Pearls and acid DO NOT get along.
(WARNING: Science Alert!) Nacre, the luminous substance that pearls are made of, contains some organic proteins and also calcium carbonate, which dissolves when it comes into contact with acid. Even mild acids can take their toll over time, and when you’re dealing with a gem that is traditionally passed down through generations of wearers, keeping your pearls safe from acid exposure becomes an important consideration.
Ok, so why does this little science fact apply to you, dear reader?
Well, first off, let us tell you a little bit about some of the sad and damaged pearls that customers bring us to repair. These poor pearls have often lost their gorgeous luster and have areas that appear cloudy and dull. Occasionally, these damaged areas can be repaired through an intensive polishing process, but all too frequently, the damage done through contact with acid is permanent.
How does this acid damage happen?
As far as we can tell, most these pearls are victims of the various acids that can be found in personal grooming products–perfumes, lotions, hairspray, and makeup. All of these products contain mild acids that, over time, can weaken the structure of the pearl’s nacre and eventually dissolve its beautiful shine.
Another way that pearls become damaged is through exposure to chlorine from swimming pools and even tap water. The chlorine used to purify water is actually sodium hypochlorite, the same stuff you find in household bleach. This particular type of chlorine is highly oxidizing, and has a tendency to destroy a pearl’s luster on contact.
The third and somewhat unexpected cause of acid damage is from contact with food and beverages. If you tend to dribble your lemonade while drinking, you could be putting your pearls at risk.
Here at Pearls International, we decided to do an experiment. We wanted to see what would happen if we pulled a Cleopatra and dunked a pearl in vinegar. Since chlorine is also a culprit of acid damage, we decided to expand our experiment to include chlorine as well. Check out our series Pearls International Destroys Pearls in the Name of Science to see photos of the results!
So how do you prevent your pearls ending up as tiny squishy nuggets of once-beautiful gem? It’s actually very easy to keep pearls looking beautiful!
First, wait to put your pearls on until after you have applied any cosmetics, lotions, or perfume. Let those products dry for a while before decorating yourself with your lovely pearl jewelry. Remember to remove your pearls before swimming or showering, and for heaven’s sake, please don’t dribble your lemonade on your nice pearl necklace!
For more information on what NOT to do, check out Eight Proven Ways to Wreck Your Jewelry for Good.
Even if you are stupendously careful with preventing your pearls from coming into contact with cosmetics, chlorine, and food, your own body oils are slightly acidic and can damage the surface of pearls over time. To prevent this damage from occurring, periodically remove those oils and keep your pearls clean by dipping them in ordinary household ammonia (a pearl-approved non-acidic cleaner).
Here’s how to do it:
At Pearls International, we use the dip-and-swirl method. Fill a bowl or glass with a cup or so of ammonia, drop your pearl jewelry in, and gently swirl for about thirty seconds, alternating direction occasionally to ensure that all the nooks and crannies are sufficiently cleansed of acidic oils. Don’t leave silver or gold plated jewelry in this ammonia for too long, because it can damage the finish. Sterling silver and real gold will be just fine.
When you are finished with the dip-and-swirl, rinse your jewelry under clean running water until it no longer feels ‘slimy.’
Tip: We put a clean washcloth over the drain while we rinse. It allows the water to run through, but prevents chips and cracks if you accidentally drop your slippery pearls into the hard sink. It has also saved an earring or two from a watery grave at the bottom of a drain!
When all of the ammonia, dirt, and oils have been rinsed away, carefully pat your pearls dry with a clean cloth. If your pearls are knotted on a silk cord, lay them out in a straight line to dry for at least 24 hours before wearing. This will prevent them from developing kinks and ensure that they lay beautifully against your skin.
Can’t stand the smell of ammonia? Check out our gardenia-scented jewelry cleaner, which is safe for all metals, including your plated jewelry. We also use and recommend Klean Karats polishing cloths, which are champions at shining up your tarnished jewelry.
Alternatively, you could always bring your pearls to Pearls International, where our experts will clean them for you, free of charge! We hope this little tidbit will help you enjoy your beautiful, shiny pearls for years to come.