Rio Grande was founded more than 60 years ago by my father, Saul Bell. A jeweler for more than 80 years, Saul was involved in every imaginable aspect of the jewelry industry, including manufacturing, diamond-setting, watch-making, wholesaling and retailing. He loved to share his vast knowledge of the jewelry-making process. My brothers, sisters and I still benefit daily from his knowledge and wisdom, and I hope to pass on some of what I have learned from him and from other master jewelers through this series of blog posts.
In this follow-up to my previous post on Rio Grande’s silver supplies, Sustainability of Recycled vs. Mined Silver, I want to share some thoughts on mining. Though I am admittedly not an expert on the subject of mines, I, like you, have an active interest in knowing the latest about availability and accessibility of this precious metal. By definition, a mine is not sustainable because all mines run out of ore eventually. Furthermore, there are certainly horrible examples of environmental (and, in my mind, criminal) disasters perpetrated by mining companies around the world; some of the examples I have seen are just disgusting. The mining industry, however, is working to clean up its act. It takes some dedicated searching because few people write about responsible mining, but there are examples you can find.
Five years ago, I visited the Stillwater mine, where they principally mine for platinum group metals but also recover copper, nickel and gold as byproducts. This mine is in the pristine and scenic mountains of south-central Montana, and it is surrounded by multi-million-dollar vacation homes owned by movie stars and such people. I was very impressed with the care Stillwater takes to not pollute the ground, air or water. They turn their byproducts into useful products. Everything that comes out of the Stillwater mine is either used or put back where it came from. When they are finished with that mine, no one will be able to tell that they were ever there.
Last November, in Jaipur, India, I attended the first Gemstones Mine to Market meeting, where I saw reports and spoke to mine owners about what they’re doing. I got a new perspective on what responsible mining can mean for communities near mines. One example concerns a very poor part of northern Brazil. An American mine owner is developing education and agriculture in the region so that, when the mine is depleted, the miners will have a sustainable way of making a living without leaving their homes. In the meantime, the mining operation supplies the funds that will lift the community out of poverty.
The jewelry industry in the United States has primarily used recycled precious metals for the past 60 years and perhaps longer. That’s because here in the U.S., recycled raw materials best fit the cost structure of our jewelry industry. In addition, the refiners who serve the jewelry industry are mostly too small to serve mines. Using recycled materials, however, doesn’t allow the conclusion that we minimize the need to mine silver or other precious metals. The fact that jewelry takes a disproportionate share of the available recycled material only means that other industries must use mainly mined first-generation material—it does not stop mining. It does, however, keep us aware of the need to continue to respect, support and promote responsible mining and to realize that responsible mining means something different in wealthy Montana than in dirt-poor northern Brazil. Though there can’t be just one rule that fits all, there are examples (such as those I shared above) of how mining can be done in responsible ways.
What are your thoughts? Have you visited mines or have insights of your own to share? We’d love to test their mettle. Have you got questions?