Pearls are an organic gem, and the only case where a living organism actually produces the gemstone. Because of their unique nature and composition, they require specialised care and cleaning – in fact, keeping pearls clean is an essential part of their maintenance. Unlike a hard gemstone like amethyst or diamonds, the accumulation of dirt and other substances can actually damage pearls. Understanding what pearls are and where they come from, along with the nature of their composition, is the key to understanding how to clean and protect them.
What are Pearls?
The formation of pearls by oysters or other mollusks (similar shelled animals) comes about as a kind of defence mechanism. A small object or parasite enters the animal's shell and it gets into the soft tissue inside, or the mantle. The mantle responds by forming a pearl sac, secreting nacre, an iridescent substance, over the intruder (and thereby neutralising it) until it forms a pearl.
Natural pearls and cultured pearls come about as a result of the same process. In nature, it is an unexpected intruder like a parasite that stimulates the pearl-making process. When it comes to cultured pearls, Japanese industries pioneered the technique of artificially producing pearls by introducing a foreign substance into the soft tissue inside the shell. They then return the mollusk to the sea, and the pearl forms naturally from that point forward. Since they are made of the same material, cleaning natural and cultivated pearls follows the same procedure.
The chemical composition of nacre is largely calcium carbonate, and not stone or crystal like most other semi-precious gemstones. In particular, they are softer than other gemstones and the surface and lustre are more delicate. That means they scratch, crack and take damage much more easily. The surface is also more porous, which means it can absorb dirt and contaminants, unlike harder gemstones.
Cleaning and Protection
Because of their delicate nature, prevention is the best method of keeping pearls clean and in good condition. The easiest way to keep pearls clean is to minimise any damage before it happens.
Perspiration and Body Acidity
Natural body oils and perspiration and therefore frequent wear can actually damage pearls over time. A person's perspiration may be more or less acidic and that can have an effect on wear and the lustre. Pearl necklaces are especially vulnerable since people wear them close to the skin.
Cosmetics and Pearls
Because of their nature, pearls suffer damage from substances they meet directly, including makeup, perfume, hair products, and more. A good practice to adopt is to put pearls on last – after applying any makeup, perfume, or other personal care products – to minimise contact.
Take Them Off
Avoid exposure to detergents and other harsh agents by simply taking off pearls when bathing, showering, swimming, or washing dishes or laundry. Avoid exposing them to heat as it can damage and discolour pearls.
To minimise contact with any substance that can harm the surface, store pearls separately in a closed container away from other jewellery items. The best method is to wrap them in a soft cloth and store in a lined jewellery box.
The best method is the simplest method – wiping with a soft, dry or slightly damp cloth or chamois after wearing the pearls. This keeps them clean and avoids damage. A drop or two of olive oil applied to the cloth helps the pearls keep their iridescent lustre. The general rules for cleaning pearls are simple.
Use: mild dish soaps and shampoos; commercial cleaner labelled as safe for pearls; soft, dry or slightly dampened cloth
Never Use: ultrasonic cleaners; steam cleaning; dish soap that includes enzymes or harsh surfactants; any soap labelled antibacterial; laundry detergent; bleach; powdered cleansers; baking soda; ammonia-based cleaners; lemon juice; vinegar
For a somewhat more thorough cleaning, use a couple of drops of mild liquid detergent or shampoo or commercial cleaner (that specifies it is safe for pearls) on the cloth and wipe the pearls gently. Do not soak pearls, especially on a necklace or bracelet as it stretches the thread. Follow it with a slightly damp (not soapy) cloth to remove soap residue.
How to Buy Pearl Jewellery Cleaner on eBay
A quick search on eBay yields many results as far as general jewellery cleaners. Adding the word 'pearl' to the search can narrow the results, but some cleaners may also only list the details in the product description. It may therefore also be worthwhile to look through some of the general jewellery cleaners to check the description for whether the product is safe for pearls. A local seller may be a good option in that you may be able to contact them directly for advice on their product line.