Itching for Relief

Nickel dermatitis, an allergic reaction to nickel, is the most common form of contact dermatitis in the United States, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, Schaumburg, Ill. And unfortunately for jewelers, nickel has been a common component in some alloys of white gold, in yellow gold of less than 14k, and in costume jewelry. The use of nickel in fine jewelry has been banned in Europe, and while it’s still available here, North America is likely to soon follow suit, says Canadian master goldsmith and author Charles Lewton-Brain.

Customers experiencing redness, blistering, or dry or itchy patches on their skin after wearing certain pieces of jewelry may return to your store complaining that “impure” metals caused the reaction. In reality, they might be allergic to what they bought, especially if the pieces possess high concentrations of nickel, or if the wearer has allowed cosmetics or lotions to build up on the jewelry. In any case, you should immediately direct them to a dermatologist to have the symptoms evaluated.

These types of allergies to metals are fairly common: Nearly 9 million cases of contact dermatitis are reported annually in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, Washington, D.C. And nickel isn’t the only culprit—other metals, including gold, can produce skin problems in consumers, even after years of wear. Understanding your customers’ complaints will enable you to help them choose comfortable jewelry.

From soot to scales. Black “smudge”—a black residue from jewelry—is known to the medical community as “black dermographism.” Any precious metal (except 24k gold or platinum) can cause it, but Ken Babayan, a fabricating supervisor at David H. Fell Co. in Commerce, Calif., who supplies jewelers with raw precious metal materials, says it’s not that common. Typically, higher karatages of gold (except 24k) will produce more residue on the skin, which means that jewelers in higher-income areas are more likely to hear about cases than jewelers in lower-income areas. David Stein, a physician’s assistant from Norristown, Pa., whose practice has a primarily blue-collar patient base, rarely sees cases of black smudge, but when he practiced in an affluent section of the Philadelphia area, he saw more cases of the affliction.

Smudge occurs when metals in contact with cosmetics or lotions act like sandpaper, oxidizing and breaking down the jewelry’s surface, resulting in a trail of black powder. Salty snacks or sweat (which contains sulfur) or even coastal weather conditions (i.e., high humidity) can cause the same breakdown effects—most commonly in low-karat gold and sterling silver. Luckily, preventing it isn’t hard—jewelers and dermatologists recommend washing jewelry frequently and keeping areas of the skin that touch jewelry free of cosmetics and lotions.

A nickel allergy produces itchy, dry, or blistered skin. Wearing jewelry that’s made of nickel or that contains high concentrations of nickel—such as white gold that isn’t made with palladium, or yellow gold that’s less than 14k—can produce the symptoms if the nickel is exposed, so if a customer comes in with these symptoms, advise him or her to consult a dermatologist to be sure nickel is the culprit. To help avoid the problem in the first place, be sure you know what alloy was used in the white gold products you carry.

One solution for consumers is to have the undersides of nickel pieces—such as ring interiors—plated with rhodium, high-karat yellow gold, titanium, tungsten carbide, or stainless steel. A less expensive alternative, say jewelers and dermatologists, is to frequently coat nickel surfaces with clear nail polish. Ken Flood, co-owner of Keweenaw Gem and Gift in Houghton, Mich., says the copper pieces he sells are coated with a clear acrylic substance to help prevent the nickel content from irritating those allergic to the metal.

Jewelers can suggest that allergy-prone customers upgrade to 18k gold or higher (if there’s no problem with black smudge) or to platinum, which is hypoallergenic, according to Platinum Guild International USA, Newport Beach, Calif. Men who are allergic to the nickel in their wristwatches can buy a band in karat gold or stainless steel, or a two-tone piece of stainless steel with a karat-gold sleeve. “Nine times out of 10, the fellow who buys a 14k or 18k gold watch won’t experience the allergy again,” says Doug Van Dyke, owner, E. R. Sawyer, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Three, two, one … contact! Contact dermatitis, which has similar but usually less severe symptoms than nickel dermatitis, occurs when the wearer lets soaps, lotions, and detergents build up on jewelry. (Again, consult a dermatologist to be certain.) Such cases can usually be cured by washing jewelry frequently and keeping affected areas of the skin free of excess cosmetics and lotions.

Victor Newcomer, M.D., a clinical professor of medicine and dermatology at the University of California at Los Angeles, sees cases of material build-up under jewelry—especially wedding bands—several times a year. “Rashes occur because moisture and dirt collect under the ring,” says Newcomer. “People must remember to wash hands and rings.”

Not all adverse reactions can be blamed on the jewelry, however. One 80-year-old client of Van Dyke’s came to him with her ring finger so swollen that the jeweler had to cut off her platinum filigree-style wedding band/engagement ring combination. It turns out the woman had been canning tomatoes the previous week. “She had a little green sprout underneath her ring,” says Van Dyke. “Apparently, those seeds have quite an energy release when they sprout.”