Published: 02.02.2021
Saskia van Es
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Activist Mariette Liefferink at a mining site near Johannesburg.
. Photo: Maanda Nwendamutswu..
Activist Mariette Liefferink at a mining site near Johannesburg.
Photo: Maanda Nwendamutswu.

© By the author. Read Copyright.

Mansa Moussa, King of Mali, wealthy from trading salt, gold, and slaves, went on hadj to Mekka. It was the year 1324. Traveling in style, he took 80 camels carrying two tons of gold and 500 servants with a bar of gold each. He took the zakat, the obligation to give to charity, quite seriously. Unfortunately for the places along his route, such as Cairo, he caused the gold price to plunge to such depths, that the region was left in a colossal economic depression.

Klimt02's Material Stories series attempts to examine various perspectives on the use of materials. This is the second article of the series of the Materials Stories series, on Gold. Stay tuned to explore gems, pearls, and recycled materials. 

Mansa Moussa depicted holding an Imperial Golden Globe or a coin, Atlas Catalan, 1375, attributed to Abraham Cresques. Image: Gallica Digital Library / Wikimedia Commons.

African gold
I do like Mansa Moussa’s tale, because it illustrates that gold refining techniques and trade existed long before European colonization claimed to bring ‘civilization’ to the continent. This is exactly the point South African jewellery artist Beverley Price articulates. The evidence and her inspiration: the 13th-century ‘Mapungubwe rhino’. Simultaneously, I don’t like Mansa Moussa’s story because it means that from very early times, precious metal was extracted and transported across continents using forced labour, attracting conflict like a magnet. It is not surprising that this mythical material with an undeniably evil side has been the inspiration for numerous films: Follow the Gold! (1)

‘The Mapungubwe Rhino’, hollow fine gold foil figurine, 1250-1290 CE, The Mapungubwe Collection, University of Pretoria Museums. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Pick your poison
Since the gold rush of the late 19th Century, when machines and chemicals were introduced in the game, social injustice has been met by ecological injustice. Gold has to be separated from the soil with either cyanide compounds or mercury. Most official gold mines work with controlled processes (and an occasional spill). Artisanal miners often reside to mercury (2), such as in the South American country of Suriname.
When a hydropower dam was built in Suriname, many people were driven from their land: “Our transmigration village is located on a gold site. In the past, you would be mocked if you were a gold miner. Or if you sold shaved ice. But now you have to do it to survive. We are no longer allowed to hunt, because the forest belongs to the whites. Now we hunt for precious metal.” (3) The gold miners inhale the mercury fumes. Moreover, the poison precipitates in the lake, contaminating the fish that a whole village eats.

In Johannesburg, founded on gold, most big mining companies have left depleted sites. The wind blows the radioactive (you get gold, you get uranium!) dust to the nearby settlements, clouding the sky, clogging the lungs of all living creatures. The drainage pumps are silent, and mine shafts with now exposed minerals like pyrite fill up and spill acid into the surface water. Labyrinths of still accessible tunnels are mined for the last bits of gold by Zama Zamas. That means "those who try their luck’ but equals ‘those who risk their lives in the hands of criminals". Activist Mariette Liefferink tirelessly urges the government and the companies to take responsibility. In the documentary Jozi Gold, she remarks, and I can just hear her now in her South African accent: “I do not wear gold, I wear imitation gold, fake gold because I do feel gold is dirty”.

Beverley Price, Booty - After the Mining Charter, object, 2002, miner’s gumboot, pyrite, foiled images of colonial-western style jewellery and newspaper clippings about the dreaded impact of the Mining Charter, University of South Africa Fine Art Collection. Photo: Grant Dixon.

Gold will not stay in the ground
With so much suffering, can we still use gold for jewellery? “Well, in the Netherlands, jewellery makers can rest assured that they buy recycled gold," according to Diana van der Pad of Bijou Moderne, one of the major providers for jewellery materials (4). There is sufficient supply from refiners of old gold, dental gold, workshop dust, and e-waste. Of course, you never know under what nasty circumstances it was extracted initially. For those who need to be sure that there is no child labour or other injustice involved in the gold, the supplier carries newly Fair mined gold from Colombia. It is 10 to 15% more expensive but customers tend to choose this for meaningful things like wedding bands.
Also, Bijou Moderne was one of the signatories of an agreement to prevent exploitation and environmental damage in the gold mining communities. Does that mean they keep the door open for virgin gold? Van der Pad clarifies: “Out of necessity, yes. As long as there is gold to be found, it will be mined. We chose to stimulate that this is done responsibly”.

Ted Noten, Mr Claw hijacked, installation, 2016. Photo: Atelier Ted Noten.

Judging from many ethical jewellery initiatives in the jewellery industry, awareness is growing about the pros and cons of gold. Could it be that the conceptual end of the jewellery table remains a bit silent?
Not that gold as a symbol is not a topic. Jewellery artist Ted Noten, for example, has used gold in lots of projects to humorously confront us. His Miss Piggy project was linked to the gold price per troy ounce, displayed live on his website. Noten’s amusement park machine Mr Claw seduced us to, against all odds, try and grab that bar of gold. He does not, however, loath gold: “As a material, it is just perfect and obliging, I can control what I make. But I try to use it only when the concept needs it. Even when I know for a fact that pieces with gold sell better (5).” Marie-José van den Hout of Galerie Marzee says something similar: “Metals sell, although gold is expensive at the moment. Plastic discolours, rubber disintegrates, wood, gold, silver, steel, all those natural materials, they stay. Gold is like the sun, I love it.” (6)
Not only does gold have perfect qualities for the craft, but it is also a passcode. Cover a rusty tin can in gold leaf, and it’s interpreted as a piece of jewellery. This, along with the customer’s intuition which Noten calls “that primal reassurance that gold will not lose its value” will mean gold will not leave the contemporary jewellery scene any time soon. All the more reason to reflect on the plight of those higher up in the chain, who Beverley Price calls “the fulcrum of the entire mining industry”, the miners in their gumboots.

Christine Matthias, Breast Shield no. 2, brooch, 14ct gold, 2007, Ø 145mm H 2mm.
The Marzee Collection, the Netherlands. Photo: Galerie Marzee.
Find out more
For more on mining and advice on sourcing jewellery materials that respect environmental protection, economic growth and social development, have a look at the commendable book Sustainable Jewellery: Principles and Processes for Creating an Ethical Brand, by Jose Luis Fettolini, Promopress 2018.
An extensive online resource is Ute Decker and Incorporation of Goldsmiths of the City of Edinburgh’s initiative.
Also check out Greg Valerio, working with small miners in South America and Africa.
And the blogs by Benn Harvey-Walker, Ethical Jewellery Australia.
Jozi Gold, documentary, directed by Sylