How To Clean Pearls

A close-up of a pearl on a blank background
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Pearls are classic, iconic, and feminine. However, as lustrous as they might be, pearls are fragile by nature. Whether your pearls are cultured or simulated, special care is required when it comes to cleaning them. Learn how to clean pearls effectively without damaging them. 

Remember: this method is not the same way you clean other fine jewelry pieces. Cleaning pearls and caring for them takes a little knowledge and finesse.

 

Why Pearls Require Special Care

Understanding how pearls are formed will help you understand why pearls need extra care. To put it simply, a small seed, bead, or particle is covered in a shiny nacre substance that is secreted by the mollusk. This soft nacre coating on the pearl's exterior is the main reason pearls are considered fragile. 

The thickness of the nacre coating depends on the type of creature involved, the water it lives in, and how long the intruder is left in place before it is removed. As nacre thickness increases so does the quality and durability of the pearl. 

If the nacre of your pearl is thin and fragile, it can easily be chipped off which can leave unsightly gaps, chips, or cracks. In the worst case, the pearl can unravel entirely, leaving you with a dull, lifeless bead. Even fake glass and plastic pearls need special care because their coating is significantly thinner and more fragile than nacre.

 

Another reason pearls need special cleaning consideration is that many of them are strung. The string used is like any other string. If you leave it submerged in fluid for too long, it can stain, weaken, and break. So let's get started.

How to Clean Pearl Jewelry

As we said earlier, even cultured pearls with thicker coatings are more fragile than most other gemstones, so you must handle them carefully to keep them in the best condition.

Gentle and conservative cleaning are the keys to successful pearl maintenance. If you notice your pearls are lacking luster, it could be that they've been cleaned too often or too rigorously. Follow these tips if and when you do need to clean your pearls. 

  • Your pearls will stay cleaner if you put them on after you've applied your makeup and perfume.
  • Be sure to take off your pearl rings before you apply hand and body creams.
  • Wipe your pearls with a soft, lint-free cloth as soon as you take them off to remove any excess body oil or residue. The cloth can be dampened with water, or it can be dry. If damp, allow the pearls to air dry before putting them away.
  • Dirty pearls can be cleaned with a small amount of mild soap and water solution (try Ivory bar soaps flakes).
  • Never submerge pearls in liquid. If cleaning, use a damp lint-free cloth with a mild cleaning solution. Make sure you rinse off all the solution and pat try, making sure never to leave the pearls under water. 
  • Never clean your pearls with solutions that contain ammonia or harsh detergents.
  • Don't under any circumstances put pearl jewelry in an ultrasonic cleaner. The vibrations can severely damage the nacre coating.
  • Don't use abrasive cleaners or rub pearls with an abrasive polishing cloth. Both can wear away the nacre coating, leaving you with a dull looking bead.
  • Never clean your pearls too often. Doing so can dull out the pearl's finish. A little body oil is a great way to enhance the shine of your pearls. 


Storing Pearls Correctly

How you store your pearls can be just as important as how you clean your pearls. Make sure you follow these tips to keep your pearls damage-free.

  • Don't store your pearls with other jewelry because pearls can be scratched easily when metal or gemstones rub against them. Find a special slot in your jewelry box for the pearls, or keep them in a soft bag made from chamois or another non-abrasive material.
  • Your fine pearl necklaces should be restrung periodically so that you're sure the silk or nylon cord holding them is in good shape. 

Fun Pearl Fact: Natural pearls are sold by carat weight, but cultured pearls are sold by their size in millimeters.

If in doubt, do nothing with your pearls. It's better to err on the side of caution than to over clean and ruin your jewelry. As long as you store your pearls properly and wipe them down gently after use, they should look beautiful for generations.