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Why Ethical Silver is a Unicorn

Chasing after rainbows and unicorns? Why, that's just what we do on any given Tuesday.

Ethical silver doesn't exist. At least, not in our books - not in Indonesia. So, we've decided to go with the next best thing: recycled silver. 

It's not a perfect solution, but it works, for now. 

Why wouldn't we label recycled silver as ethical silver, you ask? Or maybe you didn't, but we'll tell you anyway. Plain and simple: we can never know the true origins of recycled silver. 

Just like you can never fully trace where all the trees that went into the making of your recycled egg carton came from.

Was your recycled silver ring reborn from a past life as an iPhone chip, or was it part of a land mine? We literally can't know for sure. And that's where it gets tricky.

So what's going on with recycled silver?

The murky backstory of recycled metals

The current state of the jewelry supply chain is a tangled mess of threads. Like multiple spools of yarn batted around by a cat – you try to pull one thread to detangle it, but you end up with multiple knots in need of unraveling before you can continue. 

Every piece of jewelry, like these Watermelon Tourmaline Rings can tell you astory, which is why the story we want to tell is an ethical one.

Recycled metals have become a popular option amongst eco-conscious consumers. But they're notorious for their lack of traceability. The furthest back we can trace them is to the refiners. These materials each have an origin story, and it’s near impossible to keep track of how many times they re-enter supply chains.

In the case of gold, its recycled market is cash-intensive because they’re liquid assets. They can easily circulate between various anonymous transactions. 

Recycled gold trading only requires a small amount of capital, and the laws governing it are still pretty loose. Terrorists and criminal groups can take advantage of this system and sometimes exploit it for money laundering.

Sigh. Why do the jerks always have to bring it down for the rest of us?

Think about this very real example: if you happen to have a recycled gold ring that was made around 1994 in the USA, it might have come from pieces of a nuclear weapon. 

"At least now it's being used for good," you say? Maybe. And that's why we're giving recycled metals a chance. Our work with sapphires, rubies and gold is the kind of thing we want to also do with our silver. Ideally, we go straight to the source and work directly with silver miners. But that's easier said than done.

The truth is, there's still plenty of support for the trade of recycled metals. There are very valid reasons why it's a viable optin, a part of it is that's it's an important part of the circular economy, not to mention the effort for carbon footprint reduction.

For Gardens of the Sun, recycled metals have become acceptable because we've already explored and exhausted all other options. To no avail.

Mining ethical silver

We just can't afford to mine silver ethically. Actually, very few companies can. We spoke to Dr. Peter Oakley from the Royal College of Art in London on the obstacles of sourcing ethical mined silver. He states there are three major obstacles:  

  • Silver being treated as a byproduct  

  • The relatively low silver value 

  • The impact of industrial (non-jewelry) use  

Mining silver is more complicated than mining gold. The simplest explanation is that gold is mined deliberately while silver just… shows up. Yes, you read that right. Silver is largely a byproduct of mining other metals, and that sets back any efforts in improving its traceability.

Source: Silver Institute 2018

There are also other setbacks. Primary silver mines have seen a decrease in silver yield in the past decade. Silver is less valuable than gold because it’s not as rare, yet requires as much capital to mine.

In 2017, only 28% of the global silver supply came from dedicated silver mines; the rest were sourced from other metal reserves. 

Gardens of the Sun's quest for ethical silver

The first thing we did was check with our Borneo gold miners to see if they can also source silver for us. Unfortunately, although they found some silver, it was only in trace amounts which have to be separated from the gold. In the last batch of smelted gold flakes we got from our miners, there was around 11% silver content. 

Our Sustainability Team consulted with researchers from the Metallurgy Department of Institut Teknologi Bandung and Indonesia’s Research Centre for Mineral and Coal Technology Development. 

They told us that while safer methods for silver purification do exist, the silver outcome would be too low in quantity. Not to mention the need for reagents and sophisticated tools which may be too complicated to use.

All this just doesn’t weigh up against the low silver price. The environmental benefit of eco silver wouldn’t cover the monetary cost for Indonesian artisanal small-batch mines right now. 

We've made peace with that fact.

Recycled silver ring with sapphires

This Rose Cut Pear Sapphire Ring is one of the first pieces of our new silver collection which uses recycled silver.

The Fairtrade and Fairmined gold systems don’t specifically certify silver, but do offer the silver and platinum byproducts from their certified gold mines. That makes this silver ethical by proxy. There are a number of authorized suppliers of Fairmined and Fairtrade in North America and Europe, but not in Indonesia.

We’ve gone with the next best thing available to us: starting in September 2020, all our silver comes from Umicore, a trusted company that refines recycled metals. Umicore is listed as a Conflict Free Smelter by the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMA). They are Chain-of-Custody certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), and they comply with the LBMA Responsible Ag Guidance. 

Recycled silver stacking rings with sapphires
Recycled silver nesting band with rubies

Left to right: the newly launched Marquise Sapphire Crown Ring in yellow andblue, and the Marquire Ruby Crown Ring uses recycledsilver. Psst, did you know that sapphires and rubies are sister stones?

While this isn’t the massive win that our ethical gold was, it’s an important update to be transparent about. It's testament to the complexities of ethical practices. As we see it, these tangled threads have to give way one day, and the only way to finally have neat color-coded spools once more, is to keep at it. Watch this space.  

You'll find our newer silver jewelry is clearly marked as using 'recycled sterling silver' on each product description page.

Read more on our work on ethical metal sourcing