Care Guide For Pearls And Opals

Pearl and opal have been valued as gems throughout history and across many cultures. However, these beautiful objects have chemical compositions a bit different than most gems and require special attention before, during, and after cleaning. Our care guide for pearls and opals will help you keep your treasures looking lovely for a lifetime.

“Rosaline Pearls Necklace” by Mercury Jane is licensed under CC By 2.0
“Rosaline Pearls Necklace” by Mercury Jane is licensed under CC By 2.0

Why Do Pearls And Opals Require Special Care?

Pearls are formed by oysters secreting a mixture of aragonite, conchiolin, and water around irritants lodged in their bodies. This material is very vulnerable to acids (even perspiration) and ammonia (which is found in many cleaners). Pearls are also very vulnerable to scratching.

Opals are made of amorphous (non-crystalline) silica and can consist of up to 21% water. Although most opals used for jewelry are 1% to 6% water, they are still extremely sensitive to sudden changes in temperature. Like pearls, opals are vulnerable to scratching.

Never clean pearl or opal jewelry in mechanical cleaning systems, such as ultrasonic, steam, or boiling. Use only the methods recommended below.

“Gem Opal Pendant Bead” by is licensed under CC By 2.0
“Gem Opal Pendant Bead” by is licensed under CC By 2.0

Choose The Right String or Setting For Your Jewelry

The right type of string and knotting on your pearl necklace can help protect it. If you have a pearl necklace with a nylon string, consider having it restrung with a silk string. Although silk may deteriorate more quickly than nylon, it attracts less dirt and grime and doesn’t stretch. A knot between each pearl, or as many knots as possible along the string, will also help prevent the pearls from striking each other and keep grime from entering into the pearl drill holes.

Opals are sensitive to shocks from contact as well as scratching, so they are more suitable for pieces like earrings, brooches, and pendants than rings. If you are considering an opal ring, choose a setting in which the metal comes over the opal. However, avoid settings that can put excessive pressure on the opal, such as bezel or prong settings. Be aware that an opal ring will likely need occasional polishing.

“Opal Doublet” by Opalcutters23 is licensed under CC By-SA 3.0
“Opal Doublet” by Opalcutters23 is licensed under CC By-SA 3.0

How To Clean Pearl and Opal Jewelry

Use only warm water, mild soap (no other cleaning solution), and a soft brush (not a toothbrush) for cleaning your pearl necklace. However, never immerse your necklace in the soap and water mixture to avoid getting excess moisture in the drill holes. Follow these steps:

  • Wet a thin mesh rag with the soap and warm water mixture and carefully wipe the pearls.
  • Inspect each pearl and knot with a magnifying loupe. If dirt or grime remains, use a soft brush to remove as much residue as you can.
  • If you have particularly stubborn grime on a knot, use a sharpened toothpick to dislodge it.
  • Be sure to clean the clasp, too.
  • Dry your pearl necklace with a lint-free cloth. Daub at the moisture buildup in the knots.
  • Blow briskly on the knots and drill holes to help dry off any excess moisture.
  • Lay your necklace on a Turkish towel to help absorb moisture.
  • Never use a hair dryer or any heat producing appliance to dry pearls.
  • If you wear your pearl necklace against your skin, clean it before storing it. Pearls are sensitive to the acids in perspiration.

Most opal jewelry and pearls in earrings or other pieces without drill holes can be cleaned with warm water, mild soap, and soft brush, just like many other gemstone jewelry pieces. However, doublet or triplet opals (thin layers of opal glued to other gemstone layers) should never be soaked in soapy water because the glue holding the layers together may dissolve. Clean opal doublets and triplets with a mesh rag dipped in warm, soapy water. Keep in mind that opals are sensitive to changes in temperature so keep the water close to room temperature.

You might be tempted to simply wipe a bit of dirt off your pearl or opal jewelry. Don’t do it. In terms of hardness, pearls range from 2.5 to 4. Opals range from 5.5 to 6.5. Most household dust is a 7 to 7.5 on the Mohs scale. That dirt could scratch your pearl or opal. Clean them as recommended above, instead.

Never immerse a pearl necklace in soapy water.  Always use a damp rag.
Never immerse a pearl necklace in soapy water. Always use a damp rag.

How To Live With Your Pearl and Opal Jewelry

Pearls and opals are beautiful gems, but if they seem overly fussy to you, don’t despair. There are steps you can take to keep you and your jewelry content for many years.

  • Store your pearl and opal jewelry separately from other pieces to minimize accidental contact or scratches.
  • Opals will craze (develop cracks on the surface) and lose their opalescence if their water evaporates. Storing your opal jewelry pieces wrapped in soft, moist cotton may prolong their life.
  • Don’t store your opal pieces in oil or glycerin.  This won’t help protect them and will make cleaning more tedious and messier.
  • Keep your pearls and opals away from sources of heat or cold, like fireplaces or open windows. Be especially careful about taking opal jewelry straight from the comfortable temperatures of your home into a frigid night or scorching summer day. If you can’t avoid taking your opal jewelry from one temperature extreme to another, keep the pieces under your clothes if at all possible to help minimize the change.
  • Apply your perfumes, colognes, and hairsprays before you put on any gemstone jewelry, but be particularly cautious with your pearl and opal jewelry because they react very poorly to acids and alcohols.
  • Avoid doing household or outdoor chores while wearing pearls or opals.
  • A fractured or crazed opal may be beyond repair, but an expert gemologist or jeweler may be able to repair some damage to pearls by peeling the outer layers off, if the damage is not very deep. (On an average cultured pearl, the outer nacre layer is only .08 to 1.22 mm thick).

Gemstone Care Series

How To Clean Your Gemstone Jewelry

Mechanical Gemstone Cleaning

Gemstone Care Guide

Care Guide for Pearls and Opals