By Shawna Kulpa
Making jewelry can be a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Luckily, some jewelry makers are actively working to make the process cleaner. From eliminating the use of dangerous chemicals to upgrading equipment and procedures to minimize risks, these jewelers are embracing the idea of transforming their production areas into safer and more environmentally friendly green zones.
You’ll read about jewelry makers, both large and small, who are taking their recycling efforts beyond just metals and gemstones, replacing shop solutions with natural and less-toxic alternatives, and adjusting their equipment to minimize its impact on the planet and its people. In addition, you’ll discover ways that you can start making your own shop and practices cleaner and greener.
Marc Choyt has been a little disappointed with the recent uptick in talk about responsible sourcing in the industry. “The majority of the focus is on chain of custody” and creating a mine-to-market trail, he explains, “not on helping small producer communities.” He and his wife, Helen Chantler, own Reflective Jewelry, a small jewelry studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They’re adventurers by nature, and their travels have brought them to the far reaches of the world and exposed them to a vast number of cultures and communities. It’s also informed how they want to run their company.
Part of their business practices is using Fairtrade Gold, which is metal that has been mined under strict social and environmental criteria, guaranteeing that the miners work in safe conditions, are paid fairly, and receive a premium for their community. “Since April 2015, we’ve been the only certified Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the U.S.,” he says. “One of the biggest things people can do is use gold from small-scale mining. When the U.S. consumer market adopts Fairtrade gold, hundreds of thousands (or possibly even millions) of small-scale miners will find their lives improved. That’s the kind of change we want to initiate.”
Choyt is intent on trying to improve living conditions around the world, and he extends his efforts to the practices in his own shop. Toxic chemicals are not welcome in his studio.
“We use Citrix solution for pickling,” he says. “It’s made with citric acid so it’s not a toxic product.” He and his team also use Superior No. 6 Flux, an alkaline flux that contains no free fluorides or other harmful ingredients. “It’s the least toxic flux we think we can get,” he says.
In addition, they use non-toxic, soap-based solutions for any tumbling operations. Once the solution can no longer be reused, it gets dumped into a sink that features a large trap.
“Tumbling solution inevitably has metal in it, and we want to capture it,” he explains. “Anything heavy in the water sinks to the bottom of the trap, and then that sludge goes into our sweeps barrel for refining. Everything goes into that drain to pass through the trap to capture metal.”
Choyt and his team also do what it takes to reduce the impact of the products they use to keep the shop clean. “We use organic cleaning products and we reuse and recycle anything we use to clean up,” he says.
They try to avoid using paper towels, instead relying on rags to clean up work surfaces or mop up spills. Any shop rags that have been in contact with precious metals get added to their refining bin, while others used for drying hands will be laundered and then put back into service. When they do have to use a paper towel, Choyt’s team makes it a point of drying it out and reusing it as much as possible before disposing of it.
To help keep the shop clear of dust, Choyt has a separate room dedicated for buffing. All of the polishing wheels feature vacuums to capture dust and compounds, and employees wear masks while buffing to avoid inhaling dust. So confident is Choyt that he has “one of the cleanest buffing rooms,” he’s hung beautiful artwork on the walls.
And being green doesn’t end at the studio door. Choyt and his team compost leftover food in the shop kitchen, which Choyt brings back to his home to add to compost piles.
“At home, we have a greenhouse and we’re growing our own food for four seasons, so we take the compost home,” he explains. In addition, since the city of Santa Fe doesn’t collect recyclables from local businesses, Choyt brings home paper, cardboard, plastic, and any other materials that can be recycled.
He and his team also jackhammered a 30-foot-by-12-foot concrete slab in front of his building to install a garden. After clearing the concrete, he dug a hole to install a pumice wick, which is an underground water harvesting system that absorbs rain off impermeable surfaces, such as rooftops and concrete patios, and diverts it directly into the soil.
“When we replaced our roof, we had it slanted to one corner so we could capture the water,” says Choyt. That water is fed down through 4-inch tubing into the pumice wick, where it’s absorbed. “It was a lot of work, but we created a beautiful street-side garden. We planted an apricot tree that’s now almost 15 feet high. It’s amazing.”
