Its time to recycle gold.
Nearly all the gold in our jewellery is recycled. This is why.
Have you ever asked yourself about the gold in your jewellery? Where does it come from ?
That image : The wily old miner, who’s struck lucky and found exactly the right spot on a remote Californian stream, looks for gold and finds egg sized nuggets that change his life for ever. Our view of gold mining from popular culture. Except this picture couldn’t be farther from the reality of mining today.
Gold mining is environmentally devastating. Swathes of land are destroyed by digging and mining , then more land is poisoned by the chemicals and processes used to purify the gold.
To extract 5 grams of new gold up to 10 tonnes of ore is mined. Gold is dug out of the ground on an industrial scale in huge open cast mines, using giant cutting and haulage machinery, massive quantities of fuel, chemicals and vast amounts of water.
A useful snippet from Provident Metals describes the processes involved in opening and closing a mine
First, gold deposits are discovered, explored, and found to be mineable.
More intensive studies of the terrain take place, such as geochemical analysis and exploratory drilling. This may require an exploration license from local authorities.
Once the size and location of the gold reserve has been estimated, the mining company must ensure it meets environmental and other regulations before pressing forward.
The mining company must establish the site, which may include clearing the area, constructing roads and buildings, and bringing in mining equipment.
Gold ore can then be physically extracted from the ground.
Once the mine is tapped out, the mining company may be required (depending on the location) to restore and rehabilitate the site to pre-mining conditions, within reason.
Mining companies may be required to monitor the ecology of the site after restoration.
After authorities determine that the site has been successfully returned to a natural state, the mining company may relinquish its lease, and therefore its liability, for the area.
The cost of mining and extracting a gram of gold is about £35.00 ( per ounce $1000, £769, €889 ) but this doesn’t take into consideration the cost to life or the environment. Mining is the act of digging the gold in its matrix out of the ground and extraction is removing the matrix and minerals to purify the gold.
The image above was taken by Sabastiao Salgado, deep in the Amazon Rainforest in the 1980s, though this image looks as if it was taken in the 1880s . The images Salgado took of the Sierra Pelada mines and the working conditions of the miners flashed around the world in the 80s. It was a modern day gold rush. The images helped to raise awareness of the conditions miners were working in and played a part in the modernisation of regulated mining.
Regulated modern mines are much safer than in previous decades but there are thousands of artisanal mines operating around the globe. They are often illegal and unregulated. With little regard to safety, workers are in danger from mine collapses, poisoning, punishing working conditions, poverty wages and crime.
Around the artisan gold mines, mercury and cyanide are used to extract the gold from the minerals that bind it. These chemicals are poisonous to the environment and are a threat to life. The chemicals are handled without regard for nature or the safety of the miners. Mining practices during the great American gold rush are comparable with many artisanal mines today. In the mines of the Sierra Nevada, California ( 1848 -1884 ) cyanide and mercury were used in the extraction of gold. Water used during the processing of the ore came from local water systems. The rivers and streams in the area captured the toxic chemicals which then travelled down the water courses 250 miles to San Fransisco Bay, where the runoff from the tailings ( contaminated water ) ultimately ended. The Bay is still contaminated and the ecosystem is still recovering from damage over a hundred and thirty years after mining ceased.
After the ore has been extracted and purified to 999.99% gold it is made into a carat ( 9ct , 14ct , 18ct , 22ct ) alloy for use in jewellery. A metal alloy is usually made of a mixture of metals. Copper, silver or palladium are added to create different coloured gold alloys. This is done by melting the metals together in predetermined proportions.
The precious metals journey from mine to customer hasn’t finished here. It may be at a refiners or bullion dealer anywhere on the planet. Its is a commodity that is traded globally. Its energy cost continues to grow as it arrives at the jewellers atelier and is made into a jewel and eventually ends up in the hands of the customer.
There is another way
Gold, and its alloys, like many metals, is easy to recycle. An uncontaminated piece of gold can be melted into an ingot and re used immediately without any further refining. It is unchanged by the heat used to melt it and retains the original qualities of the alloy so this can be done ad infinitum. Much of the gold used in jewellery is recycled and has been many times. The gold in your jewellery may have been mined hundreds of years ago and been refined and recycled into different alloys and pieces of jewellery. I often work with clients old gold jewellery and refashion it, sometimes changing the alloy to achieve a different colour gold for the project. The gold I buy from my bullion dealer is 100% recycled.
Recycling gold saves the environment and energy, its uses a tiny fraction of the energy needed to mine and extract new gold.
Recycling is usually a local action, jewellers often undertaking recycling in their own studios and workshops. 18ct gold ie from an old piece of jewellery, the cost, a few pence worth of propane gas. Its a local action so the carbon footprint is tiny. The gold can be melted and recast in the jewellers atelier or melted into an ingot ready to be made into sheets and wires. The advantages are so numerous its seems insanely costly to planet and pocket to mine new gold. There is so much gold above ground waiting to be recycled, in jewellery and in electronics.
Refining recycled gold that has been contaminated with other materials is also much cheaper than mining new gold, even if it is mixed with different metals or other materials like the plastics in your phone. Gold is used widely in industry as well as decoratively. There are small amounts of gold in many electronic goods, including phones. ‘Mining’ the gold from electrical goods is a new source of recycled gold and though more expensive to extract than the recycling done in the jewellers studio its still more economic and better for the planet than digging up virgin rainforest.
So, when you are considering buying jewellery, think about what you already have. In the bottom of the jewellery box there might be an old jewel, broken, that you could have remade by a craftsman. By using the skills of a jeweller to refashion gold you will also be helping to keep alive the craft of goldsmithing as well as helping to protect our planets precious resources.