Pearl Specialist Mini Course
Caring for Pearls
IGS may receive customer referral fees from the companies listed in this page.Why?
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.
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.
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'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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
- 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
International Gem Society
When you join the IGS community, you get trusted diamond & gemstone information when you need it.
Get started with the International Gem Society’s free guide to gemstone identification. Join our weekly newsletter & get a free copy of the Gem ID Checklist!