Jewelry Cleaning Like Grandma Used to Do It

By: Leo Walters

This is a just a short article with random notes about how they "used to do it", as culled from early 1900's sources. As will become obvious from some of the ingredients used, they didn't take a lot of safety precautions back then. Hence, these are provided as a snapshot of history only and we don't recommend using anything but modern cleaners which have been proven safe.

Everyone has their tried and true methods of cleaning jewelry using various commercial products, baking soda and assorted home remedies. Back before the days of ultrasonic cleaners and safe, chemical-based cleaners, our ancestors had some unique approaches to keep their gold and sparkling clean.

From the pages of The Boy Mechanic published in 1913:

Jewelry Cleaning

To cleanse articles of silver, gold, bronze and brass use a saturated solution of cyanide

of potassium. To clean small articles, dip each one into the solution and rinse

immediately in hot water; then dry and polish with a linen cloth. Larger articles are

cleaned by rubbing the surface with a small tuft of cotton saturated in the solution. As

cyanide of potassium is a deadly poison, care must be taken not to have it touch any sore

spot on the flesh.

From the same pages of The Boy Mechanic:

To Clean Silver:

A good method to clean silver of any kind is to place the articles in an aluminum

vessel and add a few pieces of zinc. Hot water is added and the silver boiled until clean.

It is best to use soft water. The tarnish is removed by the electrolytic action of the zinc

on the aluminum and the silver, and the latter will take on a bright luster. This method of

cleaning will not injure oxidized or black silver, nor that which is partly oxidized.

Our last item is just something we've always thought was amazing and it's sure to be a hit with antique watch collectors and bugs the world over!

Making Photographs on Watch Dials

1) Beat to a foam the white of an egg, with the addition of a little ammonia. Add 9 oz.

and 3 dr. of water and beat again. After the egg has settled, filter and let the liquid run

over the dial, which has been previously cleaned with ammonia. When the surplus has

run off, coat with the mixture and allow to dry.

2) A sensitive collodion is now produced as follows: Dissolve 9 gr. of chloride of zinc in

5 dr. of alcohol; add 7-1/2 gr. of collodion cotton and 6-1/2 dr. of ether. Shake the whole


3) Dissolve 23 gr. of nitrate of silver in hot water, add 1-1/2 dr. of alcohol and keep the

whole solution by heating. The silver solution is now added in small quantities at a time

to the collodion, which must be well settled. This, of course, is done in the dark room.

After 24 hours the emulsion is filtered by passing it through cotton moistened with

alcohol. This durable collodion emulsion is now flowed thinly upon the prepared watch

dial, which, after the collodion has coagulated, is moved up and down in distilled

water until the fatty stripes disappear. The water is then changed once, and after a short

immersion, the dial is left to dry on a piece of blotting paper.

4) It is now ready for exposure. Expose under magnesium light and develop with a citrate oxalic developer, or

in the following hydroquinone developer:

Hydroquinone ............ 1 dr.

Bromide of potassium .... 6 dr.

Sulphite of soda ............ 1-1/2 oz.

Carbonate of soda .......... 2-2/3 dr.

Water ....................... 14 oz.

5) After fixing and drying, coat with a transparent positive varnish.

It's hard for us to imagine how anyone ever figured that out to begin with! We hope you've enjoyed this look back at a time when people were forced to rely on good old Yankee know-how, common sense and their own ingenuity!


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