Gold, in all its breathtaking forms, has wowed us throughout history and continues to do so today. Whether it’s a Schiaparelli piece on the red carpet at Cannes or the gold bling in Lizzo’s latest music video, our fascination with gold feels embedded in our DNA—and as a South Asian that may well be true.
Throughout history, gold’s allure has been linked to its scarcity and value which has made it a hallmark of status and wealth. The allure of gold shows no signs of slowing down. Our desire for gold is only increasing. So where does all this gold come from?
From gold mines, of course. But where are they? And who is mining it? Some of the 15 largest gold-supplying countries in 2020 included China (380T), Australia (320T), Russia (300T), Ghana (140T), Peru (120T), and Brazil (80T). Eighty percent of gold is mined on an industrial scale, with the remaining 20% mined by small-scale or artisanal miners. Although small-scale mining operations supply only a small percentage of the gold mined each year, they make up 90% of the gold mining workforce.
Rising gold prices over the last two decades have made small-scale mining a rapidly growing and appealing business ripe for criminal exploitation. Because gold has a very high value for relatively small amounts, it is ideal for laundering drug money. This makes the perfect opportunity for criminal groups to take control of local gold trades, exploiting miners and leading to human rights abuses such as forced labor and human trafficking. As a result, illicit gold is now more profitable in South American countries than cocaine.
As we delve deeper into this issue, it is important to recognize that the people most involved in small-scale gold mining are some of the most marginalized in our society. Many are just trying to make a living and care for their families. While mining has been at the center of human rights abuses such as child labor, human trafficking, and money laundering, the vast majority of those in the actual mines are not criminals at all, but have been exploited themselves.
So what does small-scale mining look like? To get to the gold, small-scale miners first need to clear the area of any trees or vegetation. Next, they bore a pit to the riverbed, where the gold is located and retrieved. Then, refining of the gold ore must be done using various concentration methods, such as a sluice. Lastly, miners use toxic mercury to bind to the gold before burning the mercury away and leaving purified gold.
Artisanal and small-scale mining are the number one sources of mercury emissions globally. Mercury is one of the most toxic and long-lasting elements on Earth, and its use in this type of mining can be dangerous both to the environment and the people handling it.
The illicit gold trade isn’t just impacting mining communities, it also has a significant effect on our planet. Gold mining leaves behind gaping scars, as forests cleared for mining take centuries to regenerate. In Peru alone, miners have cleared the equivalent of over 120,000 football fields of forest in the past 20 years.
The mining fields of Peru may feel like a world away, but you may be surprised to find links to illicit gold hiding in your own jewelry box. A quick look at the gold supply chain highlights how close we are to illicit gold. Artisanal mined gold goes to traders who then mix it with gold from other sources. It is then exported, refined, and sold to manufacturers. Because almost all gold is mixed from a variety of sources at almost every stage, most gold supply chains are anything but transparent.
The case of Metalor Technologies is a prime example of how muddied supply chains have led to illicit gold in our favorite jewelry and technology. The major Swiss-based refinery supplied gold to banner-name companies such as Tiffany, Samsung and Apple and now faces legal scrutiny after NGOs and human rights groups published numerous reports that they accepted gold from suppliers in South America that may have been infiltrated by criminals. Increased media and legal attention has seen the firm pull its production from Peru.
The efforts of most prominent jewelry and watch companies to move toward responsible sourcing of gold has unfortunately been somewhat lackluster. A recent report by Human Rights Watch found that while there has been some progress with individual company practices and industry standards, most fall well short of international benchmarks, lacking human rights safeguards and supply chain transparency. While Tiffany and Pandora have taken significant steps toward sustainable sourcing, luxury heavyweights like Rolex and Mikimoto have chosen not to participate or provide any information on their sourcing practices.
So, what next? The diamond industry was put under the microscope after the movie “Blood Diamond” was released and garnered worldwide attention. Maybe the gold industry needs its own DiCaprio film to awaken the public to the illicit practices involved within the gold trade. Everyone now knows to ask for conflict-free diamonds, but the same questions aren’t being asked about where gold is coming from. As more heritage brands pursue responsible sourcing, it will encourage more transparency in the trade and open up new channels for smaller jewelers to source their gold responsibly.
Here at the Jewelry Edit, we represent established brands and emerging talent who are always looking for ways to create beautiful jewelry more responsibly. One way our designers are confronting this problem is by using responsibly sourced materials, like recycled and fair mined gold. Many consumers may be familiar with recycled metal, but fair mined gold is relatively new and less well known.
Fairmined gold is a certification that assures consumers it has been sourced responsibly from small-scale mining organizations who meet the highest standards. Fairly new to the public, Fairmined gold currently accounts for less than 1% of the world's production. As the illegal activities surrounding the gold trade gain public attention, more consumers are looking for clean gold alternatives. Fairmined gold comes at a slightly higher pice point than standard gold, but its strict standards create total traceability throughout the supply chain and ensures consumers that their gold was mined with minimal environmental impact, in a healthy and safe workplace for miners.
You may be thinking, what can I do? Enacting change takes time, but the first step is publicly recognizing the problem. Awareness is vital for lasting change in the industry, so just by reading this article, you have taken the first step.
As consumers, we can create change with our spending habits, so before you purchase, stop to ask questions. Where does your gold come from? Global advocacy and activism around the gold trade is encouraging, but there is much work yet to be done. We are all learning, and change is gradual, but with awareness and greater accessibility to clean gold initiatives, we can ensure a cleaner gold future for all.