Designer and goldsmith Molly Hollingsworth will be the first to admit that Jewelsmith in Durham, North Carolina, isn’t 100 percent green. Yet. “But we do try to minimize [our impact on the environment] as much as we can,” she says.
That’s to be expected of a company that describes itself as “passionate about protecting the environment.” In addition to featuring conflict-free gemstones in its pieces, Jewelsmith offers diamonds mined in Canada, where mines “pay their workers fair wages, contribute to the mining communities, and maintain higher environmental standards.”
That dedication to being green extends into the production shop, where recycling goes beyond just reusing metal and stones.
Whenever a piece of equipment or tool breaks, Hollingsworth and her team put it aside rather than throw it out. Initially they’ll try to fix it.
“Often we can,” says Hollingsworth. “If not, we keep the broken ones and use the parts to fix other machines when they break.” She cites an example of an ultrasonic cleaner, which has a lot of parts that can go bad. When a switch on a new unit failed, they replaced it with one from an old broken ultrasonic. “It saves us money and we haven’t had to throw out a piece of equipment.”
The company has also made it a point to avoid harsh solvents in the shop: It doesn’t use cyanide, and it no longer does plating work. “We stopped doing things that have really poisonous stuff,” Hollingsworth says. “Gold plating solutions and things like that have some pretty nasty stuff in them. It’s not worth it for us.”
When solvents are needed, she and her team use less toxic ones, such as acetone. “We use it sparingly to soak pearls to remove from posts,” says Hollingsworth. “But we’ll use it over and over again. One container will last us years.”
They’ve also replaced petroleum-based lubricants for such tasks as punching discs, drawing wire, or lubricating burs. “Whenever possible, we’ll use beeswax, mineral oil, or wintergreen oil,” she says. And while currently they use sodium bisulfate pickle, they’ve started looking into more natural substitutes. In the meantime, they make sure to take precautions before disposing of the solution.
“We mix in baking soda to neutralize it,” says Hollingsworth. “Then we dilute it with tap water.”
The shop has two sinks, both of which feature traps to capture metal particles. “Whether we’re washing our hands or mopping the floor, all of the water goes through those traps. We try to make sure we’re recycling as much as possible.”
They also strive to keep the shop’s air clean by using a multi-stage fume hood to collect and filter burnout fumes.
“It has a really thick activated carbon filter that works really well,” says Hollings-worth. “When we got it, we took a resin from a 3-D printer and set it on fire. The resin is fairly smoky when it burns, and it smells like burning plastic. But with the hood, it completely eliminated all traces of the smell and any smoke. I was initially skeptical, but it did a great job.” Maintaining a clean and clear environment is especially important at Jewelsmith because the workshop is directly connected to the company’s retail space.
To further enhance that “clear” environment, three years ago they converted all of the halogen and fluorescent lights in the combined 4,000 square foot space to LED lighting.
“An LED conversion company did the work,” Hollingsworth explains. “All of the fluorescent fixtures had to be changed out, as well as some track lighting. It was a fair amount of work to convert everything.” In the three years since the conversion, the company has saved money on its electric bills, and they haven’t yet had to change a light bulb. “Plus, there’s no more buzzing from the fluorescent fixtures!”
If jewelry manufacturer and supplier Rio Grande ever decided to reimagine its well-recognized blue logo, perhaps it should consider making it green. After all, it’s a company that always seems to be on the lookout to minimize its impact on the environment.
Several years ago, the company covered its nearly 5-acre parking lot with solar panels to take advantage of its location in sun-drenched Albuquerque, New Mexico. In addition to providing the employees with covered parking, the panels have resulted in the company generating far more energy than it consumes—and getting a check from its electric company rather than a bill. But that doesn’t mean the company has stopped looking for ways to help save electricity.
Rio has installed a combination of skylights and light tubes to increase the amount of natural light throughout its facility. Light tubes operate somewhat like a periscope—they collect light from the sun and feed and direct it down through a tube. Because they rely on tubing and reflectors to transmit light, they can deliver and focus natural light to places where skylights may not be able to reach.
