Green Weddings Begin with “Responsible Gold”
When Matt White and his girlfriend decided to marry, they looked for wedding rings that were made in an environmentally responsible way. “We were aware that there were issues associated with gold mining, and we started looking for wedding rings that we could feel good about, that were made with responsible gold. We couldn’t find any. So we got married without any rings at all — and started greenKarat,” White said in an interview with Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL).
We contacted White after accidentally coming across his greenKarat website. We were intrigued by the beautiful designs, and by the fact that customers could actually send in old family jewelry to be re-crafted into new wedding bands. We also wanted to know what makes “responsible gold” different from other gold and why consumers need to know about it. What we learned gave us a whole new perspective on the romance (and responsibilities) of wedding rings. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: I’ve always thought of engagement and wedding rings as romantic symbols of a couple’s love. But from what I’ve been reading on your website, it appears that they’re also a symbol of serious environmental damage. Why is gold so bad, environmentally speaking?
WHITE: The issue that my wife and I had been aware of about gold mining — and this really came to our attention as members of Sierra Club — is that separating the gold from the surrounding ore is very destructive to the environment. There are two methods used: The large-scale mining companies use cyanide. They dig the rock out of the mine or out of a pit, put it in a pile, then dump cyanide over the top. The cyanide separates the gold from the ore. Theoretically, the companies have a restraining wall that catches the cyanide to be used it again. But, as a practical matter, a lot of the cyanide escapes and gets into the waterways. It’s an extremely lethal poison.
The other method is used by the panners, the artisanal miners — there may be 20 million of them around the world. They obtain a little bit of gold, say, in gravel from the bottom of a stream. They use mercury to separate the gold, and a torch to burn off the mercury. A cloud of mercury rises into the air, poisons the miner, then settles into the water and bio-accumulates through the food system. It ends up in foods we eat, such as tuna.
The Wall Street Journal did a story a couple of years ago about a mercury-capturing program in Maine. This was a program with great intent. Their idea was, instead of the mercury going into the landfills, they would collect it. But as it turned out, there was a hole in the system; the mercury was exported and used by gold miners. So it ended up in the environment anyway. It’s a very nasty problem.
BPGL: How did you decide to get into the wedding ring business?
WHITE: We saw an opportunity. We decided there had to be a market for wedding rings made with responsible gold. So we devised the concept of greenKarat. It was based upon one very firm concept: We would be as honest as we knew how to be with our customers about what they were getting in their wedding rings. This is important, because in making jewelry, it is almost impossible — no, I’ll go ahead and say it: “It is impossible to make a gold wedding ring that is completely ecological.”
When you get into the realm of, “We’re pretty good, but we’re not perfect,” we felt that we needed to be as honest as we knew how to be, as transparent as possible with the customer. So we devised what we call the “Green Assay,” which basically is a disclosure of the ecological footprint of each of the designs that we make. It talks about each component of the ring, whether the gold is recycled, whether it’s post-consumer recycled, whether the alloy is ecological — they rarely are.
We talk about the components of the ring. There are little bitty components, for instance, the prongs on a ring that may hold a stone, typically are made in factories. And they are typically of better quality, because they are made in factories, but you are not going to find a factory that’s using ecological gold, or recycled gold. So that’s a component that’s not eco-friendly. So we went through each step of the process, we talked about whether the gold was refined in a refinery that was environmentally responsible, whether it’s ISO 14001-certified — ISO is an environmental certification — and what rules it actually complies with. We laid all of this out and, in the process, didn’t know at the beginning whether we were opening ourselves up to criticism. But it turns out that our niche, the people that we are marketing to, are very grateful for that information.
WHITE: Patagonia actually was quite an inspiration for us. We looked at them a lot as we were putting together the philosophy of the company and how we would do it. I’m very impressed with Patagonia.
BPGL: I’ll bet they’d be impressed with you, too. I’m looking at your Green Assay on the website. It’s a great idea.
WHITE: In the beginning, we had an arrangement with a refiner. We told them that we wanted recycled gold and the criteria that needed to be met. They set aside gold that met our criteria. We were very grateful, because the refining industry and the jewelry industry were not very receptive to the concept of what we were doing. It implied a criticism of them when we talked about the ecological issues. There were a lot of barriers in that way. So it was quite a breakthrough to find this particular refiner.
