Throughout the years, I’ve heard them all; oil your opals, clean your jewelry with toothpaste, diamonds can’t break. I haven’t written about this stuff in a couple of years, so I thought I’d write a column for the newer members of our industry, and put a few of these rumors to bed… for a couple of years at least.
Let’s start with the BIG ONE: “I don’t want to let my diamond out of my sight!”
It’s just an old wives’ tale that a relative had told them about jewelers stealing your jewels, and advised, “don’t ever let it out of your sight.” I usually just hand it back to them and say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s just not a service we offer.” In reality, I’ve never had a customer hand me a true “if I stole this, I could actually retire on the proceeds” and tell me they wouldn’t let it out of their sight. They usually just hand it to me and ask when it will be ready. Of course, I’m thinking, “Why don’t you just come on back in the shop with me and watch me size your ring. You’ll enjoy the process.” That way there is absolutely no question they got their diamond back!
But, in reality, a jeweler handling diamonds is like a bank teller handling money. Who cares how big the deposit is if it’s not going into your checking account? I’ve only seen one real case of a switched diamond (and it was about a half a million dollar switch) in my career. If a customer only paid me to size their ring, I’m not going to go to all of the extra trouble to take out their diamond and set a better one in its place. Because, every… single… time… that this happens, I always want to say to the customer, “What do you think I’m gonna do, switch it with a better one, because I sure as hell don’t want this I2, TLB, ½ carat piece of crap.”
Which is why I just bite my tongue and say, “I’m sorry, but that’s just not a service we offer.” Plus, the reason we keep everything in the showroom under lock and key is because we think you are going to try and steal something from us.
“I’ve heard that you should use toothpaste to clean your jewelry.”
Okay, first and foremost, the answer is YES; you can absolutely smear toothpaste on your jewelry, and then take a toothbrush and smear it around a little more. Then you can pour some water on it and smear it around even more with your toothbrush until you get it into every nook and cranny before finally giving up because now it looks worse than when you started.
So, here’s the real scoop on cleaning jewelry. For starters, use a toothbrush - not toothpaste. And, with a few exceptions (emerald, opal, pearl, and coral to name a few) you can just squirt Windex on your jewelry and hit it with your toothbrush and then just rinse it off. Then, you can brush your teeth with the toothbrush… really, it’s clean now.
Here’s what’s going on from a technical perspective; most soaps are known as “surface tension reduction agents.” Surface tension is what causes objects to cling to other objects. This is the same principal that causes ketchup to not want to come out of the bottle. You have to break the surface tension in order to get the ketchup to release its grip on the bottle. We all have our own trick to do this, but regardless of what method you employ, until you break the surface tension, you’re eating your french fries sans ketchup.
The same holds true in cleaning most jewelry. Dirt and gunk are being held against the jewelry because of surface tension. You need to apply a surface tension reduction agent (soap), then implement a mechanical agitation method (toothbrush) to work the soap into the piece, then rinse. Repeat if necessary…which, by the way, is printed on the instruction labels of most surface tensions reduction agents, aka soap and shampoo. Yes, it’s that simple.
“You need to oil your opals and emeralds.”
One word; DON’T! I mean, seriously, think about this. These gemstones are millions of years old and they got to that ripe old age without the introduction of a man-made substance that’s only a couple of hundred years old called petroleum distillates. Picture this; pour some oil in a cup and leave it outside in the elements for a week or two and then go back and look at it. Is it going to be as clean and as pretty as when you put it there? Or, is it going to be full of trash, dust, leaves, dirt, bugs, pollen, and bird poop? Do you really want bird poop in your opal? I think we already know the answer to that question - NO! You don’t want bird poop in your opal.
So, here’s the technical side of this. Emeralds and opals tend to be a more porous gemstone than most others for two reasons. Emeralds are a combination of the elements beryl and chromium oxide. These two elements do not play nice together and have fought each other for millions of years and their relationship is very fractured… and most of these fractures actually extend to the surface of the gemstone. Opals, on the other hand, have what is known as an amorphous molecular structure, which basically means lots of cracks and breaks that extend to the surface of the gemstone. So, if you soak them in oil, it will only attract dirt and gunk into the stone, so don’t do it. If a stone looks dull and lifeless, it’s either dirty, or it needs to be re-polished, not oiled! Of course it could just be a crappy stone.
“Diamonds can’t break.”
Hah! Good one. Not only can they break, but the sound of a diamond breaking is like no other sound in the world. Probably because it’s coupled with the sound of your heart breaking at the exact same time. Here’s the real scoop:
Gemstones are graded on two scales, hardness and toughness. Hardness is a stone’s ability to resist scratching and abrasions. Toughness is a stone’s ability to resist breakage or cleavage. Yes, a diamond is the hardest material on the planet, and it will not scratch under normal (or extreme) wear and tear. In my 30+ years in the business, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a diamond with a scratch on it. But, because it’s so hard, it’s vulnerable to breakage and cleavage. Look at any diamond that’s been in its mounting for 50 years of hard wear and tear and you’ll see lots of chips and breaks and cleaves along the girdle. You can chip and break diamonds all day long, you just can’t scratch one.
“My diamond fell out of my ring. Do you have a laser to fix it?”
Let’s dispel a rumor or two about the “laser.” First of all, let me say I’m a big fan of the laser welder (its technical name). The laser welder is a wonderful piece of technology, but it is so misunderstood out there. You don’t just put raw materials in the laser and turn it on and have it spit out finished beautiful jewelry. That process still requires the highly skilled people known as bench jewelers. The main function of the laser welder is to join two pieces of metal together using light instead of heat.
Yes, it is a magical machine, just not a “craftsman replacing” magical machine. Once the two pieces of metal are now joined in holy laser-welded matrimony, a craftsman still had to do the rest of the work to make it into a beautiful piece of jewelry.
Here’s the technical side: there are two basic methods of joining two pieces of metal together; soldering and laser welding. Soldering requires extreme heat and you can really screw something up if you get it too hot and melt it, or catch that opal on fire because it’s all full of oil.
Laser welding allows you to get into tight places that a torch just won’t go, and it allows you to work around those oiled emeralds because it doesn’t generate enough heat to ignite the petroleum distillates. Now don’t get me wrong, you can still really screw stuff up with a laser welder. Screwing up is usually not the fault of the equipment. But in all reality, the laser welder is just a piece of shop equipment that does some things better than other pieces of equipment. You still need a talented bench jeweler to complete the job.
“I heard you can get rich in the jewelry industry.”
Yeah, I heard that too.