12 July 2021 4 min read
Gold. Brilliant, beautiful and virtually indestructible.
Some scientists believe gold originated from a giant star hitting earth billions of years ago.
Found either in crystallised mineral sheets of rock (rock gold), or in the form of flakes found in soil, sand or silt left behind by water flow (alluvial gold), it’s estimated that between 190,000 and 200,000 tonnes of gold has been extracted from the earth - two thirds of which has been mined in the last 70 years.
Gold’s beauty, durability and sheer rarity makes it one of the most precious metals on the planet. We’ve mined it for millennia, with gold jewellery dating back as far as 4,000 BC.
But, it won’t last forever. And with today’s unsustainable mining practices leaving long lasting scars on the earth and its inhabitants, the sooner we rethink the way we source our gold, the better.
So, what does the future hold for gold?
The world’s largest gold deposits are in India and Africa. The biggest source ever discovered was found in the Witwatersrand Basin in South Africa, accounting for around 30% of all mined gold. South Africa, along with China, Russia and the USA are the world’s foremost gold producers, with most of the bigger refineries based in Switzerland. Each year between 2,500 and 3,000 tonnes of gold is mined across the globe.
Most gold is mined through large scale industrial operations, from open pit mines, while around 12% of the world’s gold comes from small-scale artisanal mining.
Gold Mine in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia
Over half of the world’s above ground gold is found in bracelets, rings, necklaces and other pieces of jewellery. The rest is used in currency, medicine and technology. The smartphone or laptop you’re reading this article on? It contains between 0.034 and 0.1 grams of gold.
It’s a precious resource. Highly sought after. Rarer than diamonds. At the time of writing, gold is valued at over $2,000 an ounce and is set to rise as production levels off. More about that later.
‘All that is gold does not glitter’ - Tolkien.
Like diamond mining, gold is fraught with ethical and environmental concerns.
Officially designated a conflict material, it’s hard to know exactly where your gold comes from, or the journey it’s taken to end up in your jewellery box, and what damage it might have wrought along the way.
Gold mining contributes to wide scale environmental damage. Destruction of habitats, local biodiversity and pollution are all side effects of harmful mining processes. Acres of Amazon rainforest have been razed to make space for metal mining. It’s thought that gold mining is responsible for around 10% of the Amazon’s deforestation.
In fact, a single gold ring creates approximately 20 tonnes of toxic waste, which ends up infiltrating the surrounding soil and water. That’s an astronomical cost for something as small as a simple wedding band.
An estimated 180 million tonnes of toxic waste is dumped each year by mines and gold mining is thought to produce nearly 60 million tonnes of emissions annually.
Cyanide and mercury, two dangerous chemicals, are used in the extraction of gold, poisoning the land and its people through water, air and soil contamination. Gold mining is one of the world’s biggest sources of mercury pollution.
There’s also widespread corruption, with many gold reserves and mining operations funding violent armed groups in places such as Venezuela, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Mining communities are exploited, with documented human rights abuses, dangerous working conditions and child labour. In 2019, the USA banned gold imports from the DRC because it is “produced, in whole or in part, using forced labor”.
Gold smuggling is another huge problem, with hundreds of tonnes smuggled across borders each year. Governments are losing out on billions in revenue as a result.
The International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) is working to improve traceability and due diligence, but there is still a long way to go and, sadly, it’s nowhere near enough. Knowing whether the gold in your jewellery is ethically sourced is near impossible.
Gold is a finite resource. The US Geological Survey estimates around 50,000 tonnes of reserves are left. Much of the gold thought to be unextracted is likely too difficult or costly to reach, located deep in the ocean or buried under layers of ice in Antarctica. There’s even some on the moon, though the cost to mine it would vastly outweigh the profits from selling it.
Gold deposits on wood
Production has dropped in recent years. Most of today’s gold comes from older mines and finding new large deposits is unlikely.
Some experts coined the term ‘peak gold’, suggesting we will (or may already have) reached a point where we have mined the most gold we can in one year. From there it will only decline. Eventually, we will have mined all the available gold, and at a heavy cost to our planet.
Fortunately, there is a better way.
Recycling precious metals like gold is a brilliant, sustainable alternative to mining.
We love using recycled metals because:
All metals are classified as either ferrous or non-ferrous. Gold and other precious metals such as silver or platinum are non-ferrous, meaning they’ll never lose their chemical or physical properties, no matter how many times they’re recycled.
The process is pretty straightforward. Recycled gold is collected, sorted and processed, before being melted down, purified, cooled and solidified, and finally shaped into its new form. Ready to bring joy to its proud new owner.
Did we mention that processing recycled gold produces 99.9% fewer emissions than mined gold?
A lot of companies advertise the use of recycled metals in their jewellery. However, this can mean anything from 100% recycled to only a small percentage, with the rest being recently mined. When buying recycled gold jewellery, always look out for 100% recycled gold.
At illi, we use 100% recycled gold, silver and platinum in our jewellery.
Our goal is to help pave the way for a better, more sustainable jewellery industry.
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