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How to Clean and Repair Vintage Costume Jewelry
Rhinestones, painted beads, coated “pearls”, and plated finishes are all hallmarks of costume jewelry. Keeping your costume jewelry in working order and shining requires a gentle touch and a little patience. Vintage costume jewelry is typically more delicate than modern jewelry. Keeping your jewelry shining means cleaning it and repairing it when necessary.
- cup for soapy water
- soft cloth
- gentle dishwashing liquid
- steel wool
- enamel paint
- clear fingernail polish
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To clean rhinestones use gentle soap and water. Use a q-tip to gently scrub the dirt away. To make the whole task easier we use a foaming soap dispenser. One dollop of bubbles in a cup is enough to clean a few pieces. Be careful not to use too much water. Rhinestones are usually held in place with water-soluble glue and too much water can loosen the stones. Sometimes even clean rhinestones look less than brilliant. Scratches can dull their shine but a little clear nail polish on the dry surface of the stone can bring your costume jewelry back to life.
Over time painted surfaces can lose their color, and sealant, or become scratched and chipped. To clean and repair your beads, wash your jewelry with soapy water and a q-tip to see if repainting is in order. If you can repaint the design on the beads, paint a complimentary design, or paint one or a few of the beads a complementary solid color, then you can bring new life to your costume jewelry.
In order to repaint, dry completely, sand with steel wool, then wash and dry again. Use enamel paint to repair or redesign the surface. Testor enamel paint is a good choice for color and durability. You can find the Testor brand online and in hobby stores. Let dry overnight and seal with Testor sealant or clear fingernail polish the following day.
Costume pearls are not real pearls. They are painted beads. In the center of a genuine pearl is a grain of sand. When sand is trapped in an oyster it becomes an irritant. Slowly the oyster covers the grain of sand in layers of nacre to prevent further irritation. In costume jewelry, the nacre-like paint provides a similar lustrous finish to an acrylic or plastic bead. When the paint applied to your costume pearls begins wearing you can repaint them or replace them.
By the time the paint is chipping it is probably time to restring the pearls. You can use dental floss, but let’s save that for another post.
To clean and repaint your pearls use soapy water and a toothbrush, sand any chipping paint to create a smooth surface, then wash and dry again. In a well-ventilated area, hang the pearls by one end and spray thin coats of iridescent enamel paint evenly, in thin coats, until you reach the desired luster finish. Rust-Oleum Pearl mist is a nice color, as is Testor’s Pearl White airbrush paint.
It is possible to brush paint your pearls, but very difficult to avoid brush strokes. If spray paint is out of the question, then wait 24 hours after each coat, to sand with steel wool, rinse, and dry before applying the next coat of paint.
Costume jewelry is typically made of base metal, and often the surfaces of vintage costume jewelry appear to have chipped plating. More often than not, that plating is really paint. If the paint is chipped, remove all loose debris, sand with steel wool, wash with gentle soap, and dry thoroughly. Apply metallic paint (Rust-Olium and Testor have many colors to choose from), making sure to sand, wash, and dry between coats.
When cleaning costume jewelry it can be difficult to get into the crevices between settings. A toothpick can come in handy. Dip the end of the toothpick into a little soapy water and use it to loosen the grime and gunk trapped in the crevices.
Bonus tip: Toothpicks are also good at reshaping settings. Use a toothpick to bend the settings back into shape without breaking them. The number one reason settings break is because of too much pressure! Be patient and go easy on your jewelry, you can make it good as new!
If you have a question about cleaning or repairing costume jewelry, ask us in the comments below.
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