We just aren't taking good care of our jewelry.

"People abuse it out of ignorance," says Lynne Loube, a District gemologist/appraiser for seven years. "I faint when clients come in with their jewelry stored all together in a bag and the diamonds are scratching the rubies and the rubies are scratching pearls. People should separate their jewelry and put each piece in a thin plastic zip-lock bag" or in ring boxes, in separate compartments in a jewelry box or wrap each piece in soft tissues.

No gem is completely damage-proof. Diamonds may be hard but they're not tough -- they chip. "It shocks clients to learn the truth about diamonds," says Loube, who warns ring wearers to "remove your diamonds when doing dishes because you may hit the stone on the porcelain side of the sink and chip it."

Of course, merely removing the ring can cause other problems. Jim Rosenheim, owner/president of the District's Tiny Jewel Box, heard about one woman who wishes she had taken further precautions.

After a big dinner party, the last thing this hostess did was place her uninsured 26-carat diamond on the kitchen sink, wipe the counter and turn on the disposal. Its vibration shook the gem into the swirling blades. "Her double-digit carat diamond, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, ended up as diamond chips in five seconds," he says.

And then there are those who swim with their pearls on. They are upset, says Loube, because now the pearls "look like dull, lifeless beads. Don't swim with any jewelry because chlorine attacks gold's alloys. It can pit the jewelry," she says.

Cleaning gemstones is important in maintaining their beauty and value. "It is much cheaper to maintain jewelry than to let it get damaged and restore it. Maintenance costs relatively little," says Rosenheim. Not all gemstones, however, can be cleaned the same way because of variations in hardness, fragility and crystal structure. A few rules will produce beautiful results and maximum safety.

Gold, the metal most often found in jewelry, is soft and easily scratched, "But it is pretty much impervious to anything you'll run into in the normal course of life," Rosenheim says. If gold jewelry comes in contact with chlorine, clean it with a mixture of soap and water, rub with an old soft toothbrush, rinse in lukewarm water and dry with a soft cloth, advises Rosenheim. Also, take it to a jeweler once or twice a year for polishing.

Diamonds, rubies and sapphires are relatively maintenance-free. Clean with a warm-water detergent and a soft brush and scrub front and back, then rinse thoroughly.

Emeralds are fragile and sensitive to heat and sudden temperature changes. "They can't stand harsh chemicals (ammonia, caustic cleaning chemicals). "Insure them for all risks because they are more soft and brittle than other major gemstones and can be chipped or damaged," Rosenheim says.

Stones cut from crystals (garnets, rubies tourmalines) are most durable. Clean with a warm water detergent and a soft brush.

Because of their organic origin, pearls, amber, ivory and coral require the gentlest handling. Never subject them to chemical cleaners or ultrasonic units. Wipe them with mild, non-detergent soap and lukewarm water.

A jeweler should restring pearls once a year if you wear them everyday or every two years if you wear them less frequently. Specify silk because it doesn't attract dirt and grime as much as nylon and it won't stretch. To eliminate losses if the strand breaks, the jeweler should string with knots between each pearl.

Opals and coral are soft gems. Protect them from scratches, sharp blows, household chemicals, and extreme temperature changes. Never put them in a chemical unit. The loss in an opal's water content, which can be as much as 30 percent, leads to tiny cracks in an opal's surface and the opalescence disappears. To bring the luster back, dab water on a finger and rub it across the opal. This also strengthens the stone.

Jade is the opposite of diamonds: tough but not hard. It should be cleaned gently with soap and water. Ammonia removes the polish so "be respectful of it," Loube warns.

"A big waste of money is commercial cleaners," Rosenheim says, "because you already have at home products that will clean as well and as safely as commercial cleaners, but you have to understand which to use and when. I use a glass cleaner on sapphires, rubies, diamonds and gold because it removes cosmetics, fingerprints, body oils and hair spray and restores sparkle."