That was me from about age seven (well, I'm actually probably four or five in this photo). Off and on, my parents couldn't figure out why I would be allergic to my watches or silver things that had claims of "hypoallergenic earrings." They just knew I could wear 14k gold and I just knew that was soooo not my color. (It was different times back then!) So what earrings for very sensitive ears did I finally settle on after living with this problem with for the last, oh… we'll just keep it to 20+ years. What--were the best earrings for my sensitive ears?
Nickel Free Earrings and Surgical Steel
The myths! The stubborn legends.
I learned the best earrings for sensitive ears was anything that was made as nickel free earrings. I could ask some folks selling jewelry if they knew if something would be okay for me to wear, but the truth was that no one seemed to understand my allergy. They would tell me they were hypoallergenic earrings, or surgical steel earrings for sensitive skin but I still had issues...
Flash forward to me as an adult who has obsessively tried to figure out why I can't seem to trust the words of anyone I ask. I would peel through books and material research articles. Turns out all these words I would use to ask if I wouldn't have a horrible reaction because of my nickel sensitivities were useless. Almost nobody had ever looked down to the molecular level of what is in surgical steel: nickel. I was the girl that would react to surgical steel at the dentist. 30 minutes at the dentist!! Most folks might not react, but if you already are sensitized to nickel enough to ask... well, that surgical steel will come for you eventually my friend. But it's not a bad thing. It just means your body is trying to signal a way to protect you. That and... oh, the European Union considers nickel to be a toxin. So, yum!
Don't get me started on "hypoallergenic earrings," which means someone is using marketing speak to attract your attention. Did you know there is no technical or agreed upon definition of hypoallergenic? When you see it written on packaging or spoken out loud, you may want to question the quality of the sourcing. Or maybe the company/human did make it just for you... but that's just not quite the world we live in yet. If you don't have any reactions to the kind of product I'm talking about, I wish I were you. What a world of cool jewelry I could have worn for maybe $22 as a kid. But then, often times the price is its own signal of what quality level of materials are being used. You just never know.
[Brief and respectful nod at avant garde jewelry though. Celebrating form over material my friends! Hey-o and I love you! Because, it's not always about the materials when you've got a fine shape to art around in! It's truly how much value you the wearer get out of a piece like most works of art... and the more you don't have a toxic reaction to it, the better.]
Perhaps those of us with severe metal allergies are some sort of amazing new evolved human, but nickel is our kryptonite. Yeah, yeah! We're all just a bunch of Clark Kents.
I used to just wear hemp string jewelry in college. It's okay. Everyone was doing it. I even tried wearing plastic nylon in my ears (no one was doing this) because I couldn't afford to buy myself gold jewelry as a teenager. Then I realized I could wear bone and clay and started making some things so I could wear something different from everyone else.
I would tape my belts because random rash on amazing washboard abs? Not my favorite. Bandaids on my wrist from reacting to my mostly plastic watch... also not my favorite. We all probably tried the nail polish trick, to no permanent avail. Then there was plated jewelry.
Why I don't like Plated Jewelry
Oh just step AWAY from the plated jewelry. It is a friend to no one. The thin layer of micron gold is pretty. No question there. But this is not the type of thing to last generations. If you have skin, you have a pH value that is typically on the just-acidic side of neutral. That's why we have pH balanced products on the market. So, when it comes to your skin and plated anything, that thin micron layer of gold is going to come off within a matter of days to a week depending on your skin type. It's not you. I mean, it is you. But, it's the process of electroplating gold whether it be 1 micron layer (thin) or 2.5 micron layers (oh, "So" thick). I tease because I was burned by thinking this would protect me once. You can have a good night out on the town though. But then, that's it. No more gold on that piece after that. It has lost any gold value it may have had, but for that matter, plated jewelry has never held onto its value. You can't melt a piece down and reclaim the gold from plated jewelry. Why? Because the layer of gold is such a thin micron layer that it essentially burns away. So, no valuable rescued gold for you. Do not spend that $800 on plated designer jewelry. But if you like the design, hey definitely. Definitely buy designs you adore. It’s just like buying artwork that speaks to you: you collect it if it holds value to you. You can even display it on a shelf!
Wearing 14k gold or higher
In the past, I didn't trust sterling silver and hadn't yet met or connected with metal melters who knew their alloys that they sold. Sterling silver is only 92.5% silver and we live in America. In America (2018), we have no safety standards in regards to nickel, a known irritant and toxin in the EU. So! Unless I'm working directly with the metal refiner, I tend to avoid silver. But, on top of having allergies to nickel, I also have a skin reaction that makes my skin turn black. That part isn’t an allergy. Just your standard skin reaction that washes away with soap and water. Basically, I tarnish unstable metals like silver or copper against my skin. It's awesome. I'm Clark Kent just hiding out.
I learned after a lot of testing and questioning that there was something I could wear that would make me feel proud of pieces that I really love to make. It was and still is 14k gold-filled hardware. To explain what it is in simple terms, it is this:
One sheet of 14k gold is heat bonded to a base metal, typically brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) and if you are forming a chain, the gold and base metal are rolled together, whereby the base metal is tucked in and the 14k gold sheet metal has formed a burrito skin on the outside. The amazing thing about this combination is that the 14k gold is stable and will not rub off because it’s not just 2.5 microns of particle gold. It will not dissolve, but it still requires the same care as 14k gold since gold is a softer metal alloy.
What if I'm allergic to gold?
That's a really great question and I always encourage folks to go get tested by an allergist. I could have thought the same thing at one point in my life, but I'm stubborn and I have a long background at really understanding my materials at this point in the allergy game. You could very well be allergic to the alloys in 10k, 14k, or 18k gold. So, you'll want to try out 24k gold, which is the purest form you can try and trust there are no alloys mixed in with it. For me? I actually discovered I'm allergic to copper and not just nickel. Ain't life grand!
Copper is actually alloyed in a lot of metals. Those fine, 14k rose-gold rings you love out there? It gets its rosy pink color from copper. It is still nice 14k gold because by law, it is still 14 parts gold of the 24k, so the rest is up to the metal refiner. Copper is also alloyed in sterling silver, and of course, brass -- which allows it to have that beautiful patina reaction on the metals I work with.
Allergic to Copper? Why I'm still working with it
The hippy in me still kind of thinks it could be good for blood flow and circulation. But the other thing is, I know how to mitigate my allergy when working with brass (alloy of copper and zinc). For my earrings, the brass metal never touches my skin. My studs are 14k gold-filled metal, and I make the earrings so that the 14k gold sheet is the part that touches my skin. The part facing out to the world (hello world!) gets the patina oxidation reaction. The posts and all of my ear wires are 14k gold-filled and I solder using 14k gold solder. All nickel free as well by EU standards. I always source my gold-filled materials where they are certified by EU standards. If they aren't, there's always a chance of nickel, and I just am a no-chance kind of gal.
So, that's probably enough for now. I realize this is a lot to absorb and I'm not writing my masters on this. I'm writing it because it's my life.
I'm not a typical jeweler that was trained in school. I have always been the one to question teachers and their background. I am not a face-value type of human. I'm the kind that asks questions and gets annoyed looks because a lot of folks including trained jewelers don't know these things because most actually specialize in different metals and don’t have this allergy problem. That makes sense. I get it. I'm just looking for a kindred spirit a lot of times when I ask a question to see what someone knows. You really should specialize in what you know! It's always cool with me. I definitely don't think anyone should pass on the wrong information if you don't actually know it as fact that you can't look up in a chemistry book. If you heard it around town, well, that stuff doesn't hold up in court, but the same goes for what you read in a blog. Look these things up for yourself. Check if your sources are reliable and I guess you'll probably just have to listen to your heart if you're really unsure in the end... and for me? There's always a nicer gold option [wiggles eyebrows].
And by the way, you could always try Titanium. 4% of the tested population will have an allergy, and maybe that's not you. Take that with a grain of salt... or sand. Did they test ten people? Was it 100? Exactly how many people were tested in this so called "tested population." This is basically why the rare few might find me every so pleasantly annoying!
If you're looking for fresh content regarding the topic of 14k gold and other metals, check out this blog post from Jan 2022.