At one time the term ‘jewellery’ referred only to personal adornment containing precious stones, but now a wide variety of materials are used to make jewellery and the term describes a broad range of personal ornament. Throughout history and across cultures, jewellery has been worn by men, women and children, as decoration or to demonstrate status and rank. Almost any material that can be turned into a pin or bead has, over the years, been used to make jewellery. Gold, silver and platinum with precious or semi-precious stones may be the most common materials, but jewellery can be made from coral, shells, leather, copper and copper alloys, enamel, glass, ceramic, feathers, insect cases, bone and ivory, hair and paper. These days much jewellery is created using versatile modern materials such as plastics.
Most damage occurs as a result of wear and tear: stones and enamel become chipped, clasps may break and surfaces are scratched. Metals such as silver, copper and copper alloys will tarnish and most jewellery becomes dirty. Rings can get soap and other materials encrusted in them, earrings and necklaces often become gummed up with hair spray and make-up.
Each material is vulnerable to deterioration but, in general jewellery is fairly stable. The materials which may need special care are organic materials such as feathers, leather, insect cases or wings and hair, as these may be damaged by light and could be subject to moth or other insect damage. Ivory, bone and pearls can be easily stained, so should be handled and stored carefully. Plastics can also be damaged by light, perfume and hairspray. Because of their inherently unstable ingredients, early plastics in particular can break down, producing damaging vapours that may damage other materials, particularly metals.
Jewellery from antiquity may look strong and in good condition but the appearance is often deceptive and the metal may have become weak and brittle. It is therefore not advisable to wear ancient jewellery.
Antique jewellery is safer to wear but before doing so check that the pins, clasps and safety chains are in good condition and that any stones are held firmly in place.
Try to keep individual items of jewellery separate from each other. This is particularly important where there are precious stones, as the gems can scratch other materials. Some stones, such as emeralds, are quite brittle and may be damaged if jumbled together with others. Traditional jewellery cases, rolls and boxes are often well designed to secure and support items when they are not being worn.
Keep items of the same type or size together: for example keep single strand necklaces, bangles, earrings, or brooches with other similar pieces. Use acid-free tissue paper in boxes as a packing and cushioning material; note that cotton wool should be avoided as it may “catch” on the jewellery and can, when the air is damp, cause corrosion. Be aware also that coloured tissue paper can stain pearls, ivory and bone. Pouches and wraps made from good quality cotton or silver protection cloth are useful for keeping silver items protected.
Jewellery is best displayed in a glass-fronted case, as this will protect it from dust and provide a small amount of security. When jewellery is being worn, care should be taken not to spray perfume or hair spray onto it. Jewellery should be put on after make-up.
The structure of jewellery is often very complex and a poor repair can be ugly and can weaken the piece. Most good jewellers are able to repair modern items but ancient jewellery should be repaired only by a conservator or silversmith who is used to working with this type of material. “High Street” jewellers do not generally have this experience and expertise.
Weak clasps and pins can be repaired or replaced so that the piece is safe to be worn. If you have this done to a historic piece, make sure that the replacement is identical to the original.
Stones that are loose in their setting should be repaired by a specialist conservator or jeweller as an inappropriate repair may weaken the setting or damage the stone.
Bead shops often provide materials and information on restringing beads but it is advisable to have valuable, historic or precious beads and pearls strung by a jeweller who will know the safest and most appropriate method of stringing and knotting the beads.
Ancient jewellery or pieces that are painted or very fragile should not be cleaned. Cleaning can cause serious problems if inappropriate materials are used on a sensitive item and may drastically damage items and reduce their value.
Slightly dull silver can be polished with a silver polishing cloth but if it needs more cleaning than this, ask a conservator for advice. (See Care and conservation of silver and plate in this series)
Precious stones set in rings and brooches can gather dirt over the years. Provided that the piece is made from a sound metal and the settings are open - not closed at the back - the item can be cleaned by gently brushing with a hogs hair brush dampened with a mixture of conservation-grade detergent in warm water. Large lumps of dirt may be loosened with a wooden cocktail stick, but do not use metal implements. Work on a tray with raised edges so that any stones that become loose can be caught, this is better than working over the sink. Rinse in warm water and dry thoroughly with a soft cloth.
Note that it is not advisable to clean stones in a closed setting in this way, as the liquid may run behind the stones resulting in corrosion and other damage.
Ultra-sonic cleaners are sometimes recommended for cleaning jewellery but they may cause stones to shatter if care is not taken and if the stones are not checked carefully before use. Better to exercise caution in these cases and trust the item to a conservator.
It is very difficult to describe jewellery and there is a greater chance of recovering stolen objects if you have a photograph of each item. Take a clear photograph of the front and back (where applicable) and any particular features such as hallmarks or engraving of each piece.
Use the Conservation Register to Find a conservator.
© Icon, the Institute of Conservation 2011.
This article offers general guidance and is not intended to be a substitute for the professional advice of an accredited conservator. The views expressed are those of the author or authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Conservation. The Institute of Conservation and its partners accept no liability for any loss or damage which may arise if this guidance is followed.
The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge the support of The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 in the production of this guidance information. Further information on The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and its work is available at www.royalcommission1851.org.uk.