Ethical metalsmiths


Around here, one sort of business seems to be surviving the Great Recession just fine: those “We Buy Gold!” places. Most seem to be sidelines of related outfits, such as independent jewelers and pawnshops, but I’ve also seen them cropping up in such surprising locations as tire repair shops and convenience stores. Another variant is a kind of 21st century version of the Tupperware party: the Gold Party, with its carefully cultivated image of merlot-swilling suburbanites shrieking with glee at the big pay-out for Grandma’s ugly brooch.  One wonders, however, if some of those eager customers are actually desperate souls seeking a respectable-seeming venue to trade trinkets for a few more weeks of food and rent.

 The obvious explanation for all this, of course, is the rising price of gold on world markets. I’m no economist and I’ll leave the intricacies of that subject to them, but I do often wonder about the individuals who sell the gold, as well as the environmental and human costs of mining the metal and processing it. 

So does all this trade in consumer-level metals commerce count as “recycling”? Should we cautiously hope that the stream of earrings and chains from neglected jewelry boxes might slow the urge to extract gold and other precious metals from the earth, with all the degradation, both human and environmental, that that can involve?

I asked my friend, jeweler and educator John Hays, for his perspective. Ever since the lean years of graduate school, he’s been buying his gold, silver, and other materials from reputable pawnshops, and now strongly advocates that practice to his students. With his trained eye he can recognize high-quality pieces, which he can then melt down and craft into his own unique and beautiful works. So what about the new-school, street corner gold buyers? Are they changing the precious metals market for better or worse? Hays feels that there’s no simple answer to this question. Jewelry of lower quality, some of which is purchased by these businesses, must be “re-refined,” not simply melted down, to extract the pure gold or other valuable metals. The re-refining process (like the original process of extracting gold from ore) requires highly toxic materials such as cyanide and nitric acid. That’s the down side, and it’s significant. The up side, of course is that it allows jewelers and other manufacturers to sidestep the international ethical and environmental dilemmas associated with gold mining. Also, some secondary refiners, such as Hoover & Strong, in Richmond, Virginia are moving towards dramatically greener and more ethical processes and materials.

Hays credits California metalsmith Susan Kingsley and her organization, Ethical Metalsmiths, for raising awareness of unethical and environmentally unsound practices within the jewelry-making and metalsmithing community, as well as promising new developments of greener and more just practices. Her groundbreaking article “The Price of Gold” in a 2004 issue of the trade magazine Metalsmith provides a detailed analysis of the heavy human and environmental costs associated with a substance that “is not a necessary commodity. It doesn’t produce heat, or power, or transport. It doesn’t provide clothing, or shelter or … food” (for additional background, see this).

Economies are definitely strange. Who knew grandma’s brooch could cause such a fuss? When it comes to street-corner gold buyers, according to Hays, the jury’s still out. Buying gold may be helping independent, local Mom-and-Pop jewelry stores stay afloat through these tough years. It may also symbolize an increasingly desperate, paranoid society build on last-gasp bartering and hoarding. But through it all, there are glimmers of hope when artists and their communities work toward more sustainable and just practices.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.

Pawn shop in Denver, Colo. Image courtesy Flickr user writRHET.