Caring for Opals in Jewelry and CollectionsCaring for Opals in Jewelry and Collections

Opal Specialist Mini Course

Caring for Opals in Jewelry and Collections

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Opal and pearl 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 opal and pearl care guide will help you keep your treasures looking lovely for a lifetime.

Purchase Opal Specialist Mini Course

Attention all opal lovers! If you have found yourself mesmerized by the changing color patterns of this mineraloid, you'll love this course. Do a deep dive into the properties of opals to discover how they are formed and reflect light. Looking to purchase or sell an opal? Learn about different types of opals and how to properly care for them. Every opal enthusiast will learn something new in this course.
rosaline pearl necklace - opal and pearl care guide
Rosaline pearl necklace. Photo by Mercury Jane. Licensed. under CC By 2.0.

Why do Opals and Pearls Require Special Care?

Pearls are formed by oysters and other mollusks 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.

pearl in oyster shell
Pearl in an oyster shell. Photo by WWalas. Licensed under CC By-SA 4.0.

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're still extremely sensitive to sudden changes in temperature. Like pearls, opals are vulnerable to scratching.

Opal on matrix, Slovakia
Slovakian opal on matrix. Photo by Slovakiaopal. Licensed under CC By-SA 4.0.

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.

pearl necklace with knots
Knots between pearls on a necklace can help keep grime from entering the drill holes and prevent scratching. Photo by Housing Works Thrift Shops. Licensed under CC By-SA 2.0.

Opals are sensitive to shocks from contact as well as scratching, so they're more suitable for pieces like earrings, brooches, and pendants than rings. If you're 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. Keep in mind that an opal ring will likely need occasional polishing.

opal rings
Australian opal rings. Photo by Jessica Rabbit's Flickr. Licensed under CC By 2.0. (Cropped to show detail).

How To Clean Opal and Pearl Jewelry

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

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. Make sure you use mild soap only (no other cleaning solution) and a soft brush (not a toothbrush).

pearl and sapphire pendant
Flower pendant in 14k gold with pear-cut sapphires creating the petals around a cultured pearl center. Photo by CustomMade. Used with permission.

Cleaning Your Pearl Necklace: A Step-by-Step Guide

To avoid getting excess moisture in the drill holes, never immerse your necklace in the soap and water mixture. Follow these instructions.

  • 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.
cleaning pearls with a damp rag - opal and pearl care guide
Never immerse a pearl necklace in soapy water. Always use a damp rag.

Cleaning Your Assembled Opal Jewelry

Like pearl necklaces, doublet or triplet opals (thin layers of opal glued to other gemstone layers) should never be soaked in soapy water. This might dissolve the glue holding the layers together. 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.

opal doublet - opal and pearl care guide
Opal doublet. Photo by Opalcutters23. Licensed under CC By-SA 3.0.

Dirt Can Scratch Your Opals and Pearls

You might be tempted to simply wipe a bit of dirt off your opal or pearl 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 opal or pearl. Clean them as recommended above, instead.

aquamarine and pearl ring - opal and pearl care guide
Aquamarine is a variety of beryl with a hardness ranging from 7.5 to 8. It can easily resist scratching from household dust. Pearls, on the other hand, have great susceptibility to scratching from dust and other objects. This vintage-inspired engagement ring features an aquamarine center stone and pearl side stones with milgrain detailing set in a white gold butterfly shank. Photo by CustomMade.

How to Live With Your Opal and Pearl Jewelry

Opals and pearls are beautiful gems, but if they seem overly fussy to you, don't despair. You can take steps to keep you and your jewelry happy for many years.

Storage Recommendations

  • 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 play of color 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.

Wearing Your Opals and Pearls

  • 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.

What Can You do if Your Opal or Pearl Fractures?

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 isn't very deep. (On an average cultured pearl, the outer nacre layer is only 0.08 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

black opal jewelry
Black opal jewelry. Photo © Joel E. Arem, PhD, FGA. Used with permission.

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