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How to Clean Pearls

Pearls have very special cleaning needs to hold their lustre. Cultured pearls are formed when a bead is inserted into an oyster shell. The oyster proceeds to give it a beautiful coat, or nacre. The oyster’s response to a piece of grit produces a gorgeous pearl.

Compared to lumps of diamond, which may be millions of years old, this more recent coating is rather soft. Leave a string of pearls rattling in your handbag and they may scratch. Get them up against perfume or hairspray and pearls are porous enough to absorb and be damaged by the chemicals these products contain.

So your cleaning needs to be gentle. But – and here’s the contradiction – pearls actually look better when they’ve been worn, rather than when they’ve just been cleaned. They lose their lustre if they get too clean, whereas the oils on your skin improve their sheen. So to get dull pearls looking their best pop them on for a few hours.

Unfortunately, body oils don’t do much for the silk used to thread cultured pearls. So afterwards, wipe the string with a soft damp cloth then put your pearls away, wrapped in tissue inside a box.

If you feel you must clean stained pearls, use no more than a drop of mild detergent in a bowl of just-warm water. Some people believe that real pearls are best washed in salty water – they come from the ocean, after all.

Keep the cleaning session brief – you don’t want to risk rotting the string. The most important bit is drying and polishing afterwards. Use a chamois leather, and buff gently to a shine. Fake pearls, of course, can be shined with a dry cloth as you would any hard, synthetic surface.

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