Jewellery manufacturing can include working with a variety of materials, such as precious and semi-precious stones, synthetic stones, shells, coral, pearls, precious metals, metal enamels and newer materials such as epoxy resins and vinyl polymers. These can be used to make rings, earrings, necklaces, pendants and a variety of other personal decorative items. Jewellery manufacturing shops vary in size, and different manufacturing processes may be adopted. Thus, health hazards may vary from one workshop to another.
Processes, Hazards and Precautions
Precious stones and settings
Much jewellery manufacturing involves the setting of precious stones into bases of precious metals or alloys of precious metals. Stones are initially cut into desired sizes, then polished. Base metals are cast, then ground and polished. Traditionally, the metal settings were made using “injection” mouldings. Alloys of low melting point, including alloys of cadmium and mercury, have also been used for metal casting. Recently, “lost wax” methods have been used to achieve a better quality of casting. Stones are held on metal bases using adhesives, soldering or mechanical clamping by parts of the metal frame. Metal bases are usually plated with precious metals.
Health hazards may result from exposure to metal fumes, wax fumes or dust of stones and metals, and visual impairment from poor lighting. Working with fine parts of jewellery items generally requires proper ventilation, adequate illumination and the use of magnifying lenses. In addition, proper ergonomic design in the workplace is recommended.
Stone cutting and polishing
Precious, semi-precious and synthetic stones (including diamond, jade, ruby, garnet, jasper, agate, travertine, opal, turquoise and amethyst) are usually cut to the desired size with small saws before setting. Injury hazards include abrasions and lacerations of the skin or eyes; other health hazards include dust inhalation (e.g., silicosis from quartz stones).
Precautions include proper ventilation, dust collectors, using magnifying lenses, local illumination, eye protection and ergonomic design of tools and working environments.
Lost wax metal casting
Rubber or silicon moulds are made from original moulds that are custom-made or designed by artists. Wax is subsequently injected into these moulds. Moulds (called investments) of plaster of Paris and/or silica are made to enclose these wax moulds. The whole investment is then heated in the kiln or oven to drain the wax out of the block, then filled with molten metal with the aid of centrifugation. The mould is shattered to recover the metal piece. This is polished, and also may be electroplated with a thin layer of precious metal.
Precious metals and their alloys, including gold, silver, platinum and copper as well as zinc and tin, are commonly used in constructing metal pieces. Injury hazards include fire or explosion from flammable gas used for melting metals, and burns from heated plaster casts or blocks, molten metal spillage, oxyacetylene torches or ovens; other health hazards include inhalation of metal fumes or dusts of silver, gold, zinc, lead, tin and so on.
Precautions include using alternative casting methods to lower the level of exposures and toxicity, proper local exhaust ventilation for metal dust and fumes, dust collectors, personal protective equipment including goggles, insulating gloves and working gowns, and proper storage of flammable gas.
Enamelling involves the fusion of pre-ground, powdered lead or borosilicate glass particles mixed with various coloured oxides onto a base metal to form an enamelled surface. Base metals can include silver, gold or copper. Common colourants include antimony, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, manganese, nickel and uranium.
The metal surface must first be cleaned with a torch or in a kiln to burn off oils and grease; it is then pickled with dilute nitric or sulphuric acid, or the safer sodium bisulphate, to remove firescale. Hazards include thermal and acid burns. Precautions include protective gloves, goggles and apron.
Some enamellists grind and sift their enamels to obtain desired particle sizes. Application techniques include brushing, spraying, stencilling and sifting or wet packing of the enamel onto the metal surface. Inhalation of enamel powder or spray mist is the greatest hazard, particularly with lead-based enamels. Precautions include use of lead-free enamels and respiratory protection. In cloisonné, different enamel colours are separated by metal wires that have been soldered onto the metal. (See the discussion on silver soldering below). In champleve, designs are etched with ferric chloride or nitric acid, and depressed areas filled with enamels. Another technique involves applying enamels mixed with resin in turpentine. Ventilation and precautions to prevent skin contact are required.
The enamelled metal is then fired in a small kiln. Ventilation is required to remove toxic metal fumes, fluorides and decomposition products (from gums and other organic materials in the enamel). Other hazards include thermal burns and infrared radiation. Infrared goggles and heat-protective gloves are recommended.
The enamel piece can then be finished by such methods as filing the edges and grinding and sanding the enamelled surface. Standard precautions against dust inhalation and eye contact are needed.
Metal jewellery can be made by cutting, bending and otherwise fabricating metals, electroplating, anodizing, soldering, gluing, finishing and so on. Many of these processes are discussed in “Metalworking”. Some specific applications are discussed below.
Gold, silver, copper and strong acid as well as cyanide are used in the electroplating process. Injury hazards include electrical shock and burns from acid or alkali spillage; other health hazards include the inhalation of metal, acid and cyanide mist, organic solvents, as well as hydrogen cyanide gas.
Precautions include substitution of non-cyanide plating solutions, avoidance of mixing cyanide solution with acids, local exhaust ventilation, using a tank cover to reduce mist production, proper storage of chemicals, electrical precautions and adequate personal protective equipment.
Soldering or gluing
Soldering involves metals such as tin, lead, antimony, silver, cadmium, zinc and bismuth. Safety hazards include burns; other health hazards include the inhalation of metal fumes, including lead and cadmium (Baker et al. 1979), and fluoride and acid fluxes.
Using epoxy resin and quick-drying agents with solvents to bind stones and metal pieces is a common practice. Injury hazards from gluing include fire and explosion; other health hazards include the inhalation of solvents and skin contact with epoxy resin, other adhesives and solvents.
Precautions include avoidance of lead and cadmium solders, adequate local exhaust ventilation, proper storage of chemicals, adequate illumination and personal protective equipment.
Metal grinding and polishing
Rotating wheels and linear actuators of varied sizes are used for grinding, polishing and cutting. Injury hazards include skin abrasions; other health hazards include the inhalation of metal dusts, as well as repetitive motion, vibration, awkward position and forces.
Precautions include adequate local exhaust ventilation, dust collectors, goggles for eye protection and ergonomic designs for workplaces and tools.
Mother-of-pearl (from oyster shells) and coral, as well as abalone and other shells, can be made into jewellery by cutting, drilling, sawing, shaving, grinding, polishing, finishing and so on. Hazards include hand and eye injuries from flying particles and sharp edges, respiratory irritation and allergic reactions from inhalation of fine shell dust, and, in the case of mother-of-pearl, possible hypersensitivity pneumonia and ossification with inflammation of tissues covering the bones, especially in young people.
Precautions include cleaning shells thoroughly to remove organic matter, wet grinding and polishing techniques, and local exhaust ventilation or respiratory protection. Goggles should be worn to prevent eye injury.
Beads can be made from a variety of materials, including glass, plastic, seed, bone, shells, pearls, gemstones and so on. A newer material used for beads and other jewellery is heat-cured polyvinyl chloride (polymer clays). Hazards include inhalation of dust from drilling the holes for the string or wire used to hold the beads, and possible eye injuries. Precautions include wet drilling, ventilation or respiratory protection and goggles. The polymer clays can release hydrogen chloride, a respiratory irritant, if heated above recommended temperatures. Using cooking ovens for heat curing is not recommended. There has also been concern about plasticizers such as diethylhexyl phthalate, a possible carcinogen and reproductive toxin, present in these polymer clays.