Kya deLongchamps says when it comes to a spring shine up, costume jewellery can be precious.
Collecting vintage costume jewellery is an enticing hobby — for at least 50% of the population. It’s relatively cheap (bar the cocktail-hour superstars), flirts up any old dress, and is easy to accommodate. Still, even the fakery needs attention, so untangle your goodies and get that bling fit for fashion duty.
The first thing to remember is that costume jewellery, even when well made, can actually be more vulnerable to harsh cleaning than authentic precious metals and gemstones. Solutions safe for platinum can devastate mid-century alloys and plating. The verdigris that dulls base metal pieces may look atrocious, but don’t just go at it with Jif cream and an old camogie sock.
For lightly soiled items, such as Swarovski, mist the stones with pure water and give them a drying dab with a lint-free microfibre cloth to bring up a shine. Vodka is recommended for putting the glitter back onto crystals (and diamonds if you’re very lucky). No, you can’t lick it off!
Determined to dunk? A solution of warm water and baby shampoo is recommended for immersing inexpensive, dirty costume pieces without fabric inclusions and foil backing to the stones. Don’t be tempted into mixtures containing ammonia or vinegar – way too harsh for our gorgeous phonies. If you can see right through those faux carats to the setting, you’re probably alright for a delicate dip. Never put anything strung onto silk into water and keep in mind that some jewels and metals are deliberately oxidised as their finished look.
Find a soft, immaculately clean toothbrush (an infant model is ideal), moisten in your solution and lightly flick dirt out of filigree and from around the jewels. Be gentle, take the time. If any of the prong settings are raised, rocks, rattling — there’s a real danger of a snag-ping-gone-down-the-sink tragedy.
If you love it — take it to a jeweller and get the item repaired and the stones secured. The foil on backed stones can have tiny holes and tears after 50 years bouncing on a bosom – and if water gets behind this, the whole stone will darken — ruining a lovely Fruit Salad rhinestone brooch, for example. Use the fine mist technique, and winkle out what you can from the tiny detail with a wooden toothpick and cotton buds. Base metals are often as pliable as tin, so again, a light hand.
Bakelite can be polished up with a liquid metal polish or Turtle Wax, if a wipe of pure water doesn’t work. Don’t rub away so hard you remove the top coat of glaze on most Bakelite pieces, or scrub at secondary colours worked into carving, to highlight detail. Protect any original maker’s sticker, sometimes present after even decades of wear.
If you’re not sure what the material is (could it be a natural shell or horn?) take it to a specialist before proceeding. Could you really recognise a soft organic gem from an early plastic — opal or onyx for example? Stick these or brittle fake or even semi-precious stones in an ultrasonic jewellery cleaning machine and you’re in real trouble — these machines can completely dissolve a pearl. Get advice.
Now, I’m going to include silver here — not technically costume jewellery, but inexpensive enough in many sterling incarnations. A natural patina with light oxidation is favoured for vintage jewellery, but if you want a high shine, there are ways and means. The safe, chemical reaction trick really does work.
Get a bowl and cover it with a sheet of tin foil, pressing it in. Add a tablespoon of salt and a tablespoon of bicarbonate and add a cup of hot water – allow to dissolve. Dunk your silver jewellery in for no more than 10 minutes to lift the tarnish completely. Give it a quick rinse in clean water and buff dry. Polish silver with a dedicated silver cloth (solvent heavy commercial creams and wadding is unnecessary), using clean, tarnish-free sections. Tissues and kitchen towel can subtly scratch silver and wear away detail. Guard that lustre by keeping it off the beach (sunlight aids oxidation), and out of the swimming pool.
Keep your jewellery clean by spraying your perfume, hairspray and underarm products on before you lock and load up your sparklers for the evening. Last thing on, first thing off. The chemical load can be tacky and physically damaging to mixed materials.
Air and light are enemies to most materials in costume pieces. Keep them in a lined jewellery box, with each item secured so as not to knock against another. Base metal and silver kept in sealed plastic bags, or even velvet or silk pouches inside a box will tarnish more slowly. Optician cloths for glasses are ideal little wraps. Don’t do your housework in your costume jewellery — it can’t stand up to knocks and toxic load like your ‘real’ jewellery — how precious is that?