Creating handcrafted jewelry that is well made but also safe for the wearer is a top priority for beaders. Most of the time, that means trying to make sure strung, and woven components can't easily get snagged and break or scratch the people wearing the jewelry. It also means understanding the potentially harmful additives used in jewelry components and if they pose a risk while making the jewelry or to people while they are wearing the jewelry.
One concern is the possibility of lead in jewelry components and beads. Lead exposure can be very dangerous, especially for children. If you make jewelry, you should understand the risk of lead, the laws associated with it, and what manufacturers have done to limit the potential for exposure.
Lead Exposure Consequences
Lead exposure can cause serious health issues, especially for children, as their bodies more readily absorb it. Lead needs to be ingested to cause health problems–in other words; it must be put in the mouth, swallowed, or inhaled. It is generally believed that lead touching the skin in small amounts in jewelry is not absorbed into the body in sufficient amounts to be dangerous.
Although jewelry is intended to be worn, there is always the possibility that beads or components could inadvertently end up in someone's mouth, especially for a child who doesn't know better. Lead could also accidentally be ingested or particles inhaled if the components are broken or ground.
There is a federal law that mandates acceptable levels of lead in children's products, including jewelry. In addition, California has one of the strictest laws governing acceptable levels of lead in adult jewelry sold in California.
How Is Lead Used in Jewelry Components?
To understand the potential for lead to be contained in your jewelry, it is helpful to know the ways lead can be used in jewelry components. Lead can be used to make metal or plastic jewelry parts heavier, to brighten paint colors, to stabilize or soften plastic. For crystal beads, it helps them reflect light better, makes them easier to cut, and creates a longer working time during manufacturing.
Do All Crystal and Glass Beads Contain Lead?
Traditionally, crystal beads and components, such as those from leading crystal manufacturer Swarovski, do contain lead in the form of lead oxide. According to a lead information sheet from Halstead Bead, Inc., a well-known supplier of crystal beads, this lead cannot be absorbed directly through the skin, only by ingestion or inhalation. In the past, Swarovski has stated that the lead is bound up within a glass matrix that prevents it from rubbing off. However, Swarovski still emphasizes that their crystal beads should not be used by children.
Since September 2012, Swarovski has modified the way they make their crystal beads and components to allow them to offer the same brilliant cuts and reflection, but using a crystal glass that is more than 99 percent lead-free. The new lead-free product line is called Advanced Crystal and is widely available at retailers that sell Swarovski products. The composition of the new crystal glass contains 0.009 percent lead or less, which allows them to be considered lead-free. This is a breakthrough that helps Swarovski and jewelry makers using their components, ensure their products meet federal and state lead laws. The new crystals are perfect replacements, available in the same shapes with the same faceting and level of brilliance and color.
This does not mean that all crystal and glass beads in the market, including those made by Swarovski, are lead-free at this time. Stores may still carry older stock of Swarovski components that have the former lead levels. In addition, other manufacturers may still be producing components with higher levels of lead than Swarovski, provided they meet the federal guidelines above.
Bottom Line for Beaders
Safety first! Because of the potential for accidental ingestion, never use crystal or glass beads that you believe contain lead in children's jewelry or allow children and pets to play with your crystal beads and components.
Some suppliers recommend washing your hands after handling crystal, but it's not clear as to whether that's necessary. In addition, other types of crystal, glass beads, and metal components may contain lead. Your best bet is to purchase beads and components from reputable sellers and look on their website or ask customer service if they carry products with lead in them. Most online retailers will have a page dedicated to the topic.