This article was written by Alden, journalist and editor in chief of the ever informative and brilliant blog Ecocult. Alden has been working with Futura gold to help them translate their message online and, while this post isn’t sponsored, I’m excited to share their work here.
One day when I was in high school, I was walking the quiet hallway upstairs after school to grab something from my locker when I rounded the corner and found my chemistry teacher crawling across the floor, eyedropper in hand. “Stop!” she said when she saw me. “Don’t come any closer. I’m serious,” she added when I started giggling at her.
She sat up on her knees. “Someone broke a thermometer, and there’s a drop of mercury on the floor. It’s extremely toxic. I have to use this emergency kit to clean it up. You shouldn’t be anywhere near it.” She shooed me back downstairs.
That incident stayed with me. As I learned later, it’s a wonder the whole hallway wasn’t shut down for days, which is what is supposed to happen when there is mercury contamination. Mercury vapors travel long distances, persist in the environment, enter food sources, and bio-accumulate in animals (including humans). Symptoms after inhaling mercury include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction, plus kidney failure, and even death. Experts agree that there is no safe level of exposure to mercury.
Which is why it’s so incredibly shocking that the standard way small-scale gold miners separate gold from ore is to use mercury and their bare hands.
The Shocking Truth About Gold
Artisanal gold miners pulverize the rock containing the gold bits into powder, then mix mercury with the ore and water in a shallow pan, creating a mercury-gold mixture called an “amalgam.” The mercury sucks in the gold away from the dirt or rock. The amalgam is then heated to vaporize the mercury –– both in the field and in small gold shops –– which floats into the air and off on its long, damaging journey through the environment, leaving the gold behind.
This makes small-scale gold mining responsible for the largest releases of mercury emissions to the environment of any sector globally, according to both the UN Environment Global Mercury Assessment 2017 and the US Environmental Protection Agency. Releasing approximately 400 metric tons of airborne elemental mercury each year, artisanal gold mining contributes about a fourth of all the global mercury use and emissions.
And with one-third of the small-scale miners being women, who often bring their children along out of necessity, there is a veritable epidemic of mercury poisoning going on in the more than 73 countries that have small-scale gold mining. The United Nations has declared mercury one of the biggest threats to the future of our planet, calling it a “worldwide crisis.”
Small-scale gold miners also suffer injury and death from collapsing mines, silicosis from breathing in pulverized rock, illness from living in cramped, unhygienic conditions, and more indignities.
So it’s tempting to dismiss small-scale a.k.a. artisanal gold mining as an aberration, a tiny illegal industry that should simply be stamped out.
To be perfectly clear, artisanal gold mines are not alone in their use of mercury – large mines, the huge pits ringed with massive equipment you usually think of, also use mercury to separate gold from ore. Less than 1% of the world’s mined gold supply is produced free of chemicals like mercury and cyanide. And it’s not just mercury that makes gold mining wasteful and destructive: 20 tons of mined waste – rock, dirt, mercury and cyanide – are produced to make one gold ring.
Even if industrial mines were better in this respect, the truth is, according to the UN, small scale miners can’t be ignored. An estimated 15 million small-scale miners worldwide, they comprise 90% of the global mining workforce. Gold mining is often the only work available to these rural people, who are seeing the collapse of their traditional ecosystems to climate change and industrial farming practices. Experts believe that artisanal gold mining should not be fought, but improved and brought to a level of safety and respect, so that miners can safely earn a living.
With 20% of gold obtained through small-scale mining, and the majority of that gold (70%) going into jewelry, odds are, there is some of this unethically-obtained gold in your jewelry.
Can You Enjoy Gold Jewelry Knowing This?
Many conscious consumers are vaguely aware of the problems with gold mines, and decide to only buy recycled gold jewelry. That is certainly a start, and better than raw gold directly from a destructive gold mine. But recycled gold only satisfies 30% of the world demand for gold, and being such a valuable material that is tied up in sentimental heirloom pieces, it’s unlikely we can increase that percentage by much.
In any case, there’s actually a way to purchase gold jewelry that improves the lives of miners. That is by buying Fairmined gold.
The Fairmined organization certifies mines who are socially and environmentally responsible. Child labor is forbidden, and the miners get a guaranteed fair price, plus an additional premium to cover the costs of the certification and invest in responsible mining operations, social development and environmental protection. The goal is to minimize the use and impact of mercury and cyanide.
Fairmined has another, higher level of certification: Fairmined Ecological gold. Under this certification, only gravimetric methods – vortexes, centrifuges, and shaking tables – are allowed, and the use of mercury and cyanide is completely banned. The mine is also required to minimize ecological disruption and restore local native ecosystems.
Unfortunately, there is currently only one mine in the world certified as Fairmined Ecological, in Mongolia. And while some luxury jewelry contribute money to Fairmined, there’s only one jewelry brand who currently sources nothing but pure Fairmined ecological gold. It’s the new jewelry company Futura.
The Ultimate Capsule Gold Jewelry
Futura Jewelry chooses its designs by searching through gold jewelry archives from ancient Greece to the 1980s, looking for iconic jewelry designs that look as fresh and current today as it did the day it was created. In other words, these are lifetime and heirloom pieces, not trends.
Because the gold Futura sources is so rare, they’re releasing one style at a time, with some styles being ‘Limited.’ Each release you’re going to see something different: a David Calder or a traditional Indian design, for example. The idea is that eventually every woman who wants to support a more pure artisanal gold industry will be able to find the perfect piece for her. If you don’t like this design, you can sign up for their newsletter, and the next month there will be something else from a different culture and period.
The jewelry is made to order in a workshop in New York, where the craftsmen have created jewelry for some of the finest luxury jewelry houses in the world. Then it’s placed in a beautiful, sustainably-harvested wood Futura box to be shipped to you.
They also have sustainable wedding rings in seven different styles, available in 18kt white, yellow, or rose gold. If you’re not getting married, they’re perfect for stacking, too.
Futura may be the only jewelry company now that sources only certified Fairmined ecological gold. But they’re not guarding this secret. They’re hoping that more jewelry companies start recognizing how luxurious it would be to use the rarest and purest gold in the world for their jewelry, and so provide a pricing incentive for more mines to go clean and ethical.
But for now, you can be a part of history by purchasing one of the first pieces of truly clean, sustainable, and ethical luxury gold jewelry.