More and Less // All that Glitters: The Ethics of Gold Jewelry

Imperfect Circle Necklace by Rebecca Perea-Kane of  Thicket

Imperfect Circle Necklace by Rebecca Perea-Kane of Thicket

More and Less is a monthly column that explores sustainability and conscious consumption when planning a wedding and also building a life with someone.

This is the beginning of a multi-part series on the ethics of all things sparkly. The jewelry industry is wrought with problematic paradigms—beautiful things are often created at a high human and environmental cost. It does not have to be this way. If we educate ourselves as consumers, we can support a transition to safer and saner practices.

Wedding bands, engagement rings: they’re all metaphors. If you’re going to wear something on your body to symbolize your love for, and commitment to, someone (or whatever exactly it symbolizes for you specifically), wouldn’t it be better to make it something that’s made conscientiously from ethically sourced materials? Objects carry energies with them—or, if the word energy makes you skeptical, objects carry histories with them.

And the history carried by the topic of this first post — gold — ranges somewhere from murky to stomach-churning depending on the path it took.

The jewelry industry is wrought with problematic paradigms—beautiful things are often created at a high human and environmental cost.

Gold mining, as it is typically practiced, has deadly consequences on the environment and the health and rights of individuals and communities. Illegal mining activities have been tied to child labor, human trafficking and violence by mine operators against miners. Mining is destroying huge swaths of some of the most biodiverse areas on our planet—awful in and of itself, but protected forest and jungle flora is also one of our best assets in off-setting carbon emissions. And we’re talking really, truly decimating. To obtain enough gold to make a single wedding ring (a single one!) 20 tons of soil and rock are displaced—and for illegal mining, done unsystematically, estimates can be much higher. Mercury and cyanide are often poured over the piles as cheap and expedient aids to extract the gold, leaving behind a heap of toxic sludge. These chemical laced piles are typically abandoned, leaving dangerous consequences for groundwater and the health of local communities.

That’s insane. It’s easy to wash over numbers — even statistics as mind-blowing and disproportionate as that. Imagine if upon purchasing gold we had to look at the remnants of the land that it came from. “There have long been ‘inconsistencies’ between the traditional perceived value of gold as a romantic symbol and the realities of extracting raw gold from the Earth,” Beth Gerstein, co-founder of Brilliant Earth, said in an article in Smithsonian Magazine. But as with so many things, we see only the finished product, and the human and environmental cost remain far in the distance.

Here’s the thing. Most of the gold being mined goes toward the jewelry industry. If we purchased less gold, it would directly translate into less mining. If consumers decided to rethink their purchasing patterns to prioritize more ethically mined gold and recycled gold, the industry would have to shift.

It’s worth noting that with the rise of consumer awareness and increasing demand for gold that is not tied to human suffering and environmental destruction there is greenwashing occurring. The Responsible Jewelry Council’s standards and their verification procedures have been called into question as “more shine than substance.” 

But there are some better options. Here are some words to know:

Fairmined: a certification through the Alliance for Responsible Mining that assures that gold marked with the Fairmined label comes only from small scale mines that are responsibly managed and meet requirements for work conditions, environmental protection, and organizational and social development.

Fairtrade: similar to Fairmined, Fairtrade certification means that the gold has come from mines that meet environmental and safety standards and pay their workers a living wage, as well as a ‘premium’ to spend on community projects such as education and healthcare. At this point Fairtrade gold is labeled only in the UK, but that may expand soon.

IRMA: Still in the final phases of development, the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance is seeking to create a set of standards that will provide independent auditors the ability to grade large industrial mines and certify mines that meet their expectations.

Recycled gold is gold that has been previously mined, refined and made into jewelry before being melted down to be made into something new.

Recycled: recycled gold is gold that has been previously mined, refined and made into jewelry before being melted down to be made into something new. Recycled gold is, from my perspective, the best way to go as new mining does not occur. I also just love the idea of wearing jewelry that had a previous life in another form. There are jewelry designers out there who are doing a great job making beautiful pieces from traceable and recycled gold. Brilliant Earth in San Francisco is one place to start. I’m also willing to bet many designers could make their designs in recycled gold if they received a request for it—so don’t just accept the status quo! Hoover and Strong here in Virginia mills only recycled and Fairmined gold if you find someone but they’re not sure where to source from.

There are a number of good informational resources too:

Earthworks' campaign No Dirty Gold has a lot of information on the impacts of mining. Bario Neal, a partner of Catalyst, has an informational blog with all kinds of resources on jewelry. (Nobody’s asking me to say that—I just think they make beautiful work, and I have a lot of respect for the standards they set for themselves.) Take note, also, when you come across gold mining in the news. One place to keep an eye on closer to home is the proposed open-pit Pebble Mine in Alaska.

In April I’ll continue in Part Two of this series to look at diamonds and the myriad crazy-making classifications and certifications applied to them.


Rebecca Perea-Kane is a writer and designer based in Charlottesville, Virginia. She spends her time working on her jewelry line, Thicket, traipsing through the woods with her dog, Arthur, practicing yoga, and writing poetry. She works as the production manager for Mi Ossa, a jewelry and leather goods company.