The ethical gold rush: Gilded age for guilt-free jewelry

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Combining attractive and sustainable: this is the credo of a growing number of jewellers, who are putting forth their use of ‘ethical’, or ‘ecological’ gold for their jewels in an abundance of labels and specialized suppliers. (AFP)
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Chopard was the first big name to announce a purveyance in ‘100% ethical’ gold for its jewels and watches creation in 2018. (AFP)
Updated 21 April 2019
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The ethical gold rush: Gilded age for guilt-free jewelry

  • Specialized producers now tack a “fairmined” ecologically friendly label on their output
  • Swiss house Chopard last year became the first big name to commit to “100 percent ethical” creations

PARIS: Forget how many carats — how ethical is your gold? As high-end consumers demand to know the origin of their treasures, some jewellers are ensuring they use responsibly sourced, eco-friendly or recycled gold.
Specialized producers now tack a “fairmined” ecologically friendly label on their output, and the Swiss house Chopard last year became the first big name to commit to “100 percent ethical” creations.
The Geneva-based firm, which makes the Palme d’Or trophy for the Cannes Film Festival, says it now uses only verified suppliers of gold that meet strict standards to minimize negative environmental impacts of mining the precious metal.
Among the many certificates and standards claiming to codify “responsible” goldmining, two labels stand out.
They are “fairmined” gold — a label certified by a Colombian NGO — and the more widely known “fairtrade” label launched by Swiss foundation Max Havelaar.
Both support artisanal mines that seek to preserve the environment in terms of extraction methods, along with decent working conditions and wages for the miners.
Such production remains limited — just a few hundred kilograms annually. Global gold output by comparison totals around 3,300 tons.
Concerned jewellers are keen to ensure they can trace the source of their entire supply to an ethical production cycle and to firms certified by the not-for-profit Responsible Jewellery Council, which has developed norms for the entire supply chain.
RJC members must adhere to tough standards governing ethical, human rights, social and environmental practices across the precious metals industry.
The French luxury group Kering, which says it has bought more than 3.5 tons of “responsibly produced” gold since 2015 for its Boucheron, Pomellato, Dodo and Gucci brands, has committed to 100 percent use of “ethical” gold by 2020.
“We are trying to maximize the proportion of Fairmined and Fairtrade gold — but their modest production is in great demand so the bulk of our sourcing remains recycled gold, (which is) certified ‘RJC Chain of Custody’,” says Claire Piroddi, sustainability manager for Kering’s jewelry and watches.
Fairmined or Fairtrade gold is “about 10 to 12 percent more expensive. But recycled gold barely generates any additional cost premium,” Piroddi told AFP, since it was already refined for a previous life in the form of jewelry or part of a high-tech product.
Going a step further, using only precious metal from electronic or industrial waste is an original idea developed by Courbet, a brand launched just last spring.
“We do not want to promote mining extraction or use recently extracted gold, so we sought suppliers who recycle gold used in graphics cards or computer processors. That’s because we know today that more than half of gold’s available reserves have already been extracted,” says Marie-Ann Wachtmeister, Courbet’s co-founder and artistic director.
She says the brand’s watchwords are ethical and environmental consciousness.
“In a mine, a ton of terrain might contain five grams of gold, whereas a ton of electronic waste might generate 200 grams,” Wachtmeister says.
“Clients are also demanding an ecological approach more and more — they are aware of their day-to-day impact and consider the origin of what they wear,” she adds.
“The issue of supply really resonates with the public at large,” adds Thierry Lemaire, director general of Ponce, a jewelry firm that was established in Paris’s fashionable Marais district in 1886.
The company is RJC-certified and uses only recycled gold.
“There is a logic to that — if we want to do our work well, then let’s go the whole hog and respect nature. That can be done today because the entire chain has become standardised.
“Studios such as ours that work for major names on Place Vendome are all certified,” Lemaire says, referring to an upscale square in Paris.
He represents the fifth generation of family firm Ponce, which produces 45,000 gold rings a year from recycled gold.
Working in a pungent atmosphere of heated metal, refiners sit hunched over polishing machines, a large leather hide slung over their knees to catch the tiniest shaving.
“Every Friday, we have a great clearout and go over the workshop with a fine-tooth comb to pick up little bits of (gold) dust and shavings,” Lemaire says.
“Nothing is lost, it’s a truly virtuous chain.”


