My Journey to Clean Gold

As I write, the 27th COP on the climate crisis has just opened in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt. The focus on this critical global issue is a reminder that all of us, in whatever area we are working, can look at ways of protecting the precious environment on which we depend.
Some years ago, I remember being shocked to learn that mining the gold for a single wedding band produced 30 tonnes of toxic waste. This destructive process to produce what we would esteem as a symbol of love and joy seemed to me at the time to contradict everything I valued as a jewellery designer. My love of precious metals and stones from nature was meant to bring the wearer closer to the earth, land, and the natural world. It set me on a path to search for gold that was not produced so destructively and could be worn with the knowledge that the local environment was unharmed and local mining communities were benefiting.
In 2008, I finally found a cooperative gold mine in the Andes outside La Paz that was preparing to become Fairtrade. I travelled to Bolivia and began buying the gold directly from the Cotopata mine. This required paying a premium for the gold to allow the cooperative owning the mine to make the necessary and expensive changes. In this case, it meant special measures to contain the mercury used in production as well as a series of health and safety regulations, outlawing child labour, and ensuring gender equality. The premium price of the gold could be used as the cooperative wanted, whether it went into the local community for health, education, or to continue to improve the mine. These changes had enormous impacts on the miners and the community around the mine. Ending exploitation of workers and making the area safer for all. In 2011 after much emotion and celebration, the mine was certified as the 1st Fair Trade gold mine in the world.

Through the leader of the cooperative, I met Javier, a local goldsmith. Javier is the son of a gold miner who spent his childhood working in the mines. He was lucky, an uncle taught him how to work with the gold and he left the mine and became a full-time goldsmith. Many of his friends were not so lucky and died in mine accidents. Javier is a wonderfully positive and creative man. I really enjoy working with him. I designed my first collection with him in part drawing on pre-Colombian inspiration but also highlighting the unique quality of gold: creating smooth hand-made gold pebbles which we hung on Bolivian coloured alpaca wool as pendants.

Over the next 10 years, I was lucky enough to travel with the Fairtrade Foundation to Uganda, to highlight the issues around gold mining.  We visited mines that were in the process of cleaning up their production to reach the standards for certification. I learnt more and understood the complicated politics and was frustrated to find some mines were not keeping their certifications. This was either because they were not able to obtain the premium price for their gold or a lack of customer demand. Unfortunately, I visited households where the mercury was being heated in pots over the kitchen fire spreading its poisonous fumes and then tipped into the river. 
I continue to be on the lookout for cleaner gold. A journey that has brought me from Fairtrade gold mines to recycled gold in India and now to an age-old method that causes zero harm to the environment and empowers women and communities. I hope you will be interested to hear more about these exceptional communities and their gold production.