'Good as gold' not good enough: New labels promote ethical metal


Forget how many carats — how ethical is your gold? As high-end consumers demand to know the origin of their treasures, some jewelers are ensuring they use responsibly sourced, eco-friendly or recycled gold.

Specialized producers now tack a “fairmined” ecologically friendly label on their output, and the Swiss house Chopard last year became the first big name to commit to “100 percent ethical” creations.

The Geneva-based firm, which makes the Palme d’Or trophy for the Cannes Film Festival, says it now uses only verified suppliers of gold that meet strict standards to minimize the negative environmental impacts of mining the precious metal.

Among the many certificates and standards claiming to codify “responsible” gold mining, two labels stand out: “fairmined” gold — a label certified by a Colombian NGO — and the more widely known “fairtrade,” a label launched by Swiss foundation Max Havelaar.

Both support artisanal mines that seek to preserve the environment in terms of extraction methods, along with decent working conditions and wages for the miners.

Such production remains limited — just a few hundred kilograms annually. Global gold output, by comparison, totals around 3,300 tons.

Concerned jewelers are keen to ensure they can trace the source of their entire supply to an ethical production cycle and to firms certified by the not-for-profit Responsible Jewellery Council, which has developed norms for the entire supply chain.

RJC members must adhere to tough standards governing ethical, human rights, social and environmental practices across the precious metals industry.

The French luxury group Kering, which says it has bought more than 3.5 tons of “responsibly produced” gold since 2015 for its Boucheron, Pomellato, Dodo and Gucci brands, has committed to 100 percent use of “ethical” gold by 2020.

“We are trying to maximize the proportion of fairmined and fairtrade gold — but their modest production is in great demand, so the bulk of our sourcing remains recycled gold, (which is) certified RJC Chain of Custody,” said Claire Piroddi, sustainability manager for Kering’s jewelry and watches.

Fairmined or fairtrade gold is “about 10 to 12 percent more expensive. But recycled gold barely generates any additional cost premium,” Piroddi said, since it was already refined for its previous life in jewelry or as part of a high-tech product.

Going a step further, using only precious metal from electronic or industrial waste is an original idea developed by Courbet, a brand launched just last spring.

“We do not want to promote mining extraction or use recently extracted gold, so we sought suppliers who recycle gold used in graphics cards or computer processors. That’s because we know today that more than half of gold’s available reserves have already been extracted,” said Marie-Ann Wachtmeister, Courbet’s co-founder and artistic director.

She says the brand’s watchwords are “ethical” and “environmental consciousness.”

“In a mine, a ton of terrain might contain 5 grams of gold, whereas a ton of electronic waste might generate 200 grams,” Wachtmeister said. “Clients are also demanding an ecological approach more and more — they are aware of their day-to-day impact and consider the origin of what they wear.”

“The issue of supply really resonates with the public at large,” added Thierry Lemaire, director-general of Ponce, a jewelry firm that was established in Paris’s fashionable Marais district in 1886. The company is RJC-certified and uses only recycled gold.

“There is a logic to that — if we want to do our work well, then let’s go the whole hog and respect nature. That can be done today because the entire chain has become standardized. Studios such as ours that work for major names on Place Vendome are all certified,” Lemaire said, referring to an upscale square in Paris.

He represents the fifth generation of the family controlling Ponce, which produces 45,000 gold rings a year from recycled gold.

Working in a pungent atmosphere of heated metal, refiners sit hunched over polishing machines, a large leather hide slung over their knees to catch the tiniest shaving.

“Every Friday, we have a great clear-out and go over the workshop with a fine-tooth comb to pick up little bits of (gold) dust and shavings,” Lemaire said.

“Nothing is lost. It’s a truly virtuous chain.”