Recycling and jewellery are not always two words you see in the same sentence. Often, when we think of recycling and doing our bit for the environment, we think of our day to day lives; sorting our rubbish more efficiently and the spirit of “make do and mend” around the house to give old discarded things new life. But why shouldn’t it be the same with our jewellery?
It may not spring to mind immediately when one thinks of bright shiny new pieces of fine jewellery, but there are actually many ways beautiful pieces of jewellery can be made from recycled materials. In this series of articles I am going to explore the many ways recycling can in fact come into play in the fine jewellery world.
Firstly, there is the potential for small scale recycling in the form of re-using the old pieces of jewellery we all have lurking around the bottom of our jewellery boxes. These items may have been long forgotten for being out of style, written off and emotionally discarded but not thrown away due to their material value. More often though, the old items in our jewellery boxes are not just kept for their material value but cherished for their precious memories, however they are equally unworn due to being impractical, too delicate or just not quite “me” enough for everyday wear.
A lot of precious metal jewellery can be melted down by a professional goldsmith and re-formed into a piece of metal which is then ready to be shaped and worked into new items of jewellery. Gold is well known for it’s ability to be melted down in this way and a goldsmith will use their bench torch to heat the gold in a small crucible until melted before pouring it into a steel block filled with oil which will cool the gold into a new solid block of metal. The metal is then milled out and filed until it is in the right form to be worked with and from then on the master craftsman will use their hand tools to make the new item of jewellery using traditional goldsmithing techniques in the same way they would if they were using a fresh piece of gold.
New gold is alloyed and machined into bullion (the name given to pieces of gold wire and sheet) ready to make jewellery with and this gives the metal a perfectly compressed finish. Sometimes the process of melting gold at the jewellers bench results in tiny pin-prick like bubbles on the surface of the final piece of jewellery. This is quite normal and nothing to worry about and just serves to show that the piece has a handmade and recycled quality to it.
Silver is also a good metal for melting at a jewelers bench as it has a relatively low melting temperature, however the initial cost of silver is quite low and so it often makes less economical sense to recycle silver on a small scale like this. One could actually pay more for their resulting piece of jewellery simply because the labor cost to melt down the silver is higher than buying a new piece of metal ready to work with straight away. Occasionally the same can be said of gold, especially 9 carat gold, but the economic side of recycling gold comes into play when working with 18 carat or even 22 carat pieces. Aside from this, the sentimental value in using your own metal in a new piece of jewellery, whether it be silver or gold, outweighs most other factors, especially in the case of re-using inherited pieces which embody the memories of our loved ones.
The original form of the jewellery is an important factor in the success of its chances to be recycled. Simple solid gold wedding bands melt very well, whereas more complex items like chain or intricate jewellery items with lots of solder joins can be problematic when melting due to the air and impurities they draw into the molten metal. Metals like platinum and palladium have very high melting temperatures and so they are not possible to melt at the bench. To completely re-melt these metals is tough, although it’s not impossible for the professionals as there are options to do so using certain specialist casting machines. These machines are small enough to melt just enough metal for one individual item of jewellery and that way we ensure the metal to be recycled is kept truly separate from other new metal.
Some white gold alloys also do not melt very well, however there are options to re-use these metals in different ways other than re-melting, if you’re willing to be creative. A simple platinum wedding band for example, could be annealed (heated to make it soft) and re-worked into a setting for a gemstone, or a wide pair of white gold earrings could be pierced out to make delicate flower details ready to overlay onto the shoulders of a new engagement ring.
In any case it is always best to seek the advice of a professional goldsmith when thinking of re-using old metal, they can inspect jewellery and give their expert advice on your journey towards re-vamping your old jewellery!