So now that I’ve covered the origins, trends and varying types of costume jewelry from the 1930s to the 1980s, I’m going to touch on dating and cleaning your pieces. When it comes to cleaning your jewelry, I think that its important to know what era it is from. For instance, a plastic brooch from the ’30s should be treated much differently than a 1980s plastic beaded necklace.
To get started, check over your piece very closely for any dates, signatures or marks. If you see a patent number (usually found on clasps), look it up through the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Next look for a designer stamp. My go-to reference site for vintage jewelry designers is Illusion Jewels. Here you’ll find an alphabetized, comprehensive list of designers along with pictures of their marks and a brief history of the company.
Another tip is to look for a copyright stamp. The copyright act was passed in 1956 and it made it a much more cost-effective alternative to patent registration. The © symbol on a piece of jewelry indicates a date of 1956 or later.
And finally, knowing the styles and trends of jewelry in each era is very helpful in dating your pieces. If you haven’t done so already, read prior Junction Tuesdays blog entries to read about jewelry from the ’30s to the ’80s. If you ever come across old magazines, look at their ads. And the most obvious one, research the web or grab a book specializing on costume jewelry throughout the years.
Now, on to the cleaning. I’m going to list some of my basic cleaning techniques for costume jewelry. If your piece is very delicate, needs repairs or has has loose stones, you may want to speak to a professional jeweler first.
Rhinestones: I always start with a mild soap like Ivory Flakes and warm water to remove dust and dirt. Place in a basin and carefully swirl. Then spray pieces down with Windex and either let them air dry or use a very soft cotton cloth. Never submerge any stones that have a foil backing. And if the stones are not held by prongs, be aware that the glue as well as the stones may break loose.
Pearls: Faux pearls need extra attention because if you’re not careful, you could wear away the coating. I like a product called “Jewelry Joose.” It comes in a spray bottle and you can direct the spray to just the few pearls that are dirty and then carefully rinse.
Plastics: Bakelite, Lucite, Celluloid and Catalin should be cleaned with a non-alkali, non-ammoniated cleaner like “Earth Wise” dishwashing liquid, which is biodegradable. Never use anything that contains alcohol. After it’s cleaned, I like to use a product called “Brasso.” You can find it at most hardware stores like Home Depot or Ace and it will shine your piece like new.
Gold: Swirl in warm soap and water, let sit for 15 minutes, then rinse and dry with clean cotton cloth. You can also use a solution of one part ammonia and six parts water. Let sit for no more than one minute, rinse and dry with cotton cloth.
Silver: Dissolve a large amount of table salt into heated water, using enough so that it takes at least a minute to dissolve while constantly stirring. Shape a liner out of aluminum foil in a contain
er such as a basin or a Tupperware bowl. Place your silver jewelry on the foil and pour the salt solution over it. Let it sit for several minutes. Tarnish should dissolve away. For stubborn spots, remove and clean with soap and a damp rag before re-immersing in the bath.
Some tools that will come in handy while cleaning your collection: Q-Tips for cracks and crevices, a soft unused toothbrush for your less delicate pieces, and a cleaning cloth like Sunshine Polishing Cloth (which is good for just about all your pieces).
-Shannan Fales is the owner of Junction at 1510 U Street NW. She shares her expertise in vintage and thrift each Tuesday.