Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jewelry making the green way

One of the hypes for ecofriendly jewelry today is recycled silver. Some suppliers even sell 100% recycled silver at a premium. I think it is overhyped.

First of all, nearly all jewelers carefully save scrap and send it in to be refined. Industry does this as well. With the price of silver, this is simple good sense. All this silver is refined and resold. Buying 100% recycled silver will not lead to more silver being recycled, simply because most of it already is. The difference between scrap bought and refined silver sold is newly mined silver. If more people buy 100% recycled, then the "ordinary" silver will have a higher percentage of newly mined. But the total mined won't change because of this.

While most people are aware of the environmental impact of metal mining, not everyone realizes that recycling old metal is hardly a walk in the park, as Hans Meevis describes in his blog. Refining silver is similar, although different acids are used. Yup - a lot of chemicals are used, a lot of byproducts and a lot of energy are used. And check out how much copper is necessary - that copper is mined as well. Even though it is a lot cheaper than gold or silver, getting the copper out of the ground is still very high impact.

Fused pieces using scrap

So what is a jeweler who wants to minimize environmental impact to do? In my view, the most responsible approach is to reduce metal waste as much as possible. This has become a mantra in my work. Like patterning for sewing, I fit all the metal pieces I need to cut so that the least waste is generate. I carefully save scraps, which can be used for a small bezel, a bail, a decoration or for making shot. The pieces that are too weirdly shaped, I save for fusing projects.

The granules in this pendant were made from scraps of fine silver
I even use the fine metal filings from shaping and finishing metal to create lovely and interesting textures. To do this, I must make sure the filings are very clean, so that is another bench practice I have made a part of my routine. All surfaces are cleaned, small bits of charcoal and sandpaper are always removed and the small piles of filings are saved at the end of each day or if I start working with a different material.

These textures are created with filings that would, usually, be sent as scrap
Finishing is probably the great hidden way of wasting metal. I have been told that as much as 10% of the total weight of metal in a piece is removed during sanding and polishing. This is also the hardest metal to recycle, since it is very, very fine dust that will usually just disperse around the studio (which reminds me: people, wear a breathing mask while polishing!). The best way is to avoid adding marks and dents to the metal which will require filing, sanding and polishing metal away. I also explore a lot of matte and textured finishes which, while more labor intensive, also don't require removing a lot of metal.


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