Phil Patton | Report

Sustainable Gold

Round Mountain gold mine, Big Smokey Valley, Nevada, 2008. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“Gold mining is one of the dirtiest industries in the world,” announced Tolling Jennings, who runs the non-profit Artisanal Gold Council, an organization pushing safer methods for both mineworkers and the environment.

Sporting a white beard that recalls a cross between Santa and R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, Jennings lives on what he describes as “an off-grid island in British Columbia.” At the moment, however, he was speaking at “Gold: Substance, Symbol and Significance,” a conference held April 8–9 at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The event was part of the Initiative in Art and Culture series, which put a twist on the idea of material culture. The “Gold” conference, for instance, combined jewelry designers, investment counselors, mineralogists and fashion executives in its interdisciplinary approach to the precious element.

“Gold has been a principal store of wealth and unsurpassed as an object of desire for the entirety of recorded history,” the event’s prospectus asserts. “One could argue that much of the history of mankind can be written as the history of gold, or at least the history of man’s attempt to acquire and hold onto it, at whatever human and material cost and in whatever form.”       

The agenda included presentations about the impact of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform legislation on the gold market, the efforts of large companies to improve mining and the history of gold jewelry making in Egypt, Rome and civilizations beyond. The American jewelry designer Temple St. Clair Carr spoke of how Etruscan models, her interest in alchemy and youthful meetings with goldsmiths in Florence shaped her creations. Jack Ogden, founder of the London-based Society of Jewellery Historians, noted that it took the Iron Age to produce tools hard enough for the satisfactory working of gold.       

Which is hot these days. During the conference, the price of gold rose to a new high — again. (It stands at $1,513 an ounce at this article’s posting time.) Fearful investors, burned by the stock market and real estate, are seduced by TV ads for gold investments. Gold, after all, has a value that is tangible and timeless and rises as economies fall. And it’s easy to get hold of the precious metal. For those struck with sudden panic, credit-card-operated vending machines have appeared in Europe and Japan that dispense thin gold wafers.

Gold is wreathed in myths and legends, from Midas to Faust. It provokes fear and suspicion as well as lust. William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, delivered during the economic crisis of the early 1890s to endorse a return to the practice of pegging the dollar’s value to silver as well as gold, remains a landmark in American political history, although opponents to the idea, fearing inflation, prevailed.      

Layered onto gold’s intrinsic value are the uses to which designers put the material. Examples from the conference included the famed double eagle coins created for the U.S. mint by Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick the Great’s snuff box and a choker by the American jewelry designer Mary Lee Hu.

But the great compelling myth of gold is that its value can be separated from shape or context: melted down, a golden chalice or necklace surrenders its worth as art, but retains its worth as substance. Like diamonds, gold is the exile’s bank.

Gold is heavy but compact. All the gold ever mined, the story goes, could make up a cube about 70 feet on a side. A few feet may be added with the current boom in mining — a response to the metal’s skyrocketing price — but still the lessons of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and a hundred bad Westerns are not to be forgotten: making money from gold mines is a lot harder than it looks. And the costs are legion. Gold mines produce cyanide and generate tons of tailings (or discarded ore) that deface landscapes. Fumes harm workers’ health, and poor conditions and pay are systemic.

It is tempting to blame large corporations for these ills, but Tolling Jennings said that artisanal operations, which play a critical economic role in developing economies, are as culpable as the giants. Today, according to Jennings, artisanal mining accounts for 12 percent of gold production, employs 10 million people and provides about $50 billion a year in income to poor economies. Artisanal mining also pumps about 1200 tons of mercury into the environment.

Gold has been implicated in human rights as well as environmental abuses. In the Peruvian Andes, reports National Geographic, a primitive system persists under which workers labor all week for no compensation other than the chance to dig on their own for a few hours. Child labor is rampant in gold mining in Africa. On that continent, too, the phrase “blood diamond” has been joined by “conflict gold.”

The Dodd-Frank legislation passed to deter Wall Street abuses in the wake of the recession includes regulations intended to curb the trade in conflict gold. Provisions require sellers to be able to show clean provenance for their metal, a sort of chain of custody. A conference talk called “Eco-Calculus: Added Economic Benefits of Sustainability for Investors” took on this topic.

Meanwhile, Jennings is offering an alternative source through his own mint on Lasqueti, an island near Vancouver that is better known for the quality of its marijuana. Jennings appears to want Lasqueti to become the gold standard for gold as well as the gold standard for grass.

His mint uses gold from Mammoth Tusk, a Yukon mine dedicated to clean methods. There, tailings are quickly planted over; photos show moose families happily grazing on the land.       

The Lasqueti mint has issued several limited-edition coins to fund the Artisanal Gold Council. One coin depicts an old-time prospector, bent over a stream with his pan. Look closely and the bearded face weirdly resembles a cross between Santa and Mr. Natural. Jennings himself posed for photos used by the die maker.

Posted in: Health + Safety, History, Product Design, Social Good

Comments [2]

Always been interested in anything related to gold - call me james caan!
graphic designers

Dear Phil Platton
Tolling Jennings is the master minter at the Lasqueti Mint on Lasqueti Island, BC. Tolling is a great guy and has collaborated with the Artisanal Gold Council on minting a coin to help us launch our Artisanal Gold Fund. However he does not run the council. That is my job. Please fix this if you can.
Kevin Telmer, Executive Director, Artisanal Gold Council, Victoria, BC.
Kevin Telmer

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