The gold that we were using in the beginning was a mix of post-consumer gold and post-industrial gold, and we didn’t differentiate. We soon came to realize, as in other recycling, that post-consumer really does matter. That’s because gold is so valuable that businesses don’t discard it. So, if there is scrap gold, waste gold, leftover gold, it all gets recycled. They’re all very careful to do that. And so, by using gold that has been “discarded” by a business — if I may use that term — you’re not really changing the dynamic of the industry.
We have estimated that there is enough gold already mined on the surface of the planet to feed the jewelry industry for the next 50 years. And this is important, because the jewelry industry drives the demand for gold mining. About 85% of the gold that is used each year is used by the jewelry industry. So this is where you’re going to make a difference. And that gold that is already on the surface of the earth and is laying dormant that we’re trying to get out with the recycling program is either going to be sitting in bank vaults as an investment, or it’s in people’s dresser drawers as unwanted or broken jewelry. So that has been the thrust of our program, to try and liberate the dormant gold that is in the form of old jewelry.
BPGL: I like the word “liberate.” It does seem that gold stuffed in a drawer is, in a sense, being held captive — often in jewelry that’s out of fashion or unworn for one reason or another.
WHITE: That’s where our myKarat program arose from. It allows customers to collect jewelry from friends and family and send it to greenKarat. They can do one of three things with it. They can either recycle it with us, and we give them a store credit for the value of the gold, or they can reuse the gold that they send in, if it has sentimental value — and for many people it does. Grandma may have passed away, but you have her wedding ring. This is a way for those molecules of gold in Grandma’s ring to go into your ring, which is a very potent symbol of family and continuity. And then, for some people, what they really want to do is to just donate that old jewelry to the benefit of an environmental organization; they can do that, too.
When you send in jewelry, we are essentially buying its gold content, although we don’t pay you cash. We offer a store credit. So whether you are recycling it, or reusing it in your own rings, you are still going to get credit for the value of the gold. If you wish to use that gold to make your wedding rings, but are willing to forgo receiving the value of the gold yourself, we’ll send a check to your favorite environmental charity.
BPGL: I saw that you recommend the Basel Action Network on your site, as a place to donate the value of your recycled gold?
WHITE: Basel Action Network (BAN) is very actively involved in the eradication of mercury. That, in fact, was their core project. They are very much involved in the issue of [stopping the export of] toxic waste. Computers are an excellent example. Computers go obsolete after just a few years. The way it has always been is that they would be put on cargo containers and sent overseas, where the computers would be burned or melted to get the valuable components. There actually is gold in a computer.
BAN also has been taking a look at ways to mine gold without using mercury or chemicals at all. We think they’re good guys. They’ve been supportive of us from the beginning. They are as ethically pure as anyone I’ve ever met — extremely stringent. And helpful to us in evaluating our standards, the refineries that we use. They came along, they asked a lot of hard questions. We think they’re good folks.
BPGL: I know a lot of people who have odds and ends of old jewelry sitting around. They’d probably like having the option of using it to support a group like Basel Action Network.
WHITE: We’re really excited about the myKarat program, because we think this is the key to permanent change in the way jewelry is made. There are three things that are really going for it: One is that if you wish to use the sentimental gold, it’s very romantic, and it fits perfectly with the concept of a wedding, and the commitment, and the gathering of friends and family to celebrate the commitment.
The second thing is that it makes economic sense, because you are reducing the cost of your wedding jewelry.
And the third is that it’s actually good for the environment. And so, we sense that the combination of these things will provide enough momentum that it will eventually change the wedding tradition and become a societal norm to hand down jewelry from generation to generation, to melt the gold and use it in the next generation’s wedding jewelry. It keeps the whole system working in a way that’s more sustainable.
BPGL: How popular is the myKarat program? What percent of your customers choose to do that?
WHITE: A fairly small percent, though it has been well received. We actually have a bridal registry. Instead of registering for people to give you gifts, you set up this registry, and people download the form and send in their jewelry. We receive packages of jewelry from all the family members, and we aggregate them, and let the participants know who has contributed up to this point. Then when they think they’ve got it all together, we start the process of refining their gold and making their wedding bands.
BPGL: If you have 14K mixed with 24K, and people send in a variety of karats, do they work if they’re mixed up?
WHITE: Let me back up and talk about the process of using recycled gold — and this is an important point. The gold that we use always starts out as pure. Except on a very limited basis by request, we never simply melt down gold and make it into a new ring. What we do is take old jewelry and refine it to take out all of the alloys — base metals, like copper and nickel — because they are what deteriorate over time. And if you simply re-melt it and make a new ring, you’re going to start to get porosity, and you end up with a poor quality product. So what we’re doing is actually refining the gold until it is pure gold. What we are making is, in fact, no different from the jewelry that would be made with gold that had been freshly mined. But it doesn’t have the environmental baggage associated with it.
BPGL: How do you refine it, if you’re not using mercury or cyanide.
WHITE: You do have to use the bad stuff to refine it, but you use a closed system that doesn’t allow it to escape. There’s no water that’s discarded. The air is all scrubbed. It’s a very, very careful process.
BPGL: How much input do your customers have on their design? Do you give them a catalog or do you let them present ideas to you?
WHITE: It’s pretty much an open slate. We say, “Send us pictures of anything that has an element that appeals to you. Send us written descriptions of anything that you would like to incorporate into your design. It’s really wide open. It may be just a hand drawing on the back of a napkin. If they have sent a drawing or a picture of their own, we typically will not render anything beyond that. We just make it as close as we can to their instructions. A lot of people do like to send their own art. It’s really kind of fun.
BPGL: Do people sometimes say to you, I want to use this diamond or this ruby or this whatever — and do you set those in their rings?
WHITE: Yes. That’s actually a very common request. A grandma’s ring is a very typical case, where a diamond or other stone from a parent or other relative gets incorporated into the new design. We are pleased to do that. That just fits so well with the sentimental aspect of the whole wedding process.
BPGL: I read that you provide synthetic diamonds if people want them. Do you also have other synthetics?
WHITE: We refer to them as “created gems.” We have diamonds, and we offer created rubies, sapphires, emeralds, alexandrite, opals…
BPGL: Obviously, in ecological costs, created gems are a huge improvement. How does the economic cost of a created diamond compare with a diamond that was mined?
WHITE: The created diamonds are going to be roughly in the ballpark of a high-quality natural diamond.
BPGL: In price or quality?
WHITE: Both. The diamond companies, and there are just a handful that make diamonds. By the way, these diamonds are optically, physically, and chemically identical to natural diamonds, so they are, in fact, diamonds — not diamond equivalents. It requires sophisticated laboratory equipment to be able to differentiate the created diamonds from the natural ones.
BPGL: Your website says that you won’t use Canadian diamonds. Why is that?
WHITE: The Canadian diamond industry is an interesting case. They decided before they had opened their first mine in Canada, that the image they were going to try to project would be one of social and ecological responsibility. But the reality is that they are mining these diamonds in very sensitive permafrost areas. They are damaging the ground. They are eliminating entire lakes. There is acid rock drainage from blasting that’s getting into the rivers and going hundreds of kilometers downstream. But they don’t talk about this.
It’s a constant drumbeat of how ecologically responsible they are. And they love to talk about how they don’t have blood diamonds. The blood diamond issue came to a head a year or two ago back when the movie [Blood Diamond] came out. While it’s true that there isn’t a civil war in Canada, it’s also true that they are pretty much taking advantage of the native peoples there. The aboriginal communities are not getting the benefit of this fantastic wealth that’s being dug up out of the ground. The big diamond companies are taking advantage of them, just as they have everywhere. Back in Africa, when diamond mining first got underway — diamonds have not always been part of the fabric of our society; it’s really rather modern — as the value of the land went up, the native peoples, who were farming the area where the diamonds were found, were being taxed out of their homes and off of their lands. The only way that they could remain in the area was to go to work for the diamond mines.
The history of diamonds isn’t just about funding wars, it’s also about taking advantage of people. It’s a very sad story. So we shun Canadian diamonds, although we will put Grandma’s diamond in any ring. And if someone wants to bring a created diamond that they bought from someone else, that’s fine; we’ll put it in our jewelry. But we are not going to put any freshly mined stone in our jewelry. We have to live with ourselves. We have to be able to sleep when we go to bed at night. And we can.
BPGL: Not everyone can say that. It’s worth a lot to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and not flinch.
WHITE: We believe it’s a good thing that we’re doing. And we’re dealing with a fun aspect of people’s lives. We’re helping people do what they want to do. There’s really no downside here.
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