Preserving Memories: Heirloom Jewelry

By Grace Dobush Premium
They don’t just look pretty—heirloom baubles can help you identify relatives in photographs. Got a brooch that belonged to Great-aunt Camille? Look for it in family photos from her lifetime to pick her out of a crowd. Insignia rings also can reveal stories about the lives of their owners, such as membership in a fraternal organization, a military career or a graduation date.
How you take care of heirloom jewelry depends on what it’s made of, but a few rules always apply. Never use toothpaste, bleach or other abrasive solutions to clean your jewelry. Polish your pieces with soft cotton only—synthetics can scratch. And follow these material-specific guidelines to keep Grandma’s jewels glittering.
Silver: Regularly polishing your silver jewelry will help avoid tarnish buildup. Use a mild cleanser, such as Hagerty Silversmiths’ Polish, which you can purchase online at or at your local hardware store. Wrap the pieces in acid-free tissue paper or silver cloth bags to reduce tarnish. You can buy bags starting at $6.
Gold: Brush away dirt with a soft toothbrush or cotton cloth. If the jewelry’s especially soiled, use warm water and mild soap. Make sure the pieces are completely dry before putting them away. Keep gold jewelry in a satin- or velvet-lined box with compartments to prevent the pieces from bumping each other.
Gemstones: Because some stones are harder than others, cleaning methods can vary greatly. Opals, amber and pearls are especially soft, so take care not to jar or scratch them, and wrap them individually in tissue for storage. Stash diamond pieces separately: Their hard edges can be dangerous to softer stones. Clean your gems with mild detergent and warm water, and pat dry with a soft cloth before storing them.
Precious Inventory

Keep track of your heirlooms and their origins with our form, downloadable as a Word file or PDF from <>.
Ask the Archivist: Roll Playing
Q. I found a large photo rolled up tight. Should I try to flatten it?

A. The best cure for rolled photographs is prevention: Store your photos flat in archival folders and boxes. You can store prints 8×10 inches or smaller upright in folders that fit on a bookshelf; oversized materials require a box. Under-the-bed storage is a clever solution for your largest containers.
If it’s already too late, your photo will likely require professional conservation treatment. Never force a rolled photograph to unroll—this can cause permanent damage by cracking the emulsion layer.
If you must peek, I know a trick that will reduce the risk of damage. (This is for identification purposes only, and will help you decide whether or not the print is worth the expense of professional treatment.) View the image one skinny strip at a time by slowly unrolling it only in the middle. At no point to do you attempt to flatten the print; let both edges curl freely. Slowly roll one side out as you let the other side roll in.
Very important: If you meet any resistance, it’s a clear warning that the photo may crack if forced further. In other words, it’s time to give up the ghost. Also, when you handle the print, wear cotton gloves to protect it from the oils on your fingers.

A professional conservator can safely unroll your photograph by storing it temporarily in a high-humidity environment. This procedure isn’t complicated, but doing it wrong is dangerous enough for me to advise, “Don’t try this at home.”   

—Sally Jacobs
Photo 911
Find a photo conservator near you through the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
Be Mine
Advances in printing gave our ancestors license to go wild with handcrafted cards in the 19th century. You can create your own Victorian-style Valentine’s Day cards with these simple materials:

  • cardstock
  • paper doilies
  • ribbon or lace
  • abric or paper scraps
  • Victorian clip art or other ephemera
  • scissors or a craft knife
  • glue stick or spray adhesive

Download our printable PDF of Victorian imagery. Layer lace and colorful paper or fabric on a flat piece of cardstock. Top it off with a carefully cut out vintage image, and write a cute couplet to finish the card.
To learn more about historical Valentine’s Day cards and see examples, visit <> and <>.

From the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine