in antique jewellery and come at 9 on the Mohs scale.
- The hardest of all, diamonds appear at 10.
While a higher number represents a harder material, treating all antique jewellery carefully is still crucial. You should always use the proper tools and techniques to clean your antique rings, tailored to your unique piece.
What cleaning materials will you need?
The following materials will appear in any professional jeweller’s cleaning kit:
- A soft toothbrush used with warm water (sometimes with mild soap). Beware: Even soft brushes may damage softer stones and metals.
- Gentle cleaning solution
- A soft cloth and polishing cloth
- Prongs and repair tools
As you can see, antique jewellery requires gentle cleaning products — no harsh chemicals or bleach here. Most routine cleaning jobs can be completed with a soft-bristled toothbrush (or other types of soft brush), warm, slightly soapy water and a clean cloth.
How to clean closed foil-back jewellery
One vital thing to note before starting: due to the construction of closed-back or foil-back rings, water can sometimes become trapped and encased at the back of gemstones. Over time, this can cause the gem surface or foil backing to fade.
In particular, if gemstones are mounted in closed-back for settings lined in foil, immersing them in water will damage and flake the foiling. The gems will then appear dark and dull rather than their dazzling best.
To clean closed foil back jewellery, wipe the stones with a soft, lint-free cloth to remove any residue buildup. Do not use water. Try to prevent your jewellery from coming into close contact with perfume, makeup or oil by putting it on last.
With the general guidelines out of the way, let’s see how you can clean each type of gem, metal and setting.
How to clean antique and vintage ring gemstones
Different gemstones and metals require special kinds of care. From the softest to the hardest gems, each material needs to be treated gently, using the minimum pressure and cleaning products possible.
Diamonds, symbolising timeless elegance, are remarkable for their hardness. Nonetheless, they still present risks.
- Hardness: High on the Mohs Scale, diamonds are known for scratching metals and softer gemstones — and even other diamonds. Store them separately to avoid damage. Diamonds can chip or fracture from hard impact, especially in areas where the carbon atoms are not tightly bonded. These areas, called cleavage planes, are the major source of damage to diamonds.
- Vulnerabilities: Despite their hardness, diamonds are sensitive to extreme temperature changes, chipping and cracking.
- Exposure: Sunlight or humidity can deteriorate diamonds over time. Keep them in a dry, controlled environment.
How to Clean Diamonds
A soft-bristled brush, mild detergent and warm water are ideal for cleaning diamonds. Use the following steps:
- Soak: Let your diamond piece soak in warm water. Remember, do not let closed foil-backed pieces come into contact with water.
- Scrub: Softly scrub to remove built-up and surface dirt.
- Dry: Gently dry with a lint-free cloth.
Avoid abrasive cleaners — things like baking soda, toothpaste or lemon juice can all scratch or corrode platinum and gold settings. Occasionally, take your diamond pieces for professional cleaning and treatment. Your antique diamond ring may be robust, but care is needed to maintain its brilliance.
Rubies and Sapphires
Rubies and sapphires, revered for their deep colours and durability, are part of the corundum family and second in hardness only to diamonds. Here's how you can preserve their natural beauty and shine:
- Hardness: As corundum gems, they are highly durable and resistant to cracks, chips, and scratches from most substances, except diamonds. However, you should still always take care to protect ruby and sapphire rings.
- Vulnerabilities: Store your jewellery in separate cloth or silk-lined pouches to prevent scratching.
- Exposure: They are stable under normal wearing conditions but avoid acids, extreme heat or rapid temperature changes to prevent cracks or ruptures.
How to Clean Rubies and Sapphires
Utilise a soft-bristled brush, mild detergent and warm water to safely clean these gemstones.
- Soak: Allow your sapphire or ruby ring to soak in warm water.
- Scrub: Gently scrub to remove any build-up and surface dirt.
- Dry: Pat dry with a lint-free cloth.
As with diamonds, avoid corrosive or strong cleaning products to keep your rubies and sapphires at their best. Consider professional cleaning or polishing occasionally to retain their longevity and lustre.
Rubies and Sapphires exude elegance and resilience, but careful maintenance ensures they remain a treasured part of your collection for generations.
Emeralds, a dazzling member of the beryl family, require special attention due to their inclusions (fractures or material trapped within the mineral during its formation, such as gas) and unique characteristics. As a softer mineral than diamonds, sapphires or rubies, there are special considerations when cleaning antique emerald rings.
Limit cleaning to a few times yearly, and consider re-oiling after many years of wear to enhance appearance. You might expect to pay more for repairs or cleaning, as emeralds require extra care.
- Hardness: At 7.5 on the Mohs scale, emeralds are relatively durable but susceptible to scratching by harder gemstones like sapphires, rubies and diamonds.
- Vulnerabilities: Keep them in a separate softly-lined box or pouch to prevent scratches. Avoid ultrasonic or steam cleaners, as these methods can weaken or crack emeralds due to their unique inclusions and enhancements.
- Exposure: Emeralds are particularly vulnerable to heat, solar radiation, and temperature fluctuations. Ensure protection to avoid drying or fracturing.
Up to 90% of emeralds on the market are estimated to have been enhanced with either oil or resin. Because of this, it can be risky to have your emerald cleaned with an ultrasonic or steam cleaner - these are commonly used in jewellery shops. The solutions used in ultrasonic cleaners may cause the oil or epoxy that is filling small fractures in an emerald to dissolve, and vibrations may weaken heavily fractured stones- causing higher potential for cracking. In addition to strong solutions and vibrations, warm vapour in steam cleaners can cause resin or oil to sweat out of the fractures in a stone, causing brittleness.
How to Clean Emeralds
- Gentle cleaning: Use a soft-bristled brush dipped in very mild detergent and lukewarm water.
