How to Care for Fine Pearls

Pearls are among nature’s loveliest creations, glowing with reflected light. Real pearls need care in handling to stay looking their best, as they are an organic substance and softer than other gems. Here are some tips about how to care for fine pearls.

Three Strand Pearl Necklace
Pearls are some of nature’s loveliest creations.

These are the main points to remember:

  • protect pearls from scratches or abrasion
  • protect them from substances that could cause colour changes or surface damage
  • protect them from extremes of heat, cold, or dryness

Wear Your Pearls

The best way to keep fine pearls in good condition is to wear them! Pearls are meant to be enjoyed, and the skin’s natural oils help to keep them lustrous.

However, avoid wearing pearls in conditions that make you sweat. Natural skin oils are good for pearls but perspiration isn’t, as it tends to be somewhat acidic.

Be sure your skin is clean before you put on pearl jewellery. Keep pearls well away from hair spray, cigarette smoke, cosmetics, perfume or other substances that could cause spots or blotches. The most harmful substances that most pearls encounter? Grooming products!

Avoid touching your pearls when wearing them, especially during a meal. Residue from some foods can cause spots.

Don’t wear pearls while swimming or in the hot tub. Chlorine is bad news for fine jewellery, and salt water isn’t much better.

Don’t let pearls rub against rough fabrics such as coarse tweeds or metallic threads.

Rings or bracelets are more susceptible to nicks and scratches than necklaces or earrings would be. Save pearl rings or bracelets for special occasions, or days when you know you’ll be less active. When taking off a pearl ring, don’t tug on the pearl itself but grasp the metal shank instead. Ditto for earrings.

Avoid wearing fine pearls while taking part in sports or other activities that could lead to bumps or abrasion. Sports, house cleaning, even music! I once put on a pearl necklace to dress up for a concert. I was already on stage when I realized that my viola would rub against the pearls as I held it to play. Eek! I positioned the pearls as best I could and made sure that didn’t happen again.

Your pearls should be the last thing you put on when you get dressed, and the first thing you remove at the end of the day.

Storing Your Pearls

A good rule is to store your pearls in the same temperature and humidity conditions that would be comfortable for you. Protect fine pearls from extremes of heat, cold or dryness. Heat can cause colour changes, and conditions that are too cold or dry can cause the surface to craze or crack.

Store pearls separately from other jewelry so they don’t get scratched by other pieces. Use a soft cloth pouch or even better, a jewel box of their own.

Store pearls out of direct light, especially sunlight. However, they need to breathe and respond to natural humidity changes so don’t keep them in an airtight container. Wrapping them with bubble wrap for shipping or travel might be an exception, but only for short periods.

A pearl pendant on a metal chain could be hung on a hook for storage, but don’t hang a full pearl necklace as that could stretch the string. Store pearl strands flat.

Don’t store pearls in a safety deposit box for extended periods. The dry conditions that are good for paper documents aren’t so good for pearls.

Stringing

It’s a sign of quality when pearl necklaces are strung with a tiny knot between each pearl. This makes the strand hang better, keeps the pearls from rubbing each other, and reduces loss if the string ever breaks. Silk and nylon are the most common threads used for stringing fine pearls; other yarns such as cotton don’t last as well.

Have your pearls inspected by a jeweller every year or two and get them restrung if needed.

Cleaning Fine Pearls

Care for your pearls by wiping them with a soft, dry cloth after each wearing.

Wash them occasionally, using clean distilled water and a mild baby soap (not detergent) or pearl-safe cleaning solution. Scrub gently with a very fine natural bristle brush, and support the strand so the thread doesn’t stretch. Take extra care around the drill holes where dirt may collect.

Rinse them in distilled water, pat dry with a soft towel, and lay them flat in the open air to dry. Wait until the string is totally dry to wear your necklace, as a damp string can stretch or attract dirt.

A few more don’ts:

  • Don’t … absolutely don’t! … try to clean pearls with an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner.
  • Don’t try to clean pearls using a toothbrush, scouring pad, or abrasive material.
  • Don’t use cleaning solutions designed for gold or silver jewelry.
  • Don’t try to steam-clean pearls. Heat can discolour them.

Over the Years …

It’s normal for pearls to become gradually darker with age, and the colour changes that come over time are not reversible. White pearls may eventually become creamy or even golden; changes might be less noticeable with other colours. You may cause damage if you try to reverse the natural colour changes, so if you are the owner of heritage pearls, enjoy them as they are. Adapt your outfit choices to suit the colour that the pearls have become.

Fine pearls can bring delight to several generations if they are well cared for. What better reason to treat yourself?

— by Elisabeth Archambault, copyright 2021