Trash to Treasure: The Brands Turning Used Materials into Jewelry
To reduce waste, companies are recycling gold and silver from discarded electronics and film.
With consumers demanding more sustainable jewelry to match their ethos, pioneering jewelers are answering that call — and one way they’re doing it is by recycling precious metals from electronic waste and medical discards.
Until recently, few jewelry manufacturers considered repurposing the precious metals from consumer electronics or X-ray film. But these are valuable and eco-friendly sources of silver and gold, according to innovative designers.
UK-based brand 886 by the Royal Mint recently announced that starting in February, all of the silver in its luxury jewelry would come from discarded medical X-ray film. Pandora is another company that has gotten on board with this trend: Already using 71% recycled precious metals in its products, the Danish jeweler has pledged to increase that figure to 100% by 2025.
Bridal specialist Brilliant Earth’s brand message calls for environmental accountability. At present, 93% of the gold in its jewelry is recycled, as is 99.8% of its silver. Salvaging precious metals from industrial materials and electronics components is key to its sourcing program.
While this practice may seem new, some jewelers have been quietly implementing it for a while, says turquoise dealer Michael Turano of Sunwest Silver Co. in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I have cleaned photographic developer waste and yielded silver powder, using chlorine to remove it, so the yield was simple and high.”
Sunwest Silver owner Ernie Montoya has used another method in the past, Turano continues. “Burning photography paper scraps to recover silver was a source of income. By using the large furnace from the casting process, it was free money after a bit of labor.”
The idea of precious-metal extraction is a worthy concept, but it often requires specialized equipment and capabilities. The Royal Mint will be getting its supply of discarded X-ray silver from Betts Metals, which is already a supplier to the industry at large. The 400-year-old refinery processes precious metals including gold, silver, platinum and palladium, often recovered from dental, industrial, or photographic sources.
For British brand Lylie, which has been making environmentally conscious jewelry since 2017, sustainable and beautiful are far from mutually exclusive. Currently, only 16% of e-waste gets recycled, according to the company. For reference, it says, the amount of e-waste produced globally in 2017 came to 64.5 tons. Lylie has committed to changing those numbers, noting that landfill sites are hidden gold mines. “If you were to mine 1 ton of the earth’s ore, you would get a yield of under 30 grams of gold,” its website states. “If you were to mine 1 ton of e-waste, you would get a yield of 300 grams of gold.”