- Brush: Gently brush the emerald with very soft bristles.
- Dry: Carefully wipe dry with a lint-free cloth.
Emeralds are stunning yet delicate gemstones. Whether you opt for at-home cleaning or professional jewellery cleaning services, maintaining the vibrance of your emerald requires attention and care.
Quartz (Amethyst, Citrine, Topaz)
Quartz gemstones, including amethyst, citrine and topaz, are known for their vibrant colours. They have good durability, making them suitable for everyday wear, but they also require special care. Here's a guide to keep your quartz gemstones sparkling:
- Hardness: Amethyst and citrine are 7 on the Mohs scale, while topaz is 8, indicating good durability. However, they may be scratched by harder stones.
- Vulnerabilities: Store quartz gemstones in separate, softly lined boxes away from direct sunlight to prevent fading.
- Exposure: Avoid sunny spots to keep cracks at bay. Keep household chemicals and ultrasonic cleaners away, particularly for topaz or treated amethyst and citrine. All three gemstones are sensitive to extreme temperature changes, so steam cleaning should be avoided.
How to Clean Quartz Gemstones
- Soak: Amethyst can be soaked in a gentle solution. For topaz and citrine, avoid excessive moisture or salt water, as it can lead to cracks.
- Clean: Use gentle soap and a lint-free cloth; soft brushes are inappropriate for these stones.
- Dry: Gently pat dry with a clean cloth. Use a hair-free leather cloth or professional polishing with French cerium or facet-grade cerium to retain their stunning qualities.
Quartz gemstones add a touch of elegance and colour to any jewellery collection. With careful handling and proper cleaning practices, you can maintain the integrity and brilliance of these beautiful stones.
Pearls, with their timeless elegance and unique charm, are a prized possession in any jewellery collection. However, their delicate nature requires specific care to maintain their lustrous beauty. Here's a comprehensive guide to treating and caring for your pearls:
- Hardness: Pearls are ranked at a low 2.5 on the Mohs hardness scale, making them susceptible to scratches or abrasion. Because of their soft nature, and the anatomy of a pearl, scratches cannot be polished out, so handle pearl pieces with the utmost care.
- Vulnerabilities: Store flat in a softly lined case, isolated from other gemstones and metal elements.
- Exposure: Store pearls in non-airtight containers and wear them regularly to maintain their colour. Keep pearls away from acidic substances, lotions, perfumes or hairsprays that might weaken their surface.
How to Clean Pearls
- Clean: Use a soft cloth dampened with gentle detergent and lukewarm water to wipe away grime or dirt. Pearls are sensitive to temperature extremes, so always use only lukewarm water.
- Dry: Use a soft cotton cloth or chamois leather to maintain their lustre after wearing.
Vintage pearl rings embody a grace and elegance that demands careful handling and unique cleaning methods. Following these guidelines will ensure that your pearls remain a cherished part of your collection for generations to come.
How to clean the metals on antique or vintage rings
As with gemstones, different metals like gold, silver, and platinum require diligent care to retain their stunning looks. Especially when cleaning antique rings, following the correct methods can ensure they remain dazzling for years to come.
Store platinum, silver, and gold pieces separately from each other and other gemstones to avoid scratches. While caring for your metal is vital, also be mindful of the porosity of any gemstones on your rings. Some may not be suitable for submersion in water (see above).
Cleaning gold, silver and platinum rings
- Wash: Use gentle soap, lukewarm water, and a lint-free cloth for cleaning all three metals. Avoid harsh chemicals such as vinegar or baking soda that may scratch delicate, antique pieces.
- Buff: Use a proper polishing cloth, available at jewellery shops.
There are several special considerations depending on your type of metal. For example, silver naturally tarnishes over time, but this effect can be charming on antique pieces — or even reversed if you’d prefer. Several methods can slow down the natural oxidation process in silver, which dulls its surface.
Overall, the beauty of gold, silver and platinum rings can be maintained through careful cleaning and storage. Be gentle, be mindful of gemstones and don't hesitate to seek professional assistance.
For thorough cleaning or polishing, consult a jeweller for professional steam cleaning. Periodic re-plating also enhances the vibrancy of gemstones and complements their brilliance.
How to clean antique engagement rings
Antique engagement rings require extra attention and care when cleaning. Often, they come in elaborate designs, with multiple stones and details. This is especially true when dealing with Georgian and Victorian rings — which often feature sensitive settings or highly decorative patterns.
As such, studying and understanding your piece before cleaning is essential. Check the gemstones and metals involved, cross-referencing their hardness and characteristics with the descriptions above.
- Always opt for the gentlest cleaning methods: Vintage jewellery may contain delicate settings and stones, so use mild soap, lukewarm water and a soft, lint-free cloth.
- Avoid harsh chemicals: Steer clear of vinegar, baking soda or abrasive cleaners, which may cause damage.
- Handle with care: Delicate settings and older craftsmanship require gentle handling to prevent loosening or damage. Always understand your stones, metals and their hardness. Keep the ring in a softly lined case, away from other jewellery to prevent scratches.
- Consult a professional when needed: For significant tarnishing or intricate designs, seeking professional cleaning is wise to preserve the ring's integrity and beauty.
What to do if your antique ring needs to be repaired
Painstakingly crafted centuries ago, antique rings require specialist knowledge to repair properly. Tempting as it may be, avoid at-home solutions that may worsen the problem.
If you require a setting, gemstone or general antique ring repair, it’s first important to understand the extent of the damage — and whether the setting or gemstone can be repaired or needs replacing.
An experienced professional jeweller will understand the best tools and techniques for cleaning or repairing your treasured piece. They’ll also ensure that replacements match the original materials to preserve your ring's character and value.