Business of Fashion

When Cheap Jewelry is Just a Colorful Carcinogen

Manufacturers use lead and cadmium in costume jewelry for varied purposes. For example, lead can be used to make jewelry heavier or brighter, and to help stabilize or soften components of jewelry.

Jewelry containing dangerous metals is subject to many controls in California markets.

Costume jewelry commonly contains toxic materials

The following post is not an argument for fine jewelry and precious stones; however, it can provide a good excuse for such purchases 😉

Lead and cadmium are both recognized chemicals under California’s Proposition 65, which requires California to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity and mandates warnings when exposures exceed safe harbor levels.

Lead warnings are not required if exposure level is maxed at .5 micrograms per day, and unwarned cadmium exposures are capped at 4.1 micrograms per day for oral exposures and .05 micrograms per day for inhalation exposures. Adding clear nail polish to cheap jewelry may help it from chipping but does not take away many risks of the dangerous materials in some costume jewelry.

Of 99 pieces of jewelry analyzed by X-ray fluorescence for the presence of dangerous chemicals,

The Ecology Center and Healthystuff.org report that 59% of low-cost jewelry sold at stores like Walmart, Kohl’s, Forever 21, H&M, Hot Topic and Target, contained one or more chemicals considered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to be a hazard to human health at high levels.

In California, lead and cadmium content in jewelry is further controlled by the state’s “Metal-Containing Jewelry” law, which is codified in the California Health and Safety Code.*  The law forbids the manufacturing, shipping, offer for sale, and sale of jewelry in California unless jewelry is made from a specific set of materials laid out in the law. It also establishes lower lead and cadmium thresholds for children’s jewelry and body-piercing jewelry.

The law applies to any person who manufactures, ships, sells, or offers for sale jewelry for retail sale in California. Businesses of all sizes are subject to the law. 

Manufacturers and suppliers are required to provide certification that their jewelry does not contain cadmium or lead in violation of the law. This certification can provide an affirmative defense for jewelry retailers who may avoid liability for selling non-complaint jewelry if they can present a certification and show that they relied on the certification and did not know or have reason to know that the jewelry sold was in violation of the law.

It is critical that jewelry business owners and jewelry designers (from etsy to high fashion luxury) understand Proposition 65

Penalties for violating the metal-containing jewelry law can cost up to $2,500 per day per violation.** In assessing the amount of penalty for a particular violation, the court or agency considers many factors.*** Failure to comply with the law can present real litigation and penalty risks for businesses and individuals engaged in the sale, manufacture, and distribution of jewelry in California.

Businesses engaged in activities that might fall within the purview of Proposition 65 and the Metal-Containing Jewelry law should take steps to reduce the likelihood of penalties and other negative consequences resulting from a potential violation of this law.

Fashion lawyers can handle these types of jewelry laws. 


*California Health and Safety Code sections 25214.1 through 25214.4.2

**Cal. Health & Saf. Code § 25214.3(b)(1)
***Such factors include the nature and extent of the violation, the number and severity of the violation, the economic impact of the penalty on the violator, whether the violator took good-faith measures to comply with the law, when those measures were taken, the willfulness of the violator’s misconduct, and the deterrent effect of the penalty on the violator and the community as a whole

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