When discussing how to clean cinnabar, the first step is to actually 100% confirm what it is that you seek to clean.
Cinnabar can refer to the mineral, or it can refer to a style of decoration (household or jewelry). Unfortunately, the name “cinnabar” is often used interchangeably, and occasionally, so are the materials.
In many cases, the possessor/owner of the pieces doesn’t actually understand what the difference is, which leads to destroyed pieces and grumpiness all the way around.
What Does It Matter Which Type Of Cinnabar You Are Working With?
Cinnabar is a mineral (a stone). It contains mercury and is quite soft (only a 2 on the Moh’s scale). (source)
Cinnabar jewelry (not containing the mineral cinnabar) is actually usually shaped wood or plastic covered with many layers of lacquer. The lacquer may have contained ground up cinnabar in the past to create the bright red color, but these days lacquer cinnabar contains no cinnabar whatsoever.
The cinnabar piece may also just be plastic, just straight up plastic.
When looking at cleaning strategies, you can get the mineral wet, and scrub at it lightly with soap and a brush. But you wouldn’t want to take a stuff brush to the surface.
Lacquer jewelry, on the other hand, even if it looks like it should be a mineral, will not hold up to the methods used to clean minerals (like the use of a high pressure fabric gun).
If you don’t know what you are working with, you have the potential to destroy the piece. This does happen to folks who clean jewelry–they make the assumption that the “cinnabar pendant” that they’ve been asked to clean is the mineral, only to find that it was wood covered in lacquer.
Generally that discovery is made after the cleaning process has begun.
How Can You Tell The Difference Between Mineral Cinnabar and Cinnabar Lacquer Products?
It shouldn’t be too hard to identify a product as not being the mineral cinnabar. As for what the product is (between wood, plastic, resin and other materials), this goes beyond the scope of this article. But in general, here are items that are probably not the mineral cinnabar:
- Anything large (like a vase). It is pretty rare to find a large piece of pure cinnabar out there in the world for sale on ebay. Large deposits of cinnabar have been found and do exist, but they aren’t generally used to make home decor.
- Anything stamped with a “Made In ______________” (insert country).
- Anything with air bubbles, seams, swirl marks in the material, or cut marks.
- Tool marks on the base.
- Carvings all over it.
- A section that looks different from the rest of the materials.
- Swab a piece of cotton swab or ball moistened with nail polish remover over an inconspicuous spot. If the material comes away discolored, it is lacquer.
- When exposed to light over an extended period of time, the piece maintains its color and does not darken.
- Doesn’t scratch easily or at all (cinnabar is pretty soft).
When all else fails, get a second opinion before doing anything serious with your piece.
How Do You Clean Cinnabar (the mineral)?
People are pretty wary of doing too much with cinnabar because of its softness and high mercury amounts. In general, when you have a piece of cinnabar jewelry, rubbing it or buffing it with a clean cloth is where we’d start.
If that didn’t help, then perhaps scrubbing it with a simple solution of soap and water.
Cinnabar is very light sensitive, so much so that serious collectors store it when they are not wearing it or working on it away from the light.
Sitting in the light causes the material to lose it’s bright red coloration, and over time can turn close to completely black.
The darkness is not a build up on the exterior of the material (like dirt). Consequently, if the mineral has darkened due to spending a lot of time in the sun, buffing with a cloth/soap and water will not brighten up the material.
People make the mistake of trying to bring back the original brightness of the darkened piece by removing the outermost layer with solutions used to remove iron oxides, like Iron Out.
This is not recommended, as the mineral reacts with the Iron Out and will actually change the cinnabar to a violet color.
If your cinnabar has darkened, and cleaning/buffing doesn’t work, you could try re-polishing the piece. Take of a little bit of the outermost layer and see if the brightness is still there without having to go down too deep to find it.
Just have a care around any dust (don’t breath it or get it in your eyes) and clean your station/dispose of ground up cinnabar carefully. Meaning, don’t take the tumbler water and throw it in the garden as some people like to do.
Beyond repolishing, we don’t recommend using any other acids to try and restore the piece. We just don’t like dealing with the mercury.
Cleaning Cinnabar (jewelry/lacquer)?
We aren’t experts here with cinnabar lacquer (this is an outdoors/rocks/minerals website).
That being said, if you are not sure if your piece is lacquer or the mineral, wait to soak it in water or other solution, or scrubbing it with any force. This can soften the lacquer and leave you unhappy with yourself or your client if you are cleaning it for someone else.
We recommend that you ask for help to confirm the material and then get your clean up plan in order.
Other Final Thoughts About Handling Cinnabar
Like we said above, we aren’t huge fans of cinnabar because of the mercury content. But experts disagree with us, which we discuss more in our article about the dangerousness of cinnabar.
In the end, it comes down to personal preference, and what you feel comfortable wearing against your skin.
Interested in learning more about rocks and minerals? Check out our blog for our latest articles.