The real cost of jewellery

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The environmental and social cost of the jewellery we wear is something that has been given limited attention by consumers and the media. A small but dedicated group of wholesalers, educators, non-profit organisations and retailers in the industry are stepping up their efforts to inform the public and implement change.

Statistics show that some 80% of all the gold mined is used by the jewellery industry and given it typically takes the displacement of up to 20 tonnes of earth to produce enough gold to make just one wedding ring, the industry carries a huge carbon cost. Added to this, highly toxic cyanide is used in the leach mining process to extract the metal from the displaced earth. Apart from cyanide, tailings are contaminated with heavy metals such as mercury and lead, and when these escape into the local environment, the consequences are disastrous.

Gold mining is a dirty business. That is why Oxfam's Earthworks started their 'no dirty gold' campaign. The campaign urges retailers to sign the pledge and commit to environmentally responsible practices. More than 25 major jewellery retailers in the USA have signed this pledge along with many independent jewellery manufacturers in Europe and (a limited few) Australia.

Oxfam's campaign encourages the use of recycled metals, as well as gold from small fair trade artisanal gold mines. As the output of these small-scale mines is limited, our most viable option is recycling. However, it is important that the refinery that processes the gold has EPA (environmental protection agency) approval and has strict environmental policies in place regarding water usage, emissions and waste disposal.High temperatures are needed to melt metal, so it is crucial that steps are taken to ensure that the resultant smoke and fumes are not released into the atmosphere. Jewellers who recycle their own metals, should be using fume cupboards.

Diamonds and other gemstones are another story. Most people are familiar with the concept of blood diamonds; however problems in this industry extend further than funding conflict.

As many of these minerals are sourced from lesser developed countries, exploitation occurs in all aspects of mining and processing. From local environmental damage, inadequate compensation to locals, corrupt governments, exploited workers, child labour, and exposure to toxic chemicals during treatments - the list goes on.

It is crucial to source diamonds and gemstones from ethical suppliers. With diamonds, ensure that invoices follow the system of warranties and state that their diamonds are conflict free. For gemstones insist on full disclosure as to origin, treatments and processing. In short, find suppliers who care about the integrity of their product.

As more companies come on board, this movement will grow - thus enabling a clean chain of supply to all aspects of the industry. With greater public support of companies that adopt the principles, this little considered part of the market will become mainstream. From mining to the processing of rough gems and raw precious metals, insisting on clean products created by transparent businesses will provide another weapon against unnecessary destruction of the environment and lead to better working and living conditions for those who supply the jewellery industry. To sum up, the following are things to consider when making your next diamond, gemstone or jewellery purchase:

Where does the gold come from?

Is the diamond non-conflict?

Is the gemstone treated in any way - if so, how - and is the treatment permanent?

Can you make my jewellery piece with recycled metal?

Other options are to consider buying antique or second-hand jewellery, or recycle some of your old jewellery. With careful and thoughtful buying, your jewellery purchase doesn't have to cost the earth - or its people

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