What Is Poison In Chinese Costume Jewelry All About?

In recent years, news on costume jewelry made in China containing excessive amount of lead or cancerogenic cadmium has been omnipresent. Quite a few online campaigns have been initiated by consumers or certain organizations in USA and Canada, with the goal to ban Chinese jewelry, even all Chinese products. This article aims not to start a debate with these loving parents, whose children might be exposed to dangers hidden in the jewelry or toys. This is simply a fact sheet, stating how Chinese costume jewelry actually adds to the equation. 

There have been cases related to lead poisoning from Chinese toys, drywall, and costume jewelry, which received extensive media coverage, including reports from NBC, New York Times. Such reports stir immense fear towards Chinese products in general, while overlooking the fact that at least 10,000 Chinese suppliers.

So my first question is, has there ever been a Chinese jewelry supplier, having existed for years, that delicately exports contaminated products charged with lead/cadmium, while the authority turning a blind eye, or has it just been another conspiracy theory?

Let’s look into the matter on the following aspects:

1. Why would there potentially be cadmium in jewelry?

2. What harm would lead and cadmium do? And mostly to who?

3. Why is China the one and only culprit? Not India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and all the other developing countries?

4. How does ONE be ONE-HUNDRED-PERCENT SURE that the Chinese jewelry I own contains safe level of heavy metal? 


1. Why would there potentially be cadmium in jewelry?

> Large fashion and retail chains are after low cost and relatively high profits, with factors such as sky rocketing store rent and more expensive labor, they tend to exploit on their suppliers in other countries, especially China, driving one bargain after another, with the sole purpose of bringing the price tag down to the dirt. With that in mind, and the complication in Chinese supply chain landscape, it’s no wonder why there have been occasional incidents of heavy metal contamination in Chinese jewelry.

> You must have noticed that among all the western media coverage, costume jewelry as test subjects for lead and cadmium level are all sampled from stores like H & M, Zara, Forever 21, Claire, Icing and most frequently profit squeezer that has got its imperial claw tightly wrapped around the Chinese manufacturers.

> What those ‘whole new level of evil’ Chinese factories did was to promise Walmarts lead-free or cadmium-free shipments, mix them with a percentage of goods containing excessive level of lead/cadmium, in an attempt to live up with large importers’ cost expectation and stay in their miserable business - you should bear in mind that, being factory owners, nine out of ten of them know close to nothing about marketing their product online, let alone to a global audience. For them, there is no escape, which does not make a good excuse for their ‘whole new level of evil’ conduct nonetheless. 

> Meanwhile, reports on online stores based in China selling toxic jewelry hardly ever surface, for which the reason is quite obvious: without the pressure from stock keeping, advertising expense, distribution channels, importer exploitation, the e-commerce sector are at more liberty to focus more on safety for both employees and consumers, while price remains on the same level. My personal experience with China’s largest jewelry market - the Yiwu Mall explains a lot.

> Basically, when you shop online with reputable stores that have been around for a while, which can hardly be one-time scams, there should be little qualm with safety, be it costume jewelry or toys. the Yiwu Mall is the source of over half the Chinese costume jewelry, an increasing proportion of which has been offered in online stores such as lightinthebox.com. You have my word, none of them have turned up in western media reports related to lead or cadmium poisoning.

> Over 80,000 foreigners have now made home in the small city of Yiwu, most of whom are in import and export, so there’s no way the factories could ignore international safety standards.

2. What harm would lead and cadmium do? And mostly to whom?

> Fear of health risks within jewelry from China are chiefly instilled by tests conducted and reported by organizations including the Ecology Center .

The former took place in January, 2010. The samples were taken from Walmart and Claire’s. The main concern was the damages to young children’s health by ingesting cadmium in costume jewelry, which causes cancer and other problems. The chart below illustrates possible consequences of cadmium ingestion.

costume jewelry

> The latter was carried out in March, 2012, this time the focus was on lead, chromium and nickle. Over half (59%) of the products contained toxic chemicals. According to USA’s Consumer Product Safety Commission, lead level above 300 ppm is considered harmful to children. And 17 of those products failed to meet that standard. The samples came from more extensive sources than in 2010: fourteen shops including Walmart, H&M, Claire’s, Target, Forever 21.

