Vintage tool kit: Jewelry

Pennant necklace

While digging around in my files for some tried-and-true jewelry cleaning methods, I realized that I already had a ton courtesy of Shannan Fales, owner of Junction.

Don’t forget to catch up with the vintage toolkit series (clothes, shoes, bags), as some of the tools mentioned below are also useful for your other vintage items!

The first tools you’ll want to have at the ready are for determining the material of bangles and other plastic-like costume pieces. Here are Shannan’s tips to figure out if you’ve got a collectible Bakelite piece from the first half of the 20th Century:

  • Smell: When Bakelite is heated, it has a super strong smell. Try rubbing it hard with your thumb to heat and take a whiff.  It should smell acidic.
  • Sound: Tap two Bakelite pieces together.  A deep clunking sound rather than the higher pitched clack of acrylic or Lucite plastics signifies Bakelite.
  • Hot Pin Test: I like this test the best.  Since Bakelite wont melt, take a very very hot pin (be careful!) then touch the pin to the BACK of the item. If it’s Bakelite, it won’t melt.  If it penetrates or melts the plastic then it’s not real.

Formula 409

  • Formula 409: Not very green, but a popular test.  Make sure the item is clean, wet the end of a Q-tip with Formula 409 then touch it to the BACK of the piece. If the Q-tip turns yellow then it’s genuine Bakelite.

On metal items, don’t forget to look for makers’ stamps or material marks. You’ll need a strong magnifying glass or a loupe, unless you like squinting.

If you intend to repair or redesign pieces of vintage jewelry, Shannan says to start with these basic jewelry supplies:

Needle-nose pliers
Round-nose pliers
Long-nose pliers
Jump rings

(Note: Etsy has a ton of supplies if you’re looking for jump rings, clasps, earring backs, and more!)

For actual cleaning methods, it’s best to go by the type of jewelry we’re working with:

Rhinestones: I always start with a mild soap like Ivory Flakes and warm water to remove dust and dirt. Place in a basin and carefully swirl. Then spray pieces down with Windex and either let them air dry or use a very soft cotton cloth. Never submerge any stones that have a foil backing. And if the stones are not held by prongs, be aware that the glue as well as the stones may break loose.
Jewelry Joose
Pearls: Faux pearls need extra attention because if you’re not careful, you could wear away the coating. I like a product called Jewelry Joose. It comes in a spray bottle and you can direct the spray to just the few pearls that are dirty and then carefully rinse.(Note: Jewelry Joose may be harder to find, even online, than the other cleaners listed here.)
Plastics—Bakelite, Lucite, Celluloid and Catalin:  Clean with a non-alkali, non-ammoniated cleaner like Earth Wise dish-washing liquid, which is biodegradable. Never use anything that contains alcohol. After it’s clean, I like to use a product called Brasso. You can find it at most hardware stores like Home Depot or Ace and it will shine your piece like new.

Gold: Swirl in warm soap and water, let sit for 15 minutes, then rinse and dry with clean cotton cloth. You can also use a solution of one part ammonia and six parts water. Let sit for no more than one minute, rinse and dry with cotton cloth.

Silver: Dissolve a large amount of table salt into heated water, using enough so that it takes at least a minute to dissolve while constantly stirring. Shape a liner out of aluminum foil in a container such as a basin or a Tupperware bowl. Place your silver jewelry on the foil and pour the salt solution over it. Let it sit for several minutes. Tarnish should dissolve away. For stubborn spots, remove and clean with soap and a damp rag before re-immersing in the bath.

(Note: A similar method uses baking soda instead of salt. When it comes down to it, you always have baking soda and salt at home, right? Use whatever you’ve got handy.)

Some tools that will come in handy while cleaning your collection: Q-Tips for cracks and crevices, a soft unused toothbrush for your less delicate pieces, and a cleaning cloth like Sunshine Polishing Cloth (which is good for just about all your pieces).

Many, many thanks go out to Shannan at Junction for sharing her wealth of knowledge!

Okay, readers. What else have you tried to polish up those vintage jewelry pieces?

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Filed under Accessories, Jewelry, Junction, Repairs, Vintage

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