Taiwanese ‘graffiti village’ eases elderly loneliness

Updated 18 July 2019
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Taiwanese ‘graffiti village’ eases elderly loneliness

  • The paintings have started to bring young visitors — always keen for a selfie in a photo-friendly location — back
  • The Hakka are linguistically distinct group of people who trace their origins back to southern China

RUAN CHIAO, Taiwan: Nestled in the mist-covered foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range, Ruan Chiao village is virtually devoid of young people, but artist Wu Tsun-hsien is coaxing the Instagram generation back by transforming local homes into a canvas of color.
Dipping his brush into a tin of beige emulsion, he carefully applies new layers of paint to his latest production — a vibrant rural scene depicting farmers in traditional weave hats tending to a flock of animals.
Behind him an elderly villager with a walking stick shuffles his way down the main street, which is plastered with Wu’s colorful paintings.
“This village is full of old people,” the 55-year-old laments, explaining how the vast majority of youngsters — including his own children — have moved to the city, leaving elderly residents listless and lonely.
But paintings have started to bring young visitors — always keen for a selfie in a photo-friendly location — back.
“These drawings attracted many tourists to come visit. The old people who were left here are no longer so bored. This was my biggest gain,” he beams.
Wu is not alone in this adopting this strategy.
There is now some half a dozen so-called “graffiti villages” in Taiwan that have been festooned with artwork in a bid to inject some life into rural places that have been emptied of its young.
Like many industrialized places, Taiwan’s remarkable economic transformation over the past few decades has upended rural communities and unleashed huge demographic changes.
“It’s perhaps a more recent phenomenon than it would have been in some other places,” explains Shelley Rigger, an expert on Taiwan at Davidson College in North Carolina, who said much of Taiwan’s industrial manufacturing stayed in the villages.
“People sewed Barbie doll clothing in their houses and then carried it down to a packaging plant in the middle of a village,” she tells AFP, as an example.
Ruan Chiao village, for example, used to churn out paper temple offerings.
But once much of the manufacturing shifted to mainland China in the late 1990s and Taiwan moved up the value chain, many of those jobs left.
“That’s when you see rural areas kind of emptying out,” Rigger adds.
Taiwan’s 23 million population is also rapidly aging. The birth rate has plummeted — only 180,000 children were born last year, an eight-year low.
The Wu family have experienced this flight first hand.
The ancestral home is occupied by his wife’s father, 81, and mother, 72, who still work a few plots of land in the hills above the village growing organic vegetables. But Wu’s own children both went to university and have left, one to Australia, the other to a nearby city.
Wu’s wife Fan Ai-hsiu explains their bid to draw Instagram-happy crowds of youngsters was less about economics and more about giving her parents something to look forward to.
“They want to have conversations with people, that’s what they miss, it’s not about money,” Fan says.
But it was not initially an easy task to persuade fellow villagers to use their houses as a canvas.
“People here are fairly conservative,” she recalls, adding: “But once the first few paintings went up, they could see it brought people in.”
Most of Wu’s paintings in the village stick to rural pastiches or traditional symbols of good fortune.
It is the family home where he really gets to express himself — and which has quickly drawn a mass following on social media.
Perched on a slope overlooking the village, the whole house is covered in images, many of which detail Wu’s politics.
He’s an avid believer that not enough is being done to tackle climate change, so some of the scenes show apocalyptic scenes of environmental devastation.
Others are commentaries on social issues like gay marriage — which he opposes — or how the elderly are treated in an increasingly consumerist society.
“This mural depicts the present Taiwanese corrupt society,” Wu remarks as he walks along a huge painted wall featuring hundreds of images.
“This one is society’s mayhem due to mobile phones, computers and television... and this one is our cultural loss where many of our Hakka young generations don’t know the culture,” he adds.
The Hakka are linguistically distinct group of people who trace their origins back to southern China. They have lived in Taiwan for some four centuries and make up 15-20 percent of the population.
Evelyn Sun puts on art and food events in Taipei and found out about Wu’s paintings via social media.
She visited with friends who all soon found themselves sitting around a table with the Wu family, eating traditional Hakka vegetable dishes and tucking into eggs boiled in a secret recipe of local herbs.
The 25-year-old enthuses: “Taiwan has many ‘graffiti villages’ that are beautiful scenic spots where people will just leave after taking pictures.”
“But I realized when I came here that every mural here is depicting a social problem faced by society.”
She hopes other young Taiwanese will explore the nation’s rural villages more often.
She explains: “These people are our culture, they are our history, we have to get to know them.”