How Worn is Too Worn?

If you are a piercer, you've been in this situation before:
You perform a stellar piercing. The jewelry length is exactly right for the average client to have room for swelling, except, this isn’t the average client.  Before your very eyes the piercing swells and swells, until it's clear the piercing needs longer jewelry.

Of course, we know what we need to do in this situation: put in longer jewelry.  (I’m hoping I don’t need to write a blog post about that).  The question I want to answer is “What do we do with the piece of jewelry that was too short”?

Question: How worn is too worn?

Answer: Any worn.
Did I say worn too much? I'm just trying to warn you of the dangers! I've worn out my welcome, haven't I?

Body piercing is a difficult business.  The price of doing business has gone up tremendously in the last 20 years, but prices have remained the same or even gone down.  It is genuinely challenging to make a decent living as a piercer.  So when I tell you that you need to throw away a navel curve that a client wore for 5 minutes when you realize it’s slightly too small, you are inclined to disagree.

The argument against me usually goes like this, “Dude, I decontaminate it and re-sterilize it.  Relax”. 

And I get it.

Reprocessing techniques vary from shop to shop, but in most quality piercing studios in 2015, reprocessing looks like this: enzymatic soak -> ultrasonic cleaner (or instrument washer) -> sterilize.  This process results in tools that are, in my opinion, safe for reuse.  (That said, I prefer single use instruments and encourage my colleagues to consider single use alternatives to tool reprocessing, but I digress.)  The real issue here is that no reprocessing technology exists that is 100% effective at removing all matter.

There’s an important difference between tools and jewelry, though. Piercing tools will only come in contact with the client for a very short amount of time, and often don’t even touch the piercing channel at all.  Jewelry, on the other hand, remains in the client for very long periods of time. I want to point out that this comparison hadn’t occurred to me, and that it was my friend Christina Blossey from the Piercing Experience in Atlanta who illuminated the difference. Thanks Christina!  

Even if an enormous percentage of the previous wearers bioburden (let’s say 99.99%) is off the jewelry, the new wearer’s body has to contend with whatever is left (.01%!).  That’s still too much in my opinion. The final wearer shouldn’t have to contend with any kind of bioburden.  Their body will interact with whatever fraction of a percent of "stuff" that’s been left behind, and that shouldn’t happen.

(Want to scare yourself to death with information on Biofilm and Bioburden? Here’s some fuel for your nightmares:

And yes, Getinge, the company that produced this information, are selling a product.  Yes that should raise your skepticism. No, I don’t think they are wrong. Frankly, testing of your instruments to make sure your decontamination process has been effective is a great idea.)

So how do we deal with this issue?

Preventing Contamination

Letting clients “try on” jewelry should have been a thing of the past years ago.  There are still some shops that allow it to happen.  
They assume reprocessing the jewelry will be enough to prevent problems in the future.  If you are working at a shop that allows people to try on jewelry, that policy should change immediately.  Frankly, the safety risk isn’t worth the benefit, and there are lots of safe alternatives to trying jewelry on.

Safe alternatives include:
  • Putting jewelry in a plastic bag and allowing the client to hold the jewelry next to their piercing.
  • Taking photos of the jewelry (held by gloved hands) next to the piercing.
  • Using rubber lined tweezers to hold jewelry near the client’s piercing (be careful not to touch!)
  • Using cell phone apps to quickly do a mockup of the jewelry on the client’s body.

A portfolio featuring your most popular items in healed piercings is always a helpful sales tool.  I have never allowed clients to try on jewelry, and I have found that most appreciate that the jewelry has never been in anyone else but them.

Many of our customers don’t understand why trying on a pair of plugs, checking them out in a mirror, and then putting them back in the display is unsafe.  Keep in mind, people apply tester lipstick directly to their mouths all the time. They never consider how gross that is. They are far less likely to understand how jewelry can be contaminated by trying it on.
The average everyday person may not see the world the way we see it. (We are piercers: weirdos with tattooed black arms that see germs everywhere). Occasionally we need to save the public from themselves.  Anyone who works at the shop should know, for safety, service and for theft reasons, that jewelry should never be left with an unattended client.

Spending a little to save a lot

Perhaps one of my most popular items is a gold seam ring for a healed nostril piercing.  The problem is, what if I grab the wrong size?  The right fit can be elusive! A gold ring isn’t cheap for me, I don’t want to eat the cost because I grabbed the wrong size ring.

The solution I have come up with is this: if I am unsure of what size ring would be appropriate, and the client is buying a gold or platinum ring, I will put a steel or niobium ring in first to check the size.  If the client ended up not liking the size or style, they would only be charged for the steel or niobium ring.  If they like it, awesome!  The shop absorbs the cost of the ring as part of providing good service (and making a bigger sale).  This prevents the issue of contaminating more valuable items.

Clearly Explain Shop Policies

Anyone selling jewelry at a piercing studio should have a mantra they repeat to clients on every sale. “For safety reasons, all jewelry sales are final.  We can’t accept any jewelry returns”.  I like that to be on the receipt, and on signage in the shop.  Politely reinforcing this during the sale can be used as a way to build the shop’s reputation: “We put your safety first, we cannot risk selling jewelry that’s ever been worn or tried on.  So our return policy has to be very strict.  Let’s make sure you are really happy with this purchase before you leave”.

When it comes to big ticket items (several hundred to several thousand dollars), my goal is to prevent contamination at all costs.  My first step is to show the jewelry to the client, taking photos, and figuring out “will it look good and fit well”.  Yes, this usually takes some time.  I almost always use a steel ring first on things like septum clickers.  I want to make sure my client and I are on the same page in regards to size before I put in a valuable piece of jewelry.  If it prevents a problem, this is time extremely well spent.
Next, I thoroughly explain the shop’s return policy: “If we put this in, and you decide you don’t like it or it’s the wrong size, I will happily give you a discount on another piece  I want you to leave very happy.  That said: once you have worn this, I will have to charge you full price for it no matter what”.  

If the client doesn’t understand, I use the analogy of a steak dinner. Putting in the jewelry isn’t cutting into a steak ordered blue rare and figuring out it’s well done.  Putting the jewelry in your piercing is the equivalent of eating the whole steak.  Once this is clear, the client isn’t likely to to argue with shop policies after the fact.  The time to send the steak back is before it’s eaten, not after.

Marking jewelry out of stock

Remember the example I gave to begin this blog entry?  None of our strategies can account for this situation.  The client’s piercing has swollen immediately, needs longer jewelry, and the shop can’t hold the client accountable for something they had no control over.  This jewelry needs to be thrown away and the shop needs to eat the cost, right?

Well, yes and no.  Truth be told, the client will almost certainly need this jewelry size in the future when the piercings goes from very swollen back to normal.  In this instance, I usually give the client the longer piece for free, and give them the original piece to bring back.  This is excellent customer service and pays dividends in developing customer relationships in your community.  The customer knows you will respond to situations that happen outside of anyone’s control professionally and responsibly.  That is worth the cost of the jewelry.

You can also mark this jewelry out of stock as damaged in the day to day course of business.  Damaged product happens to every business. This is part of your business’s “shrinkage”, and your accountant can work with you on how to properly document these damaged items.  Local laws may vary, so please discuss this with financial and/or legal professionals.

This is an uncomfortable topic for a lot of piercers.  We really don’t like the idea of losing the money we’ve invested in our jewelry stock to things outside our control, or misjudging a barbell length by 1/32 of an inch.  That said, with a little bit of work, planning, and education for us and our clients, we can ensure all the jewelry we provide is as safe as possible.

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How Worn is Too Worn? by Jef Saunders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.