Fashion jewellery is subjected to rigorous testing under law, to ensure it does not contain any harmful elements, or harmful levels of certain elements. Samplers Debbie Cotterill and Linda Long outline the processes involved.
Follow the faint trail of sparkles and sequins from the car park into Assay Office Birmingham, and it will lead you to the Laboratory, and the benches of Linda Long and Debbie Cotterill, two expert samplers. Dubbed the ‘disco divas’ because they are constantly covered in glitter, these two ladies spend their days painstakingly removing layers of paint, metallic coating, glue and glitter from articles submitted for testing. Their benches are heaped with fashion jewellery, watches, hairbands, disco boppers and many other accessories, sporting a rainbow of colours and sparkling with imitation gemstones and sequins. Children’s articles are particularly prevalent, as they are the most heavily regulated.
These items are submitted for testing by BS:EN 71-3 to ensure compliance with the existing Toy Safety Regulations and new EU Toy Directive, specifically the migration of toxic elements, which include lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic among others. Other items are to be tested for compliance with the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) Directive in respect of cadmium, and the forthcoming restriction on lead, which will be introduced in 2013. Cadmium is widely used in the jewellery industry, despite having long been recognised as a toxin and a known carcinogen, harmful when ingested or inhaled. Concerns have been accelerated by a recent trend for Far East manufacturers to substitute cadmium for lead, which is now tightly restricted in many countries. Increasing focus on consumer and employee health and safety has resulted in measures to restrict the use of cadmium.
The EU extended the restrictions of the REACH Directive to include cadmium, and this has been enforceable since December 2011. For jewellery, the regulation restricts cadmium content to 0.01 per cent (100mg/kg) by weight of the metal, and this applies to “metal beads and other metal jewellery components, metal parts of jewellery and imitation jewellery articles and hair accessories (ie bracelets, necklaces, rings, piercing jewellery, wristwatches, wrist-wear, hair accessories, brooches, cufflinks).” Lead will also be included in the scope of the REACH Directive, due to its toxicity. Regular ingestion of even small quantities can result in severe and irreversible neuro-behavioural and neuro-developmental effects. Children are particularly susceptible while their central nervous system is still developing and their tendency to ‘mouth’ or suck things makes them particularly vulnerable. Annex 63 of REACH will restrict the concentration of lead to 0.05 per cent by weight. This will apply to any individual part of jewellery and imitation jewellery articles and hair accessories, including bracelets, necklaces, rings, piercing jewellery, wristwatches, wrist-wear, brooches and cufflinks. Companies and individuals at all stages of the supply chain will clearly have to respond to the regulation’s requirements by ensuring that their products are compliant, hence the influx of work for the ‘disco divas’. The methods for cadmium and lead testing under REACH require every component to be tested individually. This does not just refer to each bead or charm, but also to each separate layer of paint and varnish. BS:EN 71-3 testing for the migration of toxic elements under the Toy Directive is even more rigorous, demanding that every single separate colour, thread and speck of glue be separated.
This requires concentration, expert handling of the ‘pinky’ used for scraping, and sometimes quite a lot of pressure. Debbie and Linda have had to re-focus a lifetime of expertise to take on this role. Originally working in the Sampling department of Assay Office Birmingham, they undertook three years of rigorous training to ensure they could use touch acids to check the fineness of gold, silver and platinum prior to sampling, and then dextrously remove tiny samples for assay. Such samples had to be taken from an unobtrusive place, with a minute amount removed from several pieces to obtain a sufficient amount for testing by cupellation. The advent of X-ray fluorescence assaying for hallmarking significantly reduced the need to scrape samples, and Debbie and Linda are now wielding their pinkies in a very different way. For EN 71-3 in particular, every scrap of coating must be removed, and their softly, softly approach has been replaced with a rigorous stripping down. This is truly destructive testing, but it still requires huge care, expertise and understanding of the construction of the item. Debbie says: “No two items are the same. Everything we pick up is different and you have to know what you are doing.
Many of the costume jewellery articles we get that look like metal are in fact plastic, and you need to make sure you have discovered all of the layers.” But it is not about brute force; Linda shows a set of lightweight, glittery, Indian-style bangles. She needs to remove every different colour, plus the ‘gemstones’ and the glitter; but press too hard on the flimsy metal and the pinky will carve straight through, ruining the sample. The samples obtained are sometimes tiny and every scrap has to be carefully collected together for weighing. Herbie Sisodia, another long-term employee of the Assay Office, focuses on weighing. A sample may be as small as 10 milligrams and the careful separation of components and their accurate weighing to three decimal points are crucial to the remainder of the process. Patience, precision, accuracy and, most of all, experience are vital.
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