Going for Gold: Fair Trade and the Transformation of Jewelry

- August 3, 2012

"At present, fair trade gold is hardly available in North America..."

Though a wedding ring represents heartfelt values and commitment, the true cost of the gold in that ring is the introduction of 20 tons of mercury-laden sludge into the environment.  Today’s jewelry story is romance and beauty, but the gold that makes it up is a product of toxic, dirty, conflict-laden practices, sometimes even produced by children who pick it out of mercury-poisoned water.   

Gold, as a material for jewelry, represents one of the most potent examples of a split between what something represents symbolically and how it is sourced physically.  At present, a few progressive jewelry companies, including my own, have switched to recycled gold as a “sustainable” alternative.  Though buying recycled jewelry is a step forward, it does nothing to prevent gold mining.  Gold is highly valued as an investment.  Unlike other mined metals, it is also absolutely non-essential for our economic development.   Industry uses only twelve percent of our existing stock.  There’s already more than enough gold in jewelry or bank vaults, gathering dust.    

Gold cannot be fully considered outside its broader historical context.  Gold created entire movements that built and destroyed civilizations.  A few North American examples:  consider the legend of Eldorado, the Cities of Gold, or the San Francisco gold rush and the forty-niners.   Even today, mining giants wreak havoc on indigenous people, turning gold - a foundation of modern capitalism - into a resource curse.

Perhaps the attraction to gold and the reason why it is so often used for wedding rings is that gold as a metal has particular qualities that jewelers and lovers of jewelry feel.  I describe it as warmth and radiance. The alchemist’s attempt to transform lead into gold was also a metaphor for the transmutation of consciousness into its immutable perfect divine nature.  To them, gold represented spiritual essence, the holy light. 

As a jeweler concerned about environmental justice and human rights, I need a good reason to use the material from mined sources.  Fortunately, in February, 2011, fair trade gold was introduced to the market in England.  Small scale, fair trade gold mining has now become one of the most promising development initiatives available for impoverished small scale mining communities.  Over the next several years, this gold will transform how many people perceive and purchase jewelry. 

The Most Precious Gold in the World

Fair trade gold has an impact beyond recycling and sustainability.  It is based on a regenerative economic model through which we increase the impact of economic activity that rebuilds and uplifts local economies and restores ecosystems in developing world. 

Between15 and 20 million small-scale miners in the world support over ahundredd million people.  About 13 percent of the world’s gold production, an average of 330 tonnes per year, is supplied by several million of these miners living in impoverished communities.  These miners rely heavily on mercury, one of the most dangerous of all neurotoxins. 

Fair trade gold is sourced directly from small scale miners that adhere to strict environmental and labor standards.  Some fair trade gold is done without mercury, which is the goal.  However, even when mercury is used, it is captured in a closed loop system.   A premium on the metal goes back into the community, where it is usually used to create schools and clinics. 

Though small scale gold mining is terribly destructive to the environment and communities imagine the effect of a vibrant fair trade gold market in North America and around the world!  Hundreds of thousands of small scale miners would be supported in producing gold responsibly. Instead of a resource curse, gold would become a positive economic development initiative.

Once consumers start asking about gold, they will also want to know about gemstones, diamonds and other precious metals.   Fair trade gold will be a catalyst to raise consciousness around jewelry sourcing issues that will lay the groundwork for jewelry that will be traceable, transparent and ethical.  It is slightly more expensive than regular gold, but the extra cost is the real cost of ethical small scale gold mining—just as organically produced foods from a small farmer represents the real price of good food grown sustainably. 

At present, fair trade gold is hardly available in North America, because the auditing has not been put in place.  I am personally involved in planning the wide distribution of fair trade gold in the North American market.  As someone who buys jewelry,  you can make a difference.  Buy jewelry from jewelers who know and care about these issues.   Ask them where their gold comes from.  Any jeweler can used recycled metal. Or better yet, ask for fair trade gold.   

Marc Choyt is President of Reflective Images, an ethical jewelry company that selling unique designer wedding rings online and conflict free diamond  artisan wedding and engagement rings at Artisan Wedding Rings.  His company produces eco-friendly, recycled gold, platinum and palladium wedding rings and fair trade gold wedding and engagement rings and jewelry. Marc also a jeweler activist and Director of Fair Jewelry Action, USA, supporting green, fair trade, socially responsible jewelry practices.  He was recently honored by the Green Chamber of Commerce as one of New Mexico’s sustainable leaders of the year.