Daily Wire Tip Aug. 19: How to Clean Ivory Jewelry

By on August 19, 2010
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Daily Wire Jewelry Making Tip
August 19, 2010

Question:

How would I clean genuine ivory that has been in a box in the home of a smoker since 1940? It is a bracelet with four carved pieces of ivory strung together with ivory beads.

-Ann in Opelika, Alabama

Answer:

For this particular subject, I always turn to my personal source, Wire Faculty member Scrimshaw Mary of Nashville, TN. She responded with the following:

Oh my, a really good question for sure.

Ivory is a natural material and porous. It will absorb moisture out of the air and anything around it. Hence the reason to always store an ivory piece, (especially jewelry), in a plastic bag to give it a controlled environment away from the surrounding environment, such as low or high humidity. Is it stained and badly discolored or what? You cannot scrub any stain out, because once it is discolored, it is in there pretty much for good. What gives ivory that yellowing over time (that brings out the natural grain in the ivory) is human body oils from wearing and handling it.

A general cleaning can be done with a q-tip and baby oil to replace some of the moisture, and using a soft cloth to hand polish will help bring back some luster to it (but do not add polish). This can help remove any surface dirt from the beads. If the beads are carved, it will help to loosen anything in the cracks so that can be removed. Even working under a magnifying glass and using a needle or metal scribe can help loosen any caked in residue if done slowly and carefully so as not to scar the ivory itself and using the baby oil to soften up the foreign matter.

Never use water~! You cannot dip the beads in water or a solution of any kind and just leave them to soak. Being natural, the ivory will absorb the liquid and swell; once removed and dried, the moisture absorbed will slowly evaporate and the beads will crack, etc.

I have never done any real "restoration" work on old jewelry pieces. If there is another way, I haven’t heard of it simply because, as you may know, I use the raw material to create my own shapes, cabs, etc. Unfortunately, I have no idea concerning nicotine and its effects on ivory or how long an "odor" to a sensitive non-smoker would be.

Answer contributed by Dale “Cougar” Armstrong

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6 Comments

  1. avatar

    Terry

    August 19, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Ivory will discolor with age and exposure to the atmosphere. It will whiten with exposure to sunlight. Think of bleached bones in the desert.
    Conservators in museums will whiten ivory with a VERY dilute solution of hydrogen peroxide in water. This is applied with a cotton swab to a very small area at a a time and allowed to evaporate. The bleaching will continue until the bleach is removed. When the desired effect is achieved, the ivory is thoroughly rinsed in water and immediately dried.
    This application does not allow the piece to become saturated with moisture as only a very small amount of water in introduced.

  2. avatar

    mary

    August 19, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Ann:

    I am going to elaborate a bit more on this topic since it has come up again. Since it comes from someone who smoked, you may be wondering about nicotine residue, body oils, etc. Ivory is very porous, and the porous characteristic means it will absorb body oils and such. You need to wear a clean pair of white gloves. Clean meaning they are new or if washed have no fabric softener residue in them. You can use a soft brush (like a small paint brush) to carefully clean any dust that may have collected in the carved area. Use the cotton swab method to clean into tight areas and wipe off with a soft cloth.
    Being aged, the color is not going to be a crisp white because ivory does darken with age and in doing so brings out the growth pattern of the ivory for all to see. Your gentle cleaning may remove any nicotine oils on the surface of the carvings and beads but not all of it.
    Hope this helps…

  3. avatar

    Kathy Devine

    August 19, 2010 at 10:53 am

    I had an uncle who was a heavy smoker and all of items in his apartment reeked of smoke. One of the things I used to get rid of the smell was lavender oil. You could put a drop of the oil in the baby oil when you clean the jewelry and you can also put a drop or two on a cotton ball and keep it in the box with the jewelry. Of course, if you don’t care for the smell of lavender this won’t help you. Hope this helps.

  4. avatar

    vivien lees

    August 19, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Do you think the hydrogen peroxide will whiten ivory piano keys? I have just bought an old piano and I know from experience that keeping the piano lid down encourages the keys to darken. So I agree sunlight naturally lightens it but was wondering if I could use anything else to speed up the process and clean the keys.

  5. avatar

    mary

    August 21, 2010 at 8:59 am

    Bleach (chlorine)is a tricky way to try and clean ivory since it eats away at the ivory. If you do choose this option, apply it quickly, scrub it quickly in warm water and then rinse throughally in a tub of vinegar to stop the bleaching action. Take in considerationt that while it will whiten the ivory it will also affect the polish of the piece, destroying it, and you will loose some or all of the aged patine the object holds and you will need to re-polish the object. Bleaching has its place but it is not something I would recommend.
    Once clean as I stated before in my previous post, you need to apply a thin coating of thin or light mineral oil.

  6. avatar

    maudie dunaway

    January 25, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    I have an Ivory necklace of elephants (tiny ones) and a larger pendent in the middle . It is strung on a heavy thread. My question is after I clean it with baby oil and dry it. Do I need to wrap it in anything before I put it into a plastic bag? Thank you for the info.

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