But the company’s efforts to reduce its eco-footprint go well beyond saving electricity and harnessing natural light. Within the past year, Rio installed a closed-loop cooling system in its annealing furnace. Originally, the furnace had an open system that filtered in city water for its cooling jacket and then drained the water out. “An associate pointed out that we didn’t need to be wasting all this water,” says Matthew Anderson, business team coach at Rio Grande.
The company recognizes the preciousness of water, especially given its location in the southwest desert, and worked to find a way to reduce the amount that was being disposed of. Conveniently, Rio builds closed-loop cooling systems for its casting machines. “We had an extra system sitting around and decided to try it,” says Anderson.
The company’s manufacturing and facilities teams worked together to install the cooling system in the annealing furnace. Now, the closed-loop system recirculates a mix of water and anti-freeze. “It recycles the water, cutting out any additional water use,” says Anderson. “And it wasn’t hugely expensive because we already had the piece of equipment.” The company is pleased with the results of its experiment and plans to implement similar systems in additional furnaces.
Rio also just completed the addition of a new casting room. The room is outfitted with a powerful air intake and exchange system that promotes a comfortable work environment and efficient operation of the burnout ovens. “The new room’s air exchange is environmentally friendly because of the isolation of the burnout ovens,” he says. “And they eliminate the smell of burnt-out wax, which is an irritant, from inside the building.”
The new casting room also features an epoxy floor. In the previous casting room setup, employees used vacuums to suck up investment powder that had fallen onto the tile floor—a process that can stir up the powder and make it airborne. The epoxy floor is now cleaned with an auto-scrubber. “It uses a liquid solution and a brush and squeegee, so rather than moving investment powder around, you’re wetting it down before vacuuming it up,” says Anderson. This wet system reduces the possibility of the powder becoming airborne during cleanup.
Feeling inspired to make your jewelry-making space and processes greener? The following are some tips from Christine Dhein, a jewelry designer, author, and educator in Greenbrae, California, who is currently writing Eco Jewelry Handbook, which will be published by Brynmorgen Press later this year.
• When it comes to flux, Dhein recommends using a borax cone. “It’s a good solution for people with smaller scale production,” she says. “You take the cone, grind it in a dish to create powder, and add water to form a paste. It’s pure borax so there aren’t any additional compounds, such as fluoride, which can cause irritation when inhaled.”
However, she admits that there are some downsides to this approach, including the inconvenience of having to grind it and mix it up yourself. If you’d rather consider other, less time-consuming flux options, she recommends you carefully read the labels of any paste flux not just for fluoride, but also for any chemicals in the fluoride family, many of which can cause skin or breathing irritation.
• Natural and less-toxic pickles are fairly easy to come by. The simplest and least toxic way is to “use white, food-grade vinegar, which is inexpensive and biodegradable.” All pickle solutions are best used in conjunction with good ventilation, especially this one, given its pungent nature.
For an odorless option, there’s citric pickle, which can be purchased from both jewelry and food suppliers offering pickling products. To extend the life of pickle, add more acid to the solution rather than making a new batch. “If it gets dirty, filter it through fine mesh or a coffee filter,” she says.
When pickle does reach the end of its usefulness, proper disposal is key. “Your concern is not the acid itself,” says Dhein. “The main concern are the heavy metals in the solution after it’s been used. When you heat precious metal alloys containing copper, the copper comes to the surface and oxidizes. Pickle removes copper oxides, and that metal is going into solution. You don’t want to put heavy metals down the drain.” Dhein recommends setting the solution outside so that the liquid evaporates. The remains should then be treated as hazardous waste and disposed of properly.
• Dhein is an advocate for vegetable-based polishing compounds. “Traditional polishing compounds use animal fat as a binder,” she says. “The melting temperature on veggie-based compounds is lower, so it becomes liquid more quickly. This means that there’s less dust flying around. And because of the lower melting temperature, it can be removed more readily, requiring fewer resources.”
• Give some thought to the cleaning products you use. “My favorite is baking soda,” says Dhein. “It’s mildly abrasive, and you can clean lots of things with it.” She particularly likes to use it to clean pieces with a satin finish prior to oxidation. “It cuts through any residue on the surface. It’s good for whenever you need to have the metal really clean before you start the next process.” She also recommends it as a good general cleaner for the shop, noting that it can be used alone or with white vinegar to remove tough-to-clean stains.