> The Ecology Center made a list of all the samples on its website healthystuff.org. The list is exhaustive and the products are all from Chinese suppliers of large retail chains in the US. Lead poisoning as a major health concern has been well tracked and detail information can be found online, such as the graphic quoted here: 

led poisoning

> From both of the above reports and other related information, we can see that such investigation mainly served to protect the children from contaminated jewelry sold in retail chains, which are in desperate need of tighter restriction.

> Costume jewelry sellers from the the Yiwu Mall are under constant inspection once they open business online, both from the hosting website and online buyers, on the production floor and throughout online transaction. Lead-free or not, the difference is no longer a secret but rather transparent, shown by quoted prices, molding tools, electroplating equipments etc., and the jewelers are discouraged to lie about it.

3. Why is China the one and only culprit? Not India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and all the other developing countries?

> To start with, Walmart, Claire’s, Forever 21 and others are American companies, guided by the Protestant Ethic in business transactions. The reason why they went sourcing costume jewelry from Chinese factories in the first place is simple: China has the raw material, technology and cheap labor.

> The US retailers profit from sourcing in China, leaving very little to earn and even fewer options for their suppliers, quality and safety wise.

> When toxic metal was detected in the products, the media mostly blamed China for lack of regulation and the manufacturers for absence of morality. That is hardly fair, simply because Walmarts are the ones making the final decisions to put the toxic jewelry on their shelves, letting costumers and their children be exposed to hazards.

> Does Walmart honestly expect Chinese factories to invest in more stringent quality control with the little profit it leave them with? And does the US media seriously hold Chinese government responsible for the safety of all exported goods from our private businesses? Have they not got the statistics from their own research institutes? ( The chart below as an example)

jewelry trade

> On a different note, it is known that the interest groups in the US feel threatened upon reading charts like the one above. And campaigns such “Ban Made in China” have been going on for years. You may read, some might laugh, it all depends on your own perspectives. The Walmart toxic jewelry reports are exactly the perfect fuel those online activists have been seeking.

> The so called patriots mix up concepts of Buying American Provision decreeing the public spending with normal trading, and spare no effort in demonizing China and her entrepreneurs. As a native Chinese citizen, I would earnestly suggest a visit to our more organic factories, not those being squeezed dry by the retail chains. Free and fair trade is bilaterally or multilaterally achieved, and protectionism does nothing but harm to all players.

> The silver lining is, which all the online shoppers should be aware of, that the Chinese internet, at this stage of its incessant boom, is turning into one giant shopping mall, meaning that our manufacturers’ reliance on greedy monopolies home and abroad is fading by the day, if not by the hour.

China online marketChina online shopping

> Ask any of your friend who has lived in China or know someone who has, and they would most definitely share their interestingChrome already! ). Anything legal and non-toxic, of course. 

> So my second question, as blunt as it might sound, goes something like: the old money did evil, must the new comers be deprived of the chances to do good?   

4. How can ONE be ONE-HUNDRED-PERCENT SURE that the Chinese jewelry I own contains safe level of heavy metal? 

> customer experience, both before, during and after the purchase.

> Take costume jewelry for instance, apart from money escrow service such as the one offered at bridgat.com, jewelry sellers, in most cases being also the manufacturers, are closely monitored through order tracking, dispute processing mechanism as part of the B2C platform. When a dispute arises, sellers will have to upload visual evidence showing that their molding and electroplating technique meet major western health requirements. Here, standard is NOT voluntary. Time to say goodbye to the good old sweatshop scene, the e-age is the new age. 

> The regulation in China( see the linked pdf file, slide 28-35 ) regarding costume jewelry safety standard is in place, updated, enforced and synchronized with western counterparts (lead below 300 ppm, cadmium below 100 ppm), the major difference is that China regulates much more than the USA, and most of the tests in China are based on ISO or European standards. 

> However, if the above just fails to convince you, DIY testing at home is an alternative, and the internet would always be there to accommodate your needs for reassurance:

Lead Check

The Lead Detective

Lead Inspector

Easily Test for Hazardous Chemicals in Your Home

I hope so far this article has answered some of your questions. The next time you find yourself both attracted to and perplexed by a fine jewelry item online, ask the seller for the jewelry safety inspection certificate (GB 28480-2012), confirm with the hosting website about the protection on your money and package, and chances are you will find a trustworthy supplier for your private collection at great quality and unbeatable prices.