Seeing molten gold is a very special experience. It shimmers and dances much as you might expect the surface of the sun would. Gold is truly an amazing material. Humankind has used gold as the definition of wealth and status for thousands of years. It has brought joy and power and been a symbol of love to many people. As a jeweler, I have had the pleasure of working with gold for many years. This beautiful metal can be molded, formed, alloyed with other metals to make different colors, and decorated with gemstones or other textures to produce all kinds of wonderful jewelry and other objects. In our culture and almost universally throughout history, gold has been one of the most prized of human possessions.
But the desire to acquire gold has also been the cause of much suffering, oppression and warfare. Up to our present day, there are places in the world where the desire to acquire gold, and the wealth and power that go with it, are resulting in terrible violence. A recent “60 Minutes” program told the story of what is now happening in the Congo. This African country has seen many years of ongoing civil wars that have resulted in over five million people being killed. Right now there are rebel leaders who are harvesting the country’s gold resources, often with forced labor, to finance their wars and violence. This is the same kind of thing that has happened repeatedly throughout human history.
At the same time, we also have become increasingly aware of the environmental impact of gold mining. The process of mining often involves harmful materials, particularly mercury, which leaves lasting devastation in the region that is being mined. The mines are usually in remote areas where the affected people are indigenous tribes who have little power or voice. The mining companies are mostly large international corporations who have little interest in the mining area other than the profit they draw from it. One current example is happening in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska. Mining companies led by the Anglo American Co. are preparing to begin the Pebble Mine, which would become the largest open-pit mine in North America. This mine is expected to draw gold as well as other metals from the area. The fear is that the pollution runoff from the mining operation will do damage to Bristol Bay, which is a pristine fishery area for salmon and many other species. The major part of the fishing there is done by indigenous subsistence fisherman. Opposition to the Pebble Mine has been growing. Anglo American has made promises to minimize the environmental impact, but their track record at operations in other parts of the world has not been good. The story that is unfolding at Bristol Bay is being repeated at many places around the globe.
As more people become aware of the environmental and human rights issues associated with gold, many are choosing to avoid it. The attractiveness of a beautiful necklace is certainly tarnished if human suffering and harming the environment were the result of getting that gold to you. And on top of this, the price of gold is at an all-time high. During the past year, the gold price passed $1,000 per ounce for the first time and is flirting with the $1,200 per ounce range as I write this. This dramatic rise in price is not due to a shortage of gold. The reserves of gold are also at an all-time high. Gold has become a major player in worldwide investment speculation. The price of gold is much more affected by the value of the U.S. dollar in relation to other currencies and the price of crude oil than it is by the demand for gold in jewelry or in industrial uses. Speculators all over the world are following the price of gold minute by minute, buying and selling as its value goes up and down (but mostly up). Most of these people will never hold their gold in their hands or appreciate its beauty in a piece of jewelry. Of course, as the price of gold rises, its attractiveness to warlords who mine it to finance violent oppression, or to corporations who mine it while devastating remote areas, increases as well. The vicious circle continues.
I am a jeweler who earns my livelihood working with gold as well, as a person who loves it for its intrinsic beauty. The scenario of much higher prices, as well as the taint of environmental and human rights abuses associated with the mining operations, make for a pretty bleak picture for gold in our present day. It is not hard to understand why many people are now choosing to not buy or wear gold jewelry.
Fortunately, there are now some responses available by which concerned people can begin to turn this around. The power of the customer is the key. A number of groups have been pressuring the mining companies to take a more responsible approach to their work. The most effective part of this effort has been in getting retail jewelers to commit to using only manufacturers who can give assurances that the raw material gold they are using is not coming form any mining operations that are displacing native people and harming the environment or being smuggled out of areas where human rights abuses are taking place. When individuals demand of their jewelry stores, either locally owned or chains, that the gold they are selling is “clean,” the retailers then pass this demand on to their suppliers and on to the manufacturers and mining companies. A good place to learn about this is through the “No Dirty Gold” campaign Web site. There you will find a list of retailers who have signed on to assure customers that the gold items they sell are made from “green gold” not associated with any of the negative aspects of gold production. As this project has grown, it has put more pressure on the mining companies to clean up their act. Even if they are not inspired to act responsibly themselves, they will be motivated to change when they see that it will affect their bottom line.
Another way that the jewelry industry has responded to the concerns about gold production has happened in an even more basic way. Gold is a basic element that can always be refined to its pure state. The refining and reforming of gold is something that humans have been doing for thousands of years. In fact, it might be said that gold was one the first materials to be regularly recycled. Much of the gold that we are using today has been reformed and used over and over for a long time. It is actually possible that some of the gold that is now in the ring you are wearing may once have been a part of an ancient Egyptian pharoah’s collection. Because of the value of gold, any operations that work with it have always carefully collected any scraps and sent them to refining companies, who would return it to a pure state and reform it for a variety of uses. As the value of gold increased, the motivation to diligently collect any scraps and resell it to the refiners has also increased. In recent years, there has been a new development in refining. Some companies have begun to offer a line of gold products that are entirely made from reused and refined gold. These products have no gold in them that has come from any of the current mines and their associated environmental and human rights concerns. A local jeweler now has the opportunity to purchase a whole spectrum of gold raw materials for which the refiner can give the assurance that they are entirely made of recycled gold or “green gold”. Again, a concerned individual consumer can go to their local store and ask that any gold used in the jewelry they are purchasing or having repaired be from a “green gold” source. Some refining companies have also become real leaders in building factories that are on the cutting edge of the most environmentally responsible technologies. A good place to learn about “green gold” refining is on the Web site of Hoover and Strong of Richmond, Va..
As the current recession has combined with the rise in the price of gold, there has been an increase in the number of people offering to buy your “old gold.” It is hard to read a newspaper or watch television without seeing ads for these gold buyers. Many people are digging through their jewelry boxes, dresser drawers and basements for broken or unwanted jewelry that they can sell for some much-needed cash. This is actually a great way to keep the gold supply healthy without needing to participate in the harms that may come from new mining projects. And once again, the person who is selling their old gold has the right to demand that the buyer is providing their old gold to a refiner who will recycle it in the most responsible way.
Gold is truly a precious metal, a gift from the earth. We do not need to avoid it or feel guilty about wearing gold jewelry because some people have oppressed others or harmed the natural environment to acquire the power and wealth it can give them. Each of us can make a difference to end these wrongs. If we use gold responsibly and use the power of the individual customer to demand that everyone along the production chain also acts responsibly, we can enjoy “green gold” for the beautiful material it is.