Polishing and cleaning are two separate processes that are often confused as in some ways they overlap, as in some instances cleaning may brighten a piece and some polishing processes may also clean the item. In this section we will look at cleaning jewelry, we have a separate polishing section.
Jewelry will require cleaning if its been worn to remove hand creams and body lotions, dead skin & dirt simply to renew its lustre for its owner or prior to adjustment or repair in a workshop. Jewelry also requires frequent cleaning during manufacture and repairs specifically after polishing which leaves items caked in polish especially in intricate hard to reach areas.
The first thing to say about cleaning jewelry is that the scope of materials used to make jewelry spans from diamonds which is one of the hardest material known to man to some very soft and incredibly delicate materials. So some materials and gemstones are just too delicate and fragile to withstand conventional cleaning that the harder and stronger ones can. And even the hardest and strongest can be ruined by attempts to clean them for a multitude of reasons ranging from treatments to the stones themselves and using inappropriate cleaners. So if you are in any doubt seek manufaturers and professional jewellers advice and services rather than attempting any DIY.
Consumer products for home use
There are many excellent consumer products for home use such as silver dips or jewelry cleaners, the list of manufacturers, brands and products is enormous. They are a great solution for anyone wishing to regularly clean their own jewelry at home, and the cloths and dips are used by professionals in stores daily to maintain the lustre and remove tarnish from new stock on display. However they are labour intensive and not as effective for really dirty pieces. The most important advice we can give to anyone using such products is to ensure pieces are thoroughly dry after use as if left damp they will tarnish again very quickly.
Professional jewelers, both retailers and manufacturers primarily use ultrasonic cleaning machines and sometimes also steam cleaning machines to clean customers dirty jewelry and also during the manufacture and repair process. Ultrasonics make quite an annoying buzzing noise and professional steam cleaners are also quite noisy and both will create increased humidity. They can add an interesting feature and talking point to a store, but most often they are required in a workshop or hidden from ear shot and view. There was a time when you could only get “professional” ultrasonic and steam cleaners, and they were all relatively large and expensive but also powerful and very effective. You can now get consumer sized and very cheap ultrasonics and steam cleaners, but professionals tempted by the low prices will only be frustrated by them if they are already familiar with the power, speed and efficiency of professional models.
One important thing we have noticed with ultrasonic cleaners is they take around 20-30 minutes (depending on size & model) when first turned on to degas, for the water and cleaning solution to warm up and to work with full efficiency. So the first piece you put in will take all of 20-30 minutes after polishing to remove all residue, however subsequent pieces put in after the initial degas/heating process will be cleaned much faster.
The most popular ultrasonic jewelry cleaning solutions used are concentrates added to tap water containing soaps and often ammonia. The soaps clean the jewelry while the ammonia helps add a bright finish to metal surfaces. Ammonia has a very strong smell so there are also solutions available without ammonia for anyone wishing to avoid the smell or looking to avoid the use of such chemicals. I have tried a few and in my own personal experience I have not yet found a non-ammoniated cleaner than works as well as the ones containing ammonia, because although they clean just as well they dont seem to add the extra sparkle that the ammonia does.
This is an explanation of the ultrasonic cleaning process using a very large cleaning tank but jewelrs use very small bench top ultrasonic tanks, with special jewelry cleaning solutions.
The tiny consumer ultrasonics and steam cleaners are inexpensive and excellent for limited or occasional home use but are not as powerful or as effective as professional models and will simply not withstand being worked for the long periods required by a store or workshop.
Steam cleaners are excellent for cleaning many stone set pieces, especially diamonds which are hydrophobic (repel water & attract grease) and anything intricate like watch bracelets. If I had to have just one cleaning machine in a workshop it would be an ultrasonic, but ideally I would also have a steam cleaner. They can remove more dirt from settings because sometimes the ultrasonic loosens it but it just doesn’t all come out, whereas the steam cleaner blasts it out. Steam cleaners are also more labour intensive, with ultrasonics you put pieces in and leave them but with steam cleaners you have to move the piece to selectively remove the dirt.
Steam cleaners are excellent in a store because they create a spectacle and a bit a theatre, but they will increase humidity which can also cause static so you may also need air conditioning or a dehumidifier in a confined environment. Ideally every workshop would have one so pieces can be steam cleaned after ultrasonic cleaning, they will blast out any remaining stubborn dirt, remove any cleaning solution and they can also leave the piece a little dryer.
Here is a great hint and tip to help prevent loosing any loose gemstones that fall out during the ultrasonic cleaning process: