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Cleaning Pearls

I’ve been reading the thread about cleaning pearls with interest and
some regret that I had not had this before. Being
ignorant about the hazards in cleaning pearls, I put a freshwater
pearl necklace in an ultrasonic cleaner with some cleaning solution
that said “safe for pearls” on the label. This was a BIG "oops."
The pearls came out with a significantly lower level of luster than
they had when they went in. Does anybody have any ideas about how to
get the luster back?

Sun Country Gems

I have always used “Woolite” in cool water to clean any pearls.
Soft face cloth or at the most a very very soft toothbrush in the
hole area. The Woolite also cleans the silk. Lay flat and wrap
with a towel - similar to the process used to wash a sweater. Pat
moisture off and then unroll and Air Dry flat. In the last 10 years
I have only had to re-string one set of pearls after cleaning them.

Susan, I’ll hazard a guess that it wasn’t the cleaning solution that
caused the damage, but the ultrasonic bath. Actually, it’s not a
guess, it’s a conviction.

As to what can be done to reverse the damage, maybe nothing. The
surface may be covered by micro-pits, no doubt the pearl experts
here can add lots.

Having said that, it does seem that nowadays almost every gem is
capable of being “enhanced” with oils, epoxies, acrylics and other
stuff. Not the thread to discuss this, lets just say that full
disclosure (and explanation) to the customer makes all the
difference. So, pearl experts, what can be added to the surface of
pearls? Wax? Could it even be that these pearls were initially
coated, and that coating has now been removed without actually
damaging the pearl itself? –

Kevin (NW England, UK)

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Damaged pearls are a nightmare. I’ve had good results with gently
wiping the pearls with extra virgin olive oil. This restores the oil
that your body puts on the pearls. Other than that, I don’t know of
another treatment.


 This restores the oil that your body puts on the pearls 

This is an old wive’s tale that I thought had been vanquished. The
oils (and acids) in your skin do not enhance pearls in any way. They
actually ruin them, thereby decreasing the value. Adding olive oil
is not going to help them in any way.

Daniel R. Spirer, GG
Spirer Somes Jewelers
1794 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02140

Damaged pearls are a nightmare.  I've had good results with gently
wiping the pearls with extra virgin olive oil. This restores the
oil that your body puts on the pearls. 

Oiling pearls only has the effect of making them oily. It may look
better in the same way that a wet surface may look shinier than it
does when dry, but the pearl itself has not been changed for the
better under that oil by this. It’s just now dirtier than it was
before. However, if the pearn nacre layer is thick enough, you can
actually do some light polishing on pearls. It MUST be a thick enough
nacre layer, or you’ll polish through it into the nucleous, which is
usually a boring and ugly shell bead, on salt water cultured pearls.
Don’t use a polishing compound with any 'cut" to it. Just gentle
polishing compounds, such as zam or fabuluster (I like the rather
costlier platinumg rouge from Gesswein. i use their 8000
compound…) , and do so very very lightly. Pearls who’s nacre has
actually cracked or crazed won’t be helped. but the ones that now
look a bit dull and hazy, when they used to have better luster, or
which have become scuffed and scratched by abuse, often will respond
to this. You’ll then need to clean them well to remove residual
compound, And then restring. Some of the better quality freshwater
pearls can be helped this way too, though the baroque shapes make
them harder to work with. Please be aware that this is somewhat
risky. Some pearls will look better after some light buffing, and
others won’t, and with a few, you’ll discover that the nacre was
thinner than you realized, or your buffing technique more agressive
than you realized, in both cases to the detriment of the pearl.

Of course, if you WANT to oil your pearls, go right ahead. Unless
it’s acidic or cuastic or something, it won’t hurt them. Just
understand that even though they come from organic sources, they
DON"T need some oil or other content that might evaporate or be
cleaned off, and which you then can replenish. This sounds nice, but
it’s not true, any more than the old wives tale that oiling opals
helps them. It doesn’t do that either. Like the pearls, it just
makes them oily, and perhaps the film of oil looks shinier


Hi Gang,

 Don't use a polishing compound with any 'cut" to it.  Just gentle
polishing compounds, such as zam or fabuluster (I like the rather
costlier platinum rouge from Gesswein

Another thing that can be used is ‘table salt’.

Place some in the palm of your hand, moisten the thumb & forefinger
of the other hand a little. Dip in the salt & polish the pearl.
re-moisten & add more salt as needed.


Hello. We are Hurricane Katrina victims. We werte able to find and
salvage my deceased mother-in-law’s shell pearls after some effort.
We were horrified to discover that the three strands of whiter than
white pearls (at least 40 years old, from Japan) were now completely
black! We suspect that they came in contact with Titanium Dioxide (or
oxide??) from the Dupont paint plant across the Bay of Saint Louis
from us. Does anyone know how to clean them and get them back to
white? Would denture cleaner harm them? Please respond to: Thanks for your help

Lorraine Strom

How awful. I can’t imagine that titanium would harm them Most likely
it is just the ‘stew’ that was made by the flood. I think that your
best bet may be plain old simple non corrosive soap and water. try
soaking them for several days in light solution. Denture cleaner may
have acids which will strip the nacre off of them. Any acid will do
the same. I think that when they whiten pearls they use hydorgen
peroxide. but who would know the secret formula. If you buy pearls
from a major dealer maybe they can help you. You might also try
getting in touch with the American Pearl Co. in Tennessee

Anyone have any suggestions for cleaning Pearls (strung)?

I’ve heard they can be soaked overnight in a mix of water and Ivory
Snow soap flakes as it’s pretty mild.

Any other suggestions, products, anything?


I wouldn’t soak strung pearls in anything. The stringing material
would absorb and might be damaged by the liquid. The nacre layer on
pearls is very thin, so avoid any kind of solvent or chemical. If the
pearls are only a bit dingy, make up a solution of water and Ivory
Snow (it is mild), slightly moisten a clean cloth in the solution,
and gently wipe the pearls. If the pearls are dirtier than can be
cleaned this way, I recommend unstringing them and cleaning them with
that same solution (but now you can wipe a bit more firmly and you
can get around the entire pearl). If the dirt is too stubborn to be
wiped clean, you could try soaking the unstrung pearls in the Ivory
Snow/water to loosen the soil.

Barbara Baugh
Barbara Baugh Design

A soak in Ivory overnight is excellent. Use nothing harsher.
However, soak the pearls only before they are to be re-strung. As you
cut the old knots and pull the silk out, the pulling out of the old
silk will help to dry the pearls. Then, simply re-string as usual.

We all know pearls are delicate, especially if they have a bead as
the nucleus. For really tough, caked-on skin oils, make-up, etc. I
soak the pearls overnight and use a soft toothbrush with a really
light touch. When I hand the pearls back, I give the GOOD PEARL talk:
pearls should be the last thing a person puts on (after make-up,
perfume, etc.) and the first thing taken off. They can be cleaned
after wear with a soft cloth, if the wearer wants.

Hope this helps.

Hello g;

Anyone have any suggestions for cleaning Pearls (strung)?

It’s really not a good idea to clean pearls by soaking them if they
are strung and you don’t intend to re-string them. Properly strung,
they will be on silk, which is organic and subject to decay. Water
gets into the holes and is absorbed by the silk and the porous
interior of the pearl. After a period of time, this moisture
contributes to the break down of the silk. When we string pearls in
our shop, we cut them off the old string and soak them in a little
Joy dishwashing liquid and water overnight, then rinse them
thoroughly in clean water, then let them dry before re-stringing. I
suppose if you really need to soak them clean, you could do that, as
long as you kept them in a warm, dry environment until you were
certain they were completely dry. Perhaps a drop or two of chlorine
bleach in the water would prevent something like mildew from
developing, but I’ve never tried it.

David L. Huffman

tadpole1 is correct, it would have been the ultrasonic cleaner which damaged your pearls. On the ‘Mohs Hardness Scale’ Pearl is ranked 2.5 out of 10, which means it’s very soft and easily scratched or abraded. Personally I wouldn’t put anything under a 7 in an ultrasonic cleaner and even then I would be careful. You can check out the Moh’s Hardness Scale here…

I’ve been told by a pearl expert to soak the pearls in milk (like over night) and it will help to give it back the « lustre » you are looking for.

Hi Ellen,

I am interested in trying this. Have you noticed a difference between different milk fat levels or types? What are you using?

Happy holidays,

I only tried it with 2% fat milk

I have effectively restored the luster several times on pearls in jewelry items, where someone cleaned them in the sonic, and the luster was gone.
I use a stiff bristle wheel in my flex shaft, and no compound. This seems to bring the luster back, if the nacre is thick enough.
I have not attempted this on strings of pearls.