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Why You Should *Never* Use Jewelry Cleaner or Polish On Costume Jewelry — And What You Should Use Instead

Plus, the magnet trick that definitely lets you know if your piece is "fine" or fake

If you’re like us, you have a jewelry box brimming with costume jewelry: colorful gems and chains from bold statement necklaces to dainty ankle bracelets — pieces that don’t cost a fortune, yet shine bright – until of course, they start looking dull, dingy or even a little, um, green. Advice about how to keep your diamonds dazzling abound, but the waters get a little murkier when it comes to less precious pieces like costume jewelry. This is in part because how you care for your jewelry will depend on what it is made of, and oftentimes we don’t know what our faux pieces are constructed from, especially when they’ve been passed down from family or picked up at a thrift shop. Even if you don’t know exactly what you’re dealing with, you can safely freshen up your baubles. Here is advice for how to clean your costume jewelry from the jewelry pros. 

What exactly constitutes costume jewelry?

colorful  costume jewelry
Adrienne Bresnahan/GettyImages

The difference between fine and faux jewelry lies in the materials. Fine jewelry is made with real gemstones and solid precious metals, while costume jewelry is, well, fake. Think diamond vs. rhinestones, a solid gold ring vs. a gold-colored ring from Claire’s. “Costume” pieces, also known as fashion jewelry, are made from all kinds of materials including glass, plastic, resin and non-precious metals like copper, brass and aluminum. And even gold- and silver-plated pieces are considered costume jewelry. 

While made from less expensive raw materials, not all costume jewelry is itself inexpensive. In recent years, an interest in costume jewelry, particularly designer pieces produced between the 1950s and the 1980s, has elevated prices of some vintage designs. “Some costume jewelry is very valuable, depending on who it is signed by,” says Marion Zimmerman Rizzo, co-owner of Sy-Lee Antiques in New York City, an antiques shop that specializes in both estate and costume jewelry. “It could be ugly but be worth more than its weight in gold, if it’s signed by a rare designer,” she adds. So, if you have a piece that you suspect may have designer provenance, it is especially important to be careful when you attempt to clean it.

How can I tell if my jewelry is real or costume?

Whether your grandmother passed down her favorite cameo brooch or you scored a deal on a bright blue-gemstone ring at a consignment shop, if you are uncertain if a piece is real or costume, there are a few quick ways to determine it’s authenticity. First, look for markings that indicate if the metal is a solid precious metal (these can be teeny); in addition to the usual number plus the letter K for karats, you might find just numbers like 585, which is the European marking for 14K. If there are no markings, look at the metal in good light: If a plated piece has been worn often, you can see the base metal wearing through. Zimmerman Rizzo also suggests a strong magnet, which will never pick up solid gold or sterling. You can also examine the stones: Real gemstones, including diamond, are unlikely to have scratches on their surface. If you’re still not sure, take it to your local jewelry shop to be assessed. Unless you arrive with a pirate’s chest of jewels for them to check, you won’t even be charged for the expert’s opinion. 

How to clean costume jewelry

woman cleaning ring with a toothbrush
KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images

The good news? No fancy tools are required to clean costume jewelry: All pros we spoke to suggest a soft toothbrush, a cotton swab, some dish soap and a clean soft cloth are all you need. Simply follow the steps below.

Step 1: Rub with a cloth. Rosalie Sayyah, the founder of Rhinestone Rosie, a vintage jewelry store in Seattle that also offers repairs by mail, suggests that you first try cleaning with just a soft cloth. She recommends investing in a rouge cloth (buy on Amazon, $9.78) specifically designed for polishing jewelry.

Step 2: Utilize the toothbrush. Your next line of attack is to brush with a dry, soft toothbrush — with no cleaners or water.

Step 3: Apply a simple solution. Simply mix some baby shampoo and water (you can also use liquid dish detergent) and dip a cotton swab into it to use for surface cleaning.

“When attempting to clean costume jewelry use as little liquid as possible,” says Melissa Maker, the founder of Clean My Space. In addition to possibly causing water marks, too much liquid can weaken the glue keeping gems in place. Plus, even a little water can ruin the foil backing on rhinestones, cautions Sayyah. She says you can also lightly spritz a piece with rubbing alcohol.

Also important: Avoid fully submerging any jewelry with “gems” glued into place (this is true for real jewels, as well). Psst: Don’t clean your jewelry in the sink either, as Cheryl Mendelson notes in her book Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, “There are many tragic stories of gems disappearing this way.”

Step 4: Dry it thoroughly. Once you’ve finished cleaning your piece, dry it with a fresh, clean cloth, but don’t rub it hard, says Zimmerman Rizzo, because you may pop a stone out. You can also turn the piece upside down on the cloth and let the water leak out.

Optional step 5: Maker suggests drying the piece with a hairdryer set to the cool setting (not hot) to ensure all the moisture has evaporated.

Metal turning green? It may be too late to save the piece, says Sayyah, but you can attempt to scrape off the green corrosion, which is known as verdigris, with a toothpick. 

This TikTok shows how to clean it off with a rubbing alcohol swab:

What *not* to use to clean costume jewelry

Besides avoiding over-saturating with liquid, all three pros agree on these caveats:

1. Avoid commercial jewelry cleaners

Commercially available jewelry cleaners are designed for use on real jewelry. “Most cleaners are too harsh to use on costume pieces,” Maker cautions. You’ll also want to steer clear of ultrasonic jewelry cleaning machines, which require immersion in water.

2. Be careful with homemade solutions

You’ll see a lot of homemade cleaning recipes and “hacks” that use vinegar or baking soda, which we all know work great when cleaning floors, tiles and clothing, but these are both acidic–and acidic solutions can damage many types of costume jewelry. Skip other harsh cleansers like ammonia and chlorine bleach as well.

3. Steer clear of jewelry polish

“It doesn’t have to be shiny, shiny clean,” says Zimmerman Rizzo. “Customers always ask, ‘Why doesn’t it shine?’ Costume jewels are sometimes made with that antique look.” So you may want to resist the urge to apply harsh metal polishes, which can ruin a piece.

4. Don’t risk ruining a personal heirloom

Sometimes “value is more sentimental than monetary,” says Sayyah. If a peice is particularly sentimental (and therefore valuable to you), and you are in doubt about how to clean it, take to a local jewelry professional and ask if they can clean it. Pros like Sayyah can also restring necklaces, turn clip-on earrings into pierced ones, and more.

For more jewelry cleaning tips, click through the links below!

How To Clean Sterling Silver Jewelry in Minutes

Make Your Jewelry Shine Like New With This Simple Hack

6 Ways to Organize Your Jewelry to Keep It Shiny and Looking Like New

Use left and right arrow keys to navigate between menu items. Use right arrow key to move into submenus. Use escape to exit the menu. Use up and down arrow keys to explore. Use left arrow key to move back to the parent list.