A reader raised an important question recently, asking whether their vintage Siam niello jewelry was safe, as the niello ‘enamel’ of it contained an alloy which included lead metal.
Quick tips to identify lead in vintage costume jewellery:
- Vintage jewellery containing lead is often unusually heavy for its size, or compared to similar non-lead jewels
- Gold or silver plating wears off, to reveal dull matte dark silver underneath
- The jewellery metal feels soft – lead is a soft and malleable metal.
- The metal is movable/ easily breakable, even though it looks thick and solid to the eye.
- The metal is soft and can be scratched easily, even with a fingernail..
- Personally I would view any type of nielloware from around the world as suspect for containing lead. Ditto any type of metal – new or old – from countries which have poor health and safety laws or metal regulations.
- Sometimes the back of the jewellery isn’t as ‘sharp’ or well defined appearance wise as other jewellery; some lead jewellery is quite thick and ‘blobby’ in appearance and texture (see photos below)
- I once tried to solder a broken vintage rhinestone brooch, only for the lead levels to be so high that the metal immediately melted on touch!
Please note that these tips used individually are not conclusive of lead containment, and should be used in conjunction with other the tips and advice. For example, if the gold plating has worn off to reveal dull silver-colour metal underneath, this on its own is not conclusive of lead indication – however, if it also feels soft and is easily malleable as well, then this points to potential lead alloys.
Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist nor qualified health and safety professional, and this info is only based my limited research as a jewelry enthusiast. I encourage all readers to do their own research and make their own decisions. Keep all lead or potential lead items away from children. If anyone can add help, advice to lead metal safety in vintage jewellery, or has further information from a professional standpoint, please do leave a comment or get in touch 🙂
Learn about lead:
Lead hazards and vintage items:
Frequently Asked Questions about Lead in Jewelry (California legislation)
Toxic Levels of Lead in Many Thrift, Antique, and Resale Items: