The Prospects of Slow Gold
Ethical Metalsmiths was one of the sponsors of this investigative journey. Enjoy this essay by project designer Gabriel Craig and photos by Amy Weiks. Don't miss video links at the end of this essay.
By Gabriel Craig
Though wedding bands symbolize enduring commitment, most jewelry consumers don’t know the origin of the metal used to create their rings. The jewelry supply chain is nearly impossible to follow from start to finish despite precious metals’ frequent recycling. While some steps have been taken to un-tarnish the jewelry industry’s reputation as environmentally harmful, mechanized metal mining still accounts for about 34 percent of total US toxic-waste annually. 1
As a metalsmith and craft activist I have been exploring alternatives to participating in this problematic system since 2005. In the summer of 2011, in an attempt to simulate a more equitable supply chain, I brought together a team including Rajiv Jaswa and Jenna Wainwright, a to-be-married couple from New York; Todd Pownell, a Cleveland-based studio jeweler; and myself, a metalsmith and craft activist from Detroit. We traveled to the Black Hills of South Dakota to prospect for gold that Pownell would later use to make Jaswa and Wainwright’s wedding bands.
We met at Pownell’s studio, piled our gear into my minivan and drove west on I-90. After a day on the road we arrived in the Black Hills and set out for the claim. I taught the group how to pan for gold, but after a few hours it became clear that the site did not contain any easy to extract alluvial gold. This was our first encounter with over-exploitation, a recurring theme of our expedition. We later learned that a mine had exhausted the gold vein, which fed the river basin, in the late 19th century and any gold on the stream had long since been extracted by prospectors during the Black Hills gold rush (c.1876).
The next day, we opted to try a different prospecting site a few miles outside the infamous town of Deadwood having heard that alluvial gold was easier to come by there. Three days hard digging, sluicing and panning at the Deadwood site yielded a large hole in the streambed and only a few miniscule flakes of ‘flour’ gold. We had found gold, not enough to make rings, but enough to prove the expedition was not a farce.
On our last day we visited Deadwood whose Wild West reputation was a catalyst for choosing the Black Hills as our destination. The 1876 Black Hills gold rush concluded with the consolidation of claims that would become the Homestake Gold Mine in neighboring Lead, South Dakota. Homestake operated for 126 years, closing in 2002, and was the richest geologic formation of gold in the western hemisphere yielding 41 million ounces of gold over its lifetime.
None of us had ever seen an industrial mechanized mine before, so we took a surface tour of the mine to better understand the extraction continuum. The ‘Open Cut’ portion of the mine was one mile wide, one-half mile long and one-quarter mile deep. Below the pit were shafts sunk 8,000 feet deep along with 600 miles of tunnels running laterally from the shafts. After a week of prospecting we were overcome with mingled awe and guilt.
Thirteen hundred miles later we arrived back at Pownell’s studio where we photographed, smelted and weighed the gold. We recovered 0.0004 ounces of usable gold, worth less than a dollar. It was a miniscule amount given our tremendous efforts and hopeful expectations. Through a donation from Ethical Metalsmiths Pownell was able to supplement our found gold with ethically sourced recycled material. The rings incorporated the found gold as flourishes while alluding to the rugged landscape. The result for Wainwright and Jaswa were rings that referenced the physical experience and labor of the trip. Their rings, which symbolized enduring commitment, also marked their actual relationship to the land.
The expedition helped bring several things into focus. First, it is impractical for an individual craftsperson to extract gold from the earth. It would have taken a month or more to extract the amount of material needed for two wedding bands using the marginally invasive strategy we adopted. Second, the environmental impact of an industrial mechanized mine – even an ethically operated one – is catastrophic simply because of the way gold formations exist in nature, financial solvency is a function of scale. Lastly, this project, meant to acquaint producers and consumers with the origin of precious metal used in jewelry, was successful in making that supply chain transparent. Inadvertently it also succeeded in proving that there is no solution to metal extraction that is both practical and ethical. Setting aside the romantic appeal of prospecting, it would seem that the environmental cost of extraction – no matter the method – is too high. This project anecdotally points to the transparent supply of recycled precious metal as a viable alternative to the environmental degradation inherent in mining. Perhaps the next expedition should be to local gold buyer.
About the author: Gabriel Craig is a metalsmith, writer and craft activist living and working in Detroit, Michigan. Craig has lectured throughout the country and his writing has been featured in numerous craft publications including Metalsmith, American Craft, FiberArts and Art Jewelry Forum.
NOTE: This project also appreared in the April/May issue of American Craft Magazine.
Click on individual photos to view video documentation of the project.