Unfortunately, along with its glitz and glam, the jewelry industry is notorious for ripping through the earth and subjecting workers to dangerous conditions. Audubon went in search for examples of sustainable and environmentally friendly practices among the vendors at the Jewelry Association Conference in New York City.

Are alternative metals less damaging to the environment than traditional metals?

“I wish I had an answer for you, but it’s very complicated,” says Jim Webster, the curator of mineral deposits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. There are too many factors to judge definitively whether alternative metals, such as titanium, tungsten, and zirconium, are more eco-friendly than gold and silver, the traditional metals. However, he doesn’t think the jewelry industry will put a big dent in the demand for alternative metals. Demand mainly comes from aerospace departments, the military, machinery manufacturers or others that require these harder than average metals.

At first glance, it may seem that gold is the clear loser. Gold mining is notoriously harmful to the earth. In large mines, rocks are exploded out of the ground and then crushed into small bits of ore in grinding facilities. From there, the dangerous chemical cyanide typically dissolves the gold away from the ore. Cyanide is toxic to many animals, which means surrounding habitats are at risk if a leak, or dumping, takes place. Fortunately, regulations in the United States have tightened up in recent years, says Webster. Yet gold mining occurs all over the world.

But gold has something going for it: refining. In the U.S., about 85 percent of gold and 50 percent of silver is recycled, according to Webster. For the alternative metals, those numbers are lower: 30 to 40 percent for tungsten and perhaps up to 50 percent for titanium. Because gold and silver are recycled more than alternative metals, it makes it less clear which group will be more damaging to the environment over time.

Overall, we should see less haphazard explosions in the future because we’re getting better at finding the treasure, says Webster. “Human beings are unbelievably efficient at extracting micro-minerals from the earth,” he says of mining in the 21st century, with satellite locators, machinery, and new extraction processes.

Despite increased efficiency and more stringent legislation of all the metals, there are lingering environmental hazards. When rocks are extracted that wouldn’t have seen the light of day for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, a huge amount of energy is invested. And the target metal isn’t the only thing that comes to the surface. Heavy metals, including arsenic make an appearance.

Alternative metals also have alternative extraction sites. Titanium is derived from ore minerals in sand deposits. To get at the ore, the sands are dredged. As a result, coast environments are disturbed. Is this better or worse than the methods used for gold extraction? Who can say.

But the mining industry shouldn’t take all the blame for damage to the earth, thinks George Harlow from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the American Museum of Natural History. “It is generally governments rather than mining companies responsible for problems,” he says. “Good laws, well enforced, lead to lower impact.”

While there may not be a clear winner, consumer demand will play a role in the future of metal extraction. When considering a new ring purchase from your local jeweler designer, ask if she knows about the source of the metal. Odds are, she won’t, but expressing your desire for sustainable jewelry can make a difference. Hold the industry to the highest gold standard.

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