vintage tips

Some vintage jewellery contains lead – is it safe?

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.

As far as I’m aware, lead absorption generally occurs via the mouth, ie, breathing in lead dust/ particles, handling of lead and then eating food without washing hands, or actually ingesting lead (eg a small child eating a clasp which contains lead, which may be potentially fatal). In my limited lay-person research, there seems to be a bit of a grey area regarding the absorption of lead via the skin itself. There was a study on niello artisans in Thailand, and in my limited understanding of interpreting research papers, the main issues seemed to be caused by a lack of basic health and safety in the workplace which led to workers accidentally ingesting lead via the mouth (ie, not washing hands after handling lead then eating food/smoking, no dust masks to prevent lead dust particle inhalation when sawing/filing niello etc) rather than touching/ absorption via the skin.

An example of a standard Siam silver nielloware brooch, in the popular design of Mekkelah Goddess of Lightning. Jewellery safety, lead advice etc.

An example of a standard Siam silver nielloware brooch, in the popular design of Mekkelah Goddess of Lightning. Niello enamel (the black part of the brooch) contains an alloy of sulphur, copper, silver, and lead.

If I know or suspect a piece of old jewellery contains lead, I personally choose not to wear it.  Anyone deciding to wear any type of vintage jewellery which contains lead can should take some precautions: immediately wash hands after handling it, wash the area it has touched on the skin when you take the piece off, don’t put it near your mouth, strictly keep it out of reach of children, never wear it around toddlers – they might grab / handle it and then put it or their fingers in their mouth.

Also, I’d advice against using nielloware (eg a Siam bowl) anywhere around food, or to contain food, or use nielloware cigarette cases to hold cigarettes. Like I say, my understanding of lead is that the issue of poisoning lies around the ingestion of it via mouth or inhalation to the lungs, rather than solely via the skin. So for example, occasionally wearing a niello necklace for a couple of hours to a special occasion may not be too much of an issue – but if you have a habit of playing with your necklace a lot and then smoke/ touch you mouth/ eat without washing your hands, then that’s when lead ingestion may occur.

I welcome further help, advice and discussion from readers regarding the safety issues surrounding vintage jewellery which contains lead, as I’m not a scientist and some of the research papers I looked at were beyond my full understanding. If you think your jewellery may contain lead, please keep it locked away from children.

An unusual Siam silver nielloware charm bracelet, with ringing bell charms

An unusual Siam silver nielloware charm bracelet, with ringing bell charms. A charm bracelet like this is not suitable to wear around toddlers and young children – they’ll be fascinated by the ringing, and may try to put the charms in their mouth.

 

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.
  • 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.

I strongly suspect this vintage 1960s pink enamel and thermoplastic brooch contained high levels of lead; the worn off gold plating revealed dull dark silver-colour metal underneath, and the metal was so soft and malleable it would have broken with the slightest of pressure.

I strongly suspected this vintage 1960s pink enamel and thermoplastic brooch contained high levels of lead; the worn off gold plating revealed dull dark silver-colour metal underneath, and the metal was so soft and malleable it would have broken with the slightest of pressure.

 

The back of a vintage 1960s lead-free brooch. Because it doesn't contain lead, the back of it is clear, well defined and 'sharp' in appearance.

The back of a vintage 1960s lead-free brooch. Because it doesn’t contain lead, the back of it is strong, clear, well defined and ‘sharp’ in appearance….

 

... Compare the above brooch back, to the back of this vintage necklace, and the vintage brooch in the photo below. I suspect both contained some lead due to them both being extremely soft and malleable, along with being heavy for their size & design. Note how blobby and undefined the back is, especially compared to the crisp metal work lead-free brooch above

… Compare the above brooch back, to the back of this gold-colour vintage necklace, and the vintage brooch in the photo below. I suspect each one contained some lead due to them both being extremely soft and malleable, along with being heavy for their size & design. Note how blobby and undefined the back is, especially compared to the crisp metal work lead-free brooch above

The blobby undefined bulky appearance of the back of this vintage brooch suggests it may have a high lead content. On it's own this isn't conclusive - plenty of lead-free jewellery is undefined and blobby - but coupled with the fact is was very heavy for its small size, and the metal was soft and malleable, led me to conclude it contained lead.

The thick blobby undefined bulky appearance of the back of this vintage brooch may indicate it potentially could contain lead in its alloy. On it’s own this isn’t conclusive – plenty of lead-free jewellery is undefined and blobby – but coupled with the fact that this particular old brooch was very heavy for its small size, and the metal was soft and malleable, led me to conclude it probably contained lead.

 

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 🙂

 

 

References and further reading:

An Examination of Blood Lead Levels in Thai Nielloware Workers:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3443697/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2093791112330072

Survey of Siam Silver: http://www.siamman.com/ebookstores.html

Antique Jewellery University: http://www.langantiques.com/university/index.php/Niello

Lead Toxicity – What Are Routes of Exposure to Lead?
https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=34&po=6

How Lead Exposures Can Happen:
https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/lead/exposure.html

Learn about lead:

https://www.epa.gov/lead/learn-about-lead

Lead hazards and vintage items:

http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/lead/vintage/

Frequently Asked Questions about Lead in Jewelry (California legislation)

https://www.dtsc.ca.gov/HazardousWaste/Jewelry/leadinjewelry_faqs.cfm

Toxic Levels of Lead in Many Thrift, Antique, and Resale Items:

https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2010/12/toxic-levels-of-lead-in-many-thrift-antique-and-resale-items.html

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