Thrifting 101, Part 12: Identifying and Cleaning Thrifted Jewelry

When I go thrifting, I tend to be most attracted to pieces that are shiny, sparkly, and twinkly. Whether it's a jacket encrusted with vintage sequins applied in India, or a 1970's silver-stitched blouse, I run towards it making grabby-grabby hands like preschooler after candy. However, my attraction is usually limited to things hanging on a rack. I rarely venture towards the jewelry. I suppose I'm too laser-focused on the clothes, choosing to spend my cash on a pretty dress or vintage jacket.

Yesterday, while examining a collection of rhinestone broaches in a newly discovered vintage shop, it occurred to me that I'm only taking advantage of some of the bargains available in a thrift store. Whether I'm in need of a fantastic piece of costume jewelry, a cocktail ring, or a vintage pair of clip earrings, thrift stores offer a wealth of possibilities. This week's Thrifting 101 post focuses on the topic of shopping for jewelry at a thrift store, identifying real gold and silver jewelry in a thrift store, and advice regarding how to clean these new-to-you pieces.

Up to this point, Thrifting 101 has focused on tips for newbies and those dealing with the squick factor, advice regarding how to shop at a thrift store, thrifting for the clothing snob, recommendations for finding the best thrift and consignment stores, tips for determining what days are the best for thrifting, a post where I explained my love for thrifting, advice regarding thrift store etiquette, tips for cleaning vintage leather, and a post of my favorite thrifting and vintage blogs.

To begin, let's explore how to spot genuine silver and gold jewelry at a thrift store:

  • You can identify sterling silver by checking the stamp of quality under a magnifying glass. This will be located inside a ring, or on a small tag or the clasp for bracelets and necklaces. True sterling silver will be marked as either "sterling," "sterling silver," "ster," or "925."
  • Identify gold by a quality stamp reading "10K," "14K," or "18K." These may also be marked as "10KT," etc. If the karat marking is absent, look for a number. For a 10 karat piece this will be "416," for 14 karat piece this will be "585," and for an 18 karat piece this will be "750".
  • Be sure to look for markings that indicate gold filled or gold/silver plate. Gold-filled pieces may be identified with a marking similar to "1/20 14K," meaning that 5 percent of the piece is  14 karat gold. Plated pieces will have a marking such as "GP" for gold plated, "HGE" for heavy gold electroplate, or "SP" for silver plated.
  • If the markings have worn off, or if they appear to be absent, rub the piece against a clean jewelry cleaning cloth. If the gold is fake, some of the gold color will rub off. You can also use a magnet to test if the gold is authentic, as real gold will not be attracted to the magnet.

Let's say you've found the perfect necklace, earrings or cocktail ring, regardless of whether it's genuine or not. Most of my necklaces, bracelets and earrings are costume pieces, and I love them as much as my items made from genuine gold and stones.

Here's some advice regarding cleaning thrifted jewelry and general care:

  • Before cleaning, inspect the jewelry for dirt and other grime. For best results use a magnifying glass, as it will help identify any loose stones or settings. Lightly dust with a soft toothbrush or make-up brush to remove loose dust and grit.
  • To clean gold jewelry that doesn't contain jewels, prepare a solution of one part ammonia to six parts water in a glass bowl. Quickly dip the jewelry in the solution, brush with a soft-bristle brush and dry well with a towel. 
  • To clean silver jewelry that doesn't contain jewels, line a glass or plastic dish with a slightly crumpled piece of aluminum foil. Lay your jewelry on the foil, and sprinkle a thin layer of baking soda over it. Submerge the piece in boiling water, making sure to cover it entirely. Move the piece around gently with a wooden or plastic spoon. You'll notice the silver becoming bright again. Remove the piece, rinse it in cool water, and dry it with a clean absorbent cloth.
  • To clean non-antique costume jewelry, apply warm water or jewelry cleaner to a very soft cloth or toothbrush. If you're convinced your jewelry isn't valuable or antique, you can also use a little Windex (most would recommend against it, but I've never had issues with my cheap pieces.) Soapy water is not recommended because it can leave a residue on the jewelry and can make stones look dull. Use just enough cleaner to make your cloth damp and not dripping wet. Rub the cloth over your piece, paying special attention to tight places where dust and dirt might be caught. A little cleaner on a Q-Tip will help remove grime in tight spots. 
  • After you've given the piece a good cleaning, be sure that the jewelry is completely dry before putting it away. Moisture is jewelry's biggest enemy, as it is the breeding ground for rust damage and pitting of metals.  In addition, rhinestone jewelry is at risk of losing the foil backing on stones and loss of luster if it comes in contact with moisture.  For this reason, it is especially important to be careful wearing any jewelry in moist places, such as the beach, saunas, pools, and even in very rainy weather. Chlorine is particularly damaging to stones and metals as well. Dry the piece with an absorbent towel and hang it upside down for at least 15 minutes after cleaning, so moisture flows away from the jewelry and not into the settings.
  • Do not use a cleaner that contains vinegar, acids or alcohols on antique jewelry. This includes Windex. They can damage the finish, especially on gemstones. For instance, the delicate details and precious stones that make the item shine can be tarnished forever if acid-based products are used on it. If you own antique jewelry, take it to a professional to be cleaned.
  • Storage: Be careful that your jewelry isn't stored so that the pieces rub against each other, as scratching and loss of stones could be the result. Leave room between the pieces and keep items separate from each other, and be sure to store beaded jewelry flat. This is especially good advice for pieces strung on silk thread, as silk stretches over time. Keep jewelry away from sunlight, heat vents, and hot car interiors. 

Do you have any tips regarding shopping for and cleaning thrifted jewelry? Leave a comment and let us know! 


  1. Yet again...awesome tips! Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us. :)

  2. Great tips! You have such a thorough knowledge of thrifting, it makes it easier for a newbie like me to follow along and learn how to look for accessories. Thanks for posting! =)


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