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Recycled metals from electronic waste used to make jewelry

Twelve years ago, Eliza Walter was studying design in high school in England when she learned about electronic mining, the process of recovering precious metals from electronic waste. During a school trip to a local smelter in Melton Mowbray, the owner explained to Mrs. Walter and other students that gold was mined from the earth, but there was also a way to get it from landfills.

“You just remember things, right? Sometimes when something is very, very memorable,” Mrs Walter, founder of jewelery brand Lylie, said in an interview at her west London atelier.

After researching e-waste and completing a course at Holts Academy (now the British Academy of Jewellery) in the Hatton Garden area of ​​London, Ms Walter opened her online jewelery business in 2017. She now designs pieces that are produced by about 30 independent goldsmiths using gold. recovered from electronic and dental waste, such as gold fillings.

Jewelry brands large and small have turned to electronic mining, using reprocessed metals from devices such as mobile phones, laptops, game consoles and graphics cards as an alternative to mined materials. Among the reasons gold and other precious metals are used in electronics is because they are good conductors of electricity and tend to resist corrosion. Recycling can reduce the need for mining, which can be detrimental to the environment.

In 2020, the world’s largest jewelry manufacturer by volume, the Danish brand Pandora, Announced that by 2025 all of its jewelry would be made from recycled gold and silver, some of which would come from electronic waste. It had noted in its 2020 annual report: “Recycling of consumer electronics is particularly low: in Europe only about 40 percent of e-waste is recycled, and in Asia only about 10 percent.”

E-waste “is an incredible resource and it’s there to be used,” said Kim Parker, jewelery editor and former executive director of fashion and jewelery at Harper’s Bazaar UK. Recycled gold, she said, “started out as kind of a small consumer kind of trend-led, but now, you know, it’s something that consumers are really demanding.”

“Part of the problem has been having the technology and the resources to be able to refine” the waste, he said.

The Royal Mint, owned by the British government, has been working on that issue. In late 2021, it announced a partnership with Canadian startup Excir to recover metals from discarded technology.

And since March it has been building a multimillion-dollar plant in south Wales that, after completion in 2023, is expected to process 90 tonnes of e-waste per week.

Some of the metal recovered by the mint’s new plant will be used in its jewelry collection, a product line that the company, which historically made coins and commemorative items, introduced in May.

Sean Millard, the mint’s chief growth officer, said during a video interview that the partnership and the plant were part of what he called a “vertically integrated strategy” to turn the mint into a manufacturer, which it allowed him to produce materials “for UK jewellers”. who want to be sourced in the UK, and equally international brands who want to be able to manufacture in the UK”

Several small jewelers said advances in metal recovery are still needed. For example, in Lylie’s operation, gold recovered from up to 17.5 phones is required to produce a wedding ring.

Ms Walter said she once had a client “who met his girlfriend on a dating app and wanted to be able to use the gold from her exact phone when they first went online to make their wedding rings”. She couldn’t make that dream come true but she, she said, is something she would like to present one day.

The brand gives credit to customers who submit broken or unwanted jewelry for recycling, and plans to accept old phones for metal recovery by next year. (Gold is found on the motherboard of a phone.)

Mobile phone recycling is something that the jewelry brand NoWa, established in the Netherlands in 2019, already offers.

Its founder, Josette de Vroeg, had been doing marketing for Closing the Loop, a waste compensation organization in Amsterdam that collects discarded electronics from landfills in Africa, when she had the idea for NoWa, short for No Waste.

“But it bothered me that it was so difficult to tell the story,” he said in a video call. “I thought that you have to do something really cool with the resources of the mobile phone,” so she decided to make jewelry, although she herself had no experience in the field.

It took about two years and 15,000 euros ($15,385), raised on Kickstarter, to find a factory that could recycle phones and refine the metal, and start the business.

It now sells pieces such as the Infinity bracelet, made of silver with a 14k gold finish, at a price of €49.95; The most expensive piece in the line is the large version of the Eternal Connection necklace, that is, in 14-carat gold, at €795. All jewelery is made in the Netherlands, which is also the company’s main market, although Ms De Vroeg said she has plans to expand internationally next year.

Even in Paris’ Place Vendôme, the world’s hub for high-end jewelry, e-mining has been going strong since 2018, when jewelry brand Courbet debuted. Founded by Manuel Mallen and Marie-Ann Wachtmeister, it also has investments from Chanel.

“From the beginning,” said Mr. Mallen, who has 30 years of experience working in luxury, including with the Richemont Group, “the idea was to create Place Vendôme’s first eco-jewelry brand,” he said. “And there are two very important parts to jewelry: diamonds on one side and gold on the other side. And from the beginning, we decided to have recycled gold.”

Courbet uses only lab-grown diamonds, which are made by recreating the heat and pressure conditions of a mined diamond, and works with Agosi, a Germany-based waste management company, to source e-waste for its fine jewelry designs, starting at €350. The most expensive piece on her website is the Céleste necklace in yellow gold and accented with 5.25 carats of diamonds, priced at €21,800.

“I think green is everywhere today,” Mallen said, adding that half of the brand’s sales are engagement rings and wedding bands, bought by customers he described as 25 to 35-year-olds who grew up concerned about the environment. ambient.

“They don’t want to celebrate something that’s very important to them with a gold or a diamond that damaged the earth,” he said.

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