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Polymer Clay Jewelry Chemistry

This interview was inspired by my latest infatuation with my etsy shop. My inspiration for starting an ‘store’ on etsy was Inedible Jewelry. They are a polymer clay jewelry business in the lovely city of Charlottesville, making replicas of everyday foods with PVC. The ladies of Inedible Jewelry, Jessica and Susan Partain, are at our local farmer’s market every weekend selling their latest miniature creations.  Taking the opportunity to see their studio and learn more about the chemistry behind polymer clay, I set up an interview with Jessica Partain in her workshop (see picture to left).

I interrupted her in the middle of placing holiday orders, in her studio filled with doll-house sized desserts, drinks, fruits, vegetables, etc. The main material used to make these bit-sized creations is PVC.  I started the interview asking about the chemical concerns with PVC over the past decade. Jessica explained: “While the formulation of PVC itself has not changed, both of the polymer clays that I work with (97% Premo, 3% Sculpey, both manufactured by polyform products) were reformulated in 2008 to be phthalate-free and lead-free.” Phthalates, which are also endocrine disruptors, used to be a concern for the sculptors before the reform because baking the clay would release them, consequently allowing them to be  inhaled by the artist. Jessica also explained: The clay she uses is also ASTM certified, making the product safe. “They’ve run it past medical experts and biochemists looking specifically for potentially harmful interactions between the material and the artist.” This made me proud of my fellow medical experts and biochemists, doing good in the world.

Jessica and Susan have also always used a separate toaster in a well-ventilated room for their polymer baking, making creations such as the cupcake earrings to the right. They use a separate toaster to ensure that they would not combine their cooking with their polymer. One concern that still remains is when the clay is burnt, from baking for too long or from baking at too high a temperature – releasing toxic HCl gas.

As a loyal customer, I asked her: “What do you do with annoying customers like myself, who also ask all these difficult chemistry questions before a purchase.” She answered: “Well, you are one of two people asking me these questions in past 22 years; and the other person who asked did not have much basis for her questioning.” I felt like a major nerd at that moment – 8 years of intense science back ground can do that to you.

Although most customers do not ask about the chemistry behind polymer clay, many worry about the metals used in the jewelry. I then asked “Is this because they are worried about the toxic chemicals in metals?” That was strike two for Nerd Mana. The real reason is because many people are allergic to certain metals. To combat this problem, Inedible Jewelry uses 925 Sterling Silver for their necklaces.925 indicates the silver is 92.5% silver, and 7.5% copper. Jessica explained that the copper allows for 925 Sterling Silver to hold its shape because 100% silver is too malleable. All her metals are nickel free to avoid allergic reactions that lead to inflammation.

AGC loves the work of Inedible Jewelry and is impressed with their knowledge of chemistry and toxicology as it applies to their work. We all have a necklace with a polymer clay pendant. So far our collection includes: a peppermint, a gingerbread man, and a rainbow cake (mine!). The equally festive peach pies are pictures to the left where each miniature peach slice is crafted by hand.

 

Written by Mana Sassanpour