By  on August 27, 2007

The accessories industry has a lead problem — which could get it caught up in the furor over China and product safety.

Major brands and retailers from Liz Claiborne to Limited Too produce jewelry in China, and fashion jewelry historically has used lead. The problem the industry now faces is how to bring standardization to regulation of lead levels, which currently is done state by state, to avoid a controversy like the one that has engulfed Mattel as a result of the lead levels in its toys made in China.

According to Mike Gale, executive director of the Jewelry Fashion Trade Association, the industry is in a panic over the issue, especially given the recent media uproar over China and lead. The JFTA is pushing for one national regulation for lead levels in jewelry.

"We're all walking on Jell-O, not sure what to do," said Gale. "If a large organization has regional or national distribution, they want to be compliant and meet the law. But how do you order your goods? How do you specify what's going to Illinois, a state that requires a 5-inch-by- 5-inch warning? You can't tell your manufacturers, 'I'm ordering 10,000 pieces, send 500 with a label.' It's an impossible situation."

Leslie Sunshine, a JFTA member and president of fashion jewelry line Hey Doll, has felt the lead pressure dramatically in the last few weeks.

"This is alarming," said Sunshine. "Our world has been turned upside down and backward. Manufacturers overseas are going out of business. If a retailer is sued by the CEH [California's Center for Environmental Health], then the retailer turns around and sues the manufacturer."

Sunshine's brand has always complied with lead laws, but she admits that even by getting in line and testing every component, it's an impossible guarantee.

"Two labs can get two different results, so there's a lot of discrepancy," said Sunshine. "The hardest part is that the factories are not 100 percent lead free. If workers run out of a lobster claw or a ring, maybe they'll pick one up off the floor. It's virtually impossible right now for everyone to be 100 percent lead free because the facilities aren't."Sunshine has also had to adjust to tougher and even on-the-spot lead testing on behalf of her retailers.

"A lot of orders are canceled or not making their deliveries," said Sunshine. "We're finding out in the 11th hour that something didn't pass lead tests and to switch out the component, so it takes more time and the delivery slides."

Whereas jewelry brands expect the government to take action, retailers are increasingly looking for their vendors to be more vigilant.

"Our first line of defense in accessories is to rely on our vendors and make sure their factories are in compliance with known regulations," said Robert Atkinson, vice president of investor relations for Limited Too. "We have first cause of action against vendors, and we make sure we would be made whole for what it costs to buy inventory. These suppliers don't want financial liability. By hitting them in the pocketbook, they'll become more diligent in watching over their factories."

But that isn't always enough. Limited Too suffered its own recall of 103,000 children's jewelry units last May due to high lead levels.

A spokeswoman for Limited Stores stressed that monitoring lead is more a collaboration between the brand and its vendors. "We've been working with our partners in making sure the jewelry meets the U.S. guidelines," she said. "We partner with our vendors but we have them commit that they'll adhere to standards and partner with factories that also meet these same levels."

At a hearing last Wednesday at its Bethesda, Md., headquarters, the Consumer Product Safety Commission played host to members of the JFTA. The latter organization is proposing a federal regulation stating that lead make up no more than 10 percent of a piece of jewelry's total weight, with a further reduction to 6 percent at a future date.

Currently, there exists only statewide standards monitoring legal levels of lead in adult jewelry. For children's jewelry, the CPSC has a national recommendation of 0.06 percent.

The JFTA, which represents jewelry brands such as Liz Claiborne and Miriam Haskell, modeled the proposed national regulation after the one it developed with the Center for Environmental Health in 2006. Two years earlier, the CEH sued a long list of retailers for breaking California's Proposition 65 law by selling jewelry with dangerous amounts of lead. The JFTA met with the CEH to collaborate on standards.Proposition 65 has been in effect since 1986 to promote clean drinking water and keep toxic substances that cause cancer and birth defects out of consumer products.

"We thought we had it figured out and under control, but it's gone crazy," said Stephan Ruben, a JFTA member and president of Stephan & Co., a fashion jewelry brand. "CEH came up with an agreement that made sense. Then 10 or 11 other states began writing their own laws. We did a great job of coming to the settlement in California and it's working well. But every time we conquer one state, another pops up."

According to Gale, he has been talking to Congress for years about lead, trying to get a national regulation on the table.

"This issue with jewelry has been going on for a long time and because of one death, which was in some way possibly related to lead, a great many states are now concerned," said Gale. "The market is in an uproar....It's impossible to make any product lead free, it's in the air we breathe."

The JFTA has sent packages to the Hong Kong Trade Commission and to the Mainland Chinese government asking both American and Chinese governments to help create national laws and to assign inspectors to the factories to make sure they're in compliance.

According to the JFTA, it has had little assistance.

"Ninety-eight percent of the entire industry is sitting back and letting a very small group carry all this burden of accumulating evidence, putting out fires, paying lobbyists and scientists," said Gale. "The government serves a purpose and we'd like them to step up and come up with standards."

At the retail level, fashion jewelry brands from top to bottom are feeling the heat. It's their job to keep a watchful eye on their manufacturers and assure retailers of controlled lead levels, which can be an expensive and timely procedure and one that can't always ensure consistent results.

"This has affected our industry tremendously," said Ruben. "Our costs have changed dramatically. The type of materials needed to manufacture without lead will bring the cost of raw materials up 15 to 30 percent. In theory, you can't start production until you have every component tested. A product has 30 components. If 28 are great and two don't pass, the item doesn't pass."Brad Frey, president at showroom DP Accessories, has had to add lead testing to his yearly budget and even hire specific employees to handle it.

Liz Claiborne centers its guidelines on CEH standards, but perhaps due to its deep pockets and large staff, the brand hasn't experienced any negative side effects from multiple state regulations.

"We have set up different regulations in Canada and Europe but we don't look on a state-by-state basis," said Nick Rubino, vice president, general counsel/corporate secretary at Claiborne. "And if you need to move to materials with lower contents of lead, you plan appropriately with suppliers. I haven't heard any issues on increased testing or timing. We do what we need to do."

The firm's Juicy Couture label had a children's jewelry recall of 2,800 units in May 2006 due to high lead levels.

While both retailers and jewelry companies are doing their best to monitor product safety, some say this is only the beginning of a lead issue that will likely take a different shape in years to come.

"This thing affecting fashion jewelry will go into the handbag and belt industries, too," said Ruben. "It will affect anyone using metal, PVC, plastics, paint and pigments containing lead. It's a bigger problem than anyone's willing to look at."

According to Frey, he has had his brands expand their testing to all accessories.

"Recently we found we were only focusing on jewelry," said Frey. "It's moving toward anything with metal, like a handbag — anything silver or plated. We have to test every category."

Down the line, the JFTA's work could set the precedent for future lead regulations. As for any results from Wednesday's CPSC hearing, only time will tell, although Gale is optimistic.

"The hearing went well," said Gale. "The CPSC had 25 to 30 people listening to the problems our industry is having with the multiplicity of state regulations. I look forward to working with them on this."

A CPSC spokeswoman said, "We have been getting information from a group of organizations, including the JFTA. It's a long process and the expectation is that it will be finalized sometime next year."

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