Saturday, February 22, 2014

Metal Allergies and You

"Slipstream" earrings with nonallergenic niobium hooks - available at

Metal "allergies" are common.  I get a lot of customers who say "I can only wear sterling/14k gold/whatever."  Usually, they are talking about earrings, because people react far more often to earring metals than other types of jewelry.  Apparently this is because there is no air flow inside the hole where an earring post/hook goes.  However, there are people who react to things you wouldn't think about, like the back of a watch, or the back of the snap on their jeans.

Allergic contact dermatitis can occur to all sorts of substances, but nickel in costume jewelry is a pretty common one.  If you're not sure what you're reacting to, you can have a dermatologist test you to find out what the exact culprits are, but for most people, it's enough to just avoid cheap jewelry, or make sure you know what is in your jewelry.   Contact dermatitis can cause symptoms including itching, rash, redness, irritation, blisters and eczema.

The problem is that "surgical steel" comes in several grades and some of them contain nickel, so whether it says "hypoallergenic" or not, you may or may not be safe.  Sterling silver, also an alloy, can also contain small amounts of nickel, so unless it says nickel-free silver, if you have severe reactions, avoid it.   Even white gold can contain nickel unless labeled "palladium white gold."

Best answer?  Niobium and titanium.  Both of these are elemental metals (Nb & Ti on the periodic chart).  While gold and silver are also elements, both are too soft for most jewelry applications, and definitely too soft for earring posts or wires, so they are mixed with other metals to create an alloy.  That's where your nickel sneaks in, especially in cheaper jewelry but sometimes even in more expensive jewelry.

Niobium and titanium are much stronger and they make fantastic hooks and posts.  Personally, I didn't realize I had any metal sensitivity at all until I wore niobium and realized how much more comfortable they were for me.  Be aware that items marked titanium CAN be an alloy, so you are safer with niobium, which is almost always a pure metal.

Niobium bracelet options available at, or contact for custom designs

Even better, they both can be anodized in a rainbow of colors.  I use niobium in shades of copper and bronze (they contain no acutal copper or bronze) for earrings made of copper; most "copper" ear wires are also cheap alloys. 

Here's a little more about my favorite metal, niobium.
  • Anodizes in iridescent colors I can't quite capture on film; my supplier even has a  rainbow ring where each ring has multiple iridescent colors on it, creating an "oil slick" effect when woven into chainmaille patterns.
  • It's commonly used in body jewelry and also in pacemaker parts, since very few people react to it.
  • It's nearly as strong as steel but half the weight, so it's very comfortable to wear in an ear or elsewhere.
  • Anodized niobium is easy care and doesn't tarnish, although the finish can scratch if you're rough on it.
It's awesome stuff!  If you've got severe metal sensitivities please make sure to let me know when ordering jewelry; I do use steel clasps, sterling accents and head pins to hold beads that are made from other metals, but if you react I'll make sure all of it is nonallergenic.
Most of my niobium earrings are made with hooks, and chainmaille designs, so they tend to be dangly.  If you're a post kind of girl (or guy), I recommend that you drop by Wear Earrings Again; Maggie has lots of designs, and starter earrings, that are made of high-grade titanium and pure niobium, which she also guarantees.

Finally, I guarantee my work.  If you have a reaction to a pair of earrings with niobium hooks I will gladly refund your money.  If you have a pair of earrings that I made with surgical steel hooks, I will upgrade them to niobium for you for $3 plus shipping.  Just send an email.  My plan this year is to shift to all-niobium hooks, so all of my earring customers can experience the comfort and ease of wear and care.