Sustainable materials in crafts are becoming more common, from bamboo knitting needles and yarn, upcycled sweaters being made into felted flowers and hats to sustainable cotton. Jewelers are increasingly searching for sustainable metals and gems for their product lines and recently have become especially focused on sourcing sustainably mined gold.

Everyone has seen images of strip mines devastating the land and many jewelry makers don’t wish to use materials that further damage the earth.

Jeweler Susan Wheeler has been working to not only make the choices of metals and gemstones that she uses in her own work the best they can possibly be, but she also wants to educate other jewelers and collectors about the issues and options.

To that end, she founded the Responsible Jewelry Conference which debuted in October 2017 in Chicago. Miners, gem cutters, jewelry industry professionals and not-for-profit representatives came together to learn about efforts to make more responsible choices available in gems and precious metals.

Topics covered included a wide variety of approaches to increasing sustainability and fair payment to miners for all materials used in jewelry: precious metals, colored gemstones and diamonds. Sixty people attended the first conference and the second conference is scheduled for October 2018.

One speaker at the conferences was jeweler Toby Pomeroy who spoke with the excitement of someone who is out to save the world, because he is. “The future is absolutely abundant, we are living in times that are the best of all possible times, we are on the brink of being able to solve humanity’s problems,” Pomeroy effused. Pomeroy is especially focused on figuring out a better, more environmentally sustainable way to mine gold for use in jewelry.

Inspired by Peter Diamondis, chairman of the Prize Foundation, who challenges people to think of a way that each of them could have an effect on 1 billion people Pomeroy knew immediately how he could do that: by getting the mercury out of gold mining.

Many people don’t realize that gold bearing ore that miners bring up isn’t the gold nuggets that we may have seen in an old western film. In fact gold is mixed in with ore, or rock. To get rid of as much of that ore as possible and get a better and more accurate price for their gold crushed ore is mixed with mercury. The gold bonds to the mercury and later the mercury is burned off.

Although Mercury provides a fast and easy solution to stripping ore from gold, it’s also extremely harmful to the environment.

The Problem with Mercury

• 15-20 million artisanal gold miners use mercury and 8,0000 lbs of mercury is released to the atmosphere every day.

• The use of mercury in mining releases 35% of all mercury pollution to the environment.

• Mercury pollution is transported globally by winds and currents.

(source: Mercury Free Gold Mining Challenge)

Since 53% of gold mine annually is purchased by the jewelry industry this is really the industry’s responsibility to monitor and correct. Fairmined™ gold is gold bought at a fair price plus a premium to cover investments in social development, mining operations, and environmental protection.

A Molino at La Llanada in Columbia. La Llanada is certified as a Fairmined™ mine.

Pomeroy himself made the switch to exclusively using gold that is Fairmined™, for his bridal line. “I realized that if I was going to make jewelry, it had to be in the most sustainable way possible,” Pomeroy said. He’s now on a mission to “harness the world’s collective genius and will to end mercury poisoning from artisanal mining.” How? By offering a prize to the team who figures it out.

In the tradition of Space X and the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup Prize his organization, the Mercury Free Mining Challenge, is just beginning to raise money on the platform HeroX, to create a one million dollar prize for the team that comes up with a replacement for mercury. “We are at the stage of garnering credibility and support,” he says.

“This HeroX mercury replacement challenge is offering a $1,000,000 prize to the team or individual that discovers an environmentally friendly, affordable means of separating crushed, finely divided gold from its ore. This new material must be environmentally safe, cost less than mercury, be readily available and acceptable to artisanal miners, be easily transported to remote locations, have fewer restrictions than mercury and be equally or more effective than the ages-old mercury/gold amalgamation process.” The Challenge will officially launching in the middle of 2018.

There will be an open call for proposals, and a group of finalists will be chosen by a panel of expert judges. “Competitors will submit videos, judges can request more information,” he says.

The winner will then “have months, or a year, to submit a plan to a lab which will attempt to replicate it.” The winning team will visit a number of mining sites in South America where miners will be able to adopt the new method.

Chicago-area jewelry maker Dana Jewett attended the first Responsible Jewelry Conference and was happy to discover new sources and understand more about the complex situation that is responsible sourcing for jewelry.

She said, ”the conference revealed details about the gem mining, cutting, and various processes from mine to market which helped me understand what a complex system it is.  If you think about national and international regulation of food, or textiles, for example, there are processes (and checks to those processes) all along the supply chain.  

Gems are an interesting subject – because while you can open a textile mill anywhere in the world…Turquoise and Lapis, for example, are found in only few places on Earth. I’m not ready to stop working with lovely stones, so I need seek the information I need to sleep well at night.  At the conference I found a source for Fair Trade gems, which makes me happy.

Speaking with presenters and attendees helped me to better differentiate which issues I want to know more about. I think you have to pick your passion.  What moves your heart – child labor laws and elder rights?  Miners safety?  Fair wages?  A healthy environment for gem cutters?  You pick one or two and do your best to inform yourself so you can try to effect change where possible.”

Consumers looking for a jeweler who is committed to ethical sourcing can look for one on Ethical Metalsmiths, a not for profit organization dedicated to educating both producers and consumers about ethical sourcing issues.

Ethical Metalsmiths has a list of suppliers on their website that includes sources for 100% recycled gold and silver; as well as conflict free/100% recycled gold and silver. They also have sources for both “recycled” diamonds (what used to be called “estate,” meaning pre-owned) and responsibly mined diamonds. Sources for colored gemstones and pearls will be added in the future.

Anyone making jewelry should be making progress toward responsible sourcing, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because consumers are demanding it.


All images courtesy Toby Pomeroy.

Further Resources:

Mercury Free Gold Mining Challenge

FairMined™ Gold

Mines to Market, a program of the NGO PACT

Chicago Responsible Jewelry Conference, October 19-20, 2018

Ethical Metalsmiths Jeweler and Retailer Directories


P.S. While this is a little different from what we usually write here on the blog, this is important and exciting and I wanted to share it with you, so here it is! Please help spread the word!