ETHICAL METALSMITHS: ACTIVIST ARTISANS

“We are metalsmiths who want to make ethical decisions about our materials.  We want the gold we use to reflect our values.”  Christina Miller and Susan Kingsley began Ethical Metalsmiths as a positive response to the horror they felt at finding out the harm done socially and environmentally in extracting the materials they used in their work.  Rather than ignore the issue, or walk away from precious metals, they decided to tackle the problem by setting up a source – Ethical Metalsmiths – that was simultaneously a campaign for “clean” metals, an information resource, and a centre from which ideas and debate could emanate and grow.

 

A single gold ring creates twenty tons (at least) of mine waste.  In fact the waste, hazardous production techniques, and energy-intensive processes associated with mining all contribute to the mining industry’s reputation as the number one polluter in the world.  Metals mining is responsible for 96% of arsenic emissions and 76% of lead emissions in the United States; each year in the same country mines produce an amount of waste equivalent to almost nine times the rubbish produced by all its cities and towns combined.  The metals mining industry employs 0.9% of the global workforce but consumes perhaps 10% of world energy; accidents involving mine wastes including cyanide have contributed to fish kills, water pollution and soil contamination; and with this pollution – considering that about half the gold produced in the world either has come or will come from the lands of indigenous peoples – devastation to local economies, health, and human rights have come also.

 

Such facts and statistics are hard to read – especially if one has trained for many years, and invested skill, experience and talent in the craft of metalsmithing.  Ethical Metalsmiths’ answer to this is to campaign for the mining industry to abandon practices that endanger people and ecosystems.  Their website acts as a central resource for education and as a platform for a concerned audience to register their anger and their desire for a better way of doing things.  (There is a section on the website called WHAT YOU CAN DO, an excellent counterpoint to the despair often felt when reading about mining practices.) 

 

One of the problems is that at present there is no way of knowing where the gold you buy comes from.  Ethical Metalsmiths have looked to precedents for socially and environmentally responsible products (for example the Fair Trade and organic movements in coffee and the Forest Stewardship Council mark used to identify ethically produced wood).  “We all need a system that can guarantee that the gold we use has been obtained in accordance with the highest standards, without violating human rights or damaging the environment.”  There is a joint effort by retailers, experts, investors, insurers and NGOs to develop a certification system for “clean” metals – which would examine such factors as working conditions and workers’ rights, dumping of pollutants, closing down and cleaning up operations, and disclosure of information regarding the mine operation.  This certification would not only mean that metalsmiths could source their metals responsibly; it would mean they could educate their customers at the same time.  In the same way as when we buy organic or fair trade items, we are as importantly NOT buying the alternative, this certification would send a message to mining operations about the desires of consumers who at present have no say in how they want their metals to be sourced.

 

As the issue of the damage done by mining becomes more and more well-known, a common response by students is to question whether or not they should even continue to make work in metals.  Ethical Metalsmiths are unequivocal about this:  “Your knowledge of gold is precious, and the long tradition of goldsmithing is in your hands… Buyers of handmade jewelry value your knowledge and skills and the personal connection they have with an actual craftperson.”  This is about education – but it is tacitly about more than this.  Mining is big business, and there are many high street chains selling jewellery in which the craftsmanship involved can be evident to a greater or lesser degree.  Small artisan businesses selling handmade items are potentially a platform for communication – for a relationship in which information can quickly be exchanged and acted upon; but also for a relationship in which the skill of the craftsperson is visible, foregrounded, valued.  Ethical Metalsmiths are passionate in affirming that these skils, and that this relationship, not be allowed to die out.  This emphasis on the line of provenance of skills and the personal connection with their customers, links Ethical Metalsmiths with the craft ideals of William Morris, and with the ethical concerns of Craftivism, as well as with human rights, social justice, and environmental campaigners.

 

It would have been so easy for Miller and Kingsley to look at the mining industry and decide that it was too big and too powerful to take on.  But Ethical Metalsmiths are also well aware of the part makers of jewellery have in the perpetuation and success of mining.  Awareness of the power inherent in the deployment of skills is at the heart of this campaign:  “The mining industry benefits every time you make a beautiful, handcrafted piece of jewelry.  Not so much from the profit they make from the gold, but because the work represents the most prestigious use of their commodity, gold.”  This is a refreshing and timely reminder that a craft skill is not something that exists in isolation:  it affects and is affected by a complex web of human, economic, ecological and cultural relationships.  Working in an ethical way involves a close look at all of these elements.