On November 13, jewelers and jewelry connoisseurs filed into Oakland’s Compound Gallery to feast on a visual display of shimmery handcrafted necklaces, bracelets and rings created by Bay Area artisan Robert Taber. Taber, 70, has spent 40 years designing body ornamentations made mostly from recycled materials, creating his work in locations ranging from Australia to New Mexico. A sampling of his designs was showcased and sold during a silent auction, as musicians played violin and string bass chamber music.
But the event, a celebration of the survival of a craft art business, offered more than a surface look at a local artisan’s jewelry. “We are working to bring ethically-mined gold into the jewelry market here in the U.S.,” said Martin Taber, Robert’s son. Martin is a part of Taber Studios and the current chairman of Ethical Metalsmiths, a group of jewelers working to make fairtrade and fairmined gold more readily available in the United States, the third-largest gold producing nation in the world.
Ethical Metalsmiths promotes a gold monitoring system that ensures miners are paid a fair price for their work and that avoids environmental problems often associated with gold mining. Large-scale mining is primarily practiced by companies in the U.S., Canada and Australia and involves blasting whole mountainsides and transporting the crushed ore to plants where the gold is leached from the dirt using cyanide. Small-scale artisanal mining, which is primarily practiced in African countries, involves a process called mercury amalgamation where miners isolate gold from ore by mixing it with mercury and burning the slurry in a process that creates air pollution. Small-scale miners abroad often don’t receive a fair price for their gold, speakers at the gallery said.
By contrast, fairtrade and fairmined gold are both certifications that have been offered in the United Kingdom since 2011, Taber said, but that have yet to reach jewelry markets in the United States. Both certifications were launched by Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International and the Alliance for Responsible Mining. Their fairtrade stamp signifies that democratically organized miners received a fair pay for the precious metals sold in jewelry stores; the fairmined stamp, on the other hand, means that gold was mined in a way that doesn’t harm the environment or the people mining it. The event at the Compound Gallery was a fundraiser for Ethical Metalsmiths’ efforts to make a verification process, comparable to the UK’s, available in the U.S.
Although most Bay Area craft artists use recycled precious metals to make their jewelry, Taber said, that doesn’t change the destructive mining practices currently being used. “It’s the standard,” Taber said of the tearing down of hillsides and use of cyanide and mercury in mines. “It’s not like there are some bad ones. It’s more like there are a few good ones.” A non-harmful way of mining gold involves no or little toxic chemical use.
“We want to make sure as jewelers and as people who buy jewelry that jewelry is a happy experience all the way from the beginning of the supply chain all the way to the end of the supply chain,” said Christine Dhein, an instructor who teaches people how to make environmentally sustainable jewelry at San Francisco’s Revere Academy. At the event, Dhein presented a PowerPoint on mining practices in Nevada, where over 110,000 active mining claims cover approximately 2.5 million acres, an area larger than Yosemite National Park, she said.
At the Compound Gallery, Dhein, Martin Taber and Greg Valerio, one of the people involved in the first fairtrade certified mine’s in the world, gave talks about where the gold seen in most jewelry display cases comes from, who mines it and how. A video produced by Human Rights Watch was shown entitled “A Heavy Price: Lead Poisoning and Gold Mining in Nigeria’s Zamfara State.” In the gold-rich Nigerian city of Zamfara, “the discovery of gold has brought prosperity and hope to its people, but the process of mining the gold has had deadly consequences,” the video’s narrator says. “Lead released in the gold mining process is poisoning children, hundreds have died and thousands more are at risk in what is considered the worst outbreak in modern history.”
Miners crush and grind ore and in the process, dust is released that’s heavily contaminated with lead, according to the Human Rights Watch video. Children are exposed to the dust when they work in the mines themselves or when their relatives return home from mining fields with their clothes and hands covered in the poisoned dust. Lead also contaminates local water sources that people use for drinking.
Another video produced by the nonprofit organization Jeweltree Foundation showed the mining techniques supported by the Oro Verde project in Colombia, the first fairtrade gold buyer in the world. Oro Verde, a collective of environmental and community organizations from Colombia’s Choco region, created a program that audits mines, certifies the precious metals as “Green Gold” if they meet certain standards and offers certified miners a fair wage for their gold
Miners certified to sell their gold to Oro Verde mine their gold without using cyanide and mercury. Instead, they pan for the precious metal in riverbeds and streams using traditional methods, which are slower than the bulldozing practiced in non-certified sites, but less harmful to the environment.
Local jewelry designer Jael Fusager attended the fairtrade gold presentation at Compound Gallery, where he said he learned a lot. “I’m glad that I came,” he said. “It brought my attention to an issue that I really had not given much attention to, an issue that I had really not given as much thought as I think I should have given prior to coming to the event.” Fusager and his family own Magick Fusager Inc., a small Berkeley jewelry studio where they handcraft all of their designs and sell them to mom-and-pop stores and galleries.
The family buys all of their gold from Hoover and Strong, one of the Bay Area’s premiere gold suppliers which offers a line of recycled precious metals, but does not supply fairtrade gold. Currently, the only way for jewelers in the U.S. to ensure that their gold comes from a fairtrade certified source is to order the ore directly from mining projects like Oro Verde. Jewelry makers would then have to melt the raw ore themselves and turn it into the type of material that they need. That would require equipment that large gold suppliers, such as Hoover and Strong, might have available, but that small businesses like Fusager’s cannot afford. “We’re not set up to melt ore and we can’t make gold sheet really efficiently here,” Fusager said about his family business. “It’s not possible for us to do that in-house. We wouldn’t be able exist.”
Price is a huge issue in the promotion of fairtrade certified gold. The higher price of fairtrade gold deters jewelers from buying it in the current system in place. “There’s no way if you’re going to institute the infrastructure that tracks the gold so thoroughly that you’re going to compete on a price level with companies that are literally blowing up mountains,” Fusager said.
Fusager said it’s not quite clear whether customers will be willing to pay more “to support something positive in the world,” he said. “Whether or not that sort of sentiment is strong enough that people are willing to pay for that with their check book—that’s sort of the question that I really don’t know the answer to,” he said. “We have to see.”