Plus, how to brighten these organic gems.
large pearl ring with silver band
Credit: Adrian Gaut

You finally splurged on a pearl necklace, but as you're fastening it one morning, you notice something amiss. You wonder if your eyes are deceiving you, or if your precious pearls could possibly be starting to yellow. It's a scenario you don't want to find yourself in, but one that unfortunately happens too often. Why? Pearls are much more delicate than other gemstones and metals, because they are organic and porous. Unlike a silver or gold necklace that can withstand everyday wear with just the occasional polishing, these gems from the sea need extra-special care.

To prevent your pearls from yellowing or—worse—degrading, it's important to avoid making the following mistakes.

Wearing pearls while applying cosmetics.

When it comes to protecting your pearls, the number one rule is "last on, first off," says Jeremy Shepherd, CEO of Pearl Paradise and author of the world's largest pearl certification course. Your pearls should be the last thing you put on when dressing, and the first thing you take off when you get home. Why? Because pearls can be irrevocably harmed by contact with many chemicals prevalent in household cleaners, perfumes, cosmetics, and hair care products.

Not cleaning pearls nightly.

To clean body oils and any harmful residue from your pearls, it's important to gently clean them with a soft, non-abrasive microfiber cloth every time you take them off, says Shepherd. He likens the practice to brushing your teeth. Even if pearls look clean, their surface has ridges that collect debris. This damages the material over time. Although routine care is vital, never attempt to clean pearls with steam, an ultrasonic cleaner, tarnish remover, or any abrasive materials like a toothbrush or a scouring pad, says Fran Mastoloni, a partner at Mastoloni Pearls in New York City.

Storing pearls in plastic bags.

"Never store pearls in any type of plastic bag," says Mastoloni. "Plastic can emit a certain chemical that will cause the surface of the pearl to deteriorate." Instead, store pearls wrapped in a soft cloth or pouch, protected from all abrasive objects. Keep this pouch in a safe and temperate area. Pearls should never be left near a direct source of heat—without the presence of moisture, pearls can dry out, says Mastoloni.

No matter how closely you follow these guidelines, sometimes, despite your best efforts, pearls begin to yellow, or patina, due to age. There's not much you can do if pearls have been permanently damaged, says Shepherd. Take heart though: Oftentimes, your pearls are simply dirty and have lost their luster. If this is the case, you can brighten pearls by gently rubbing them with a soft microfiber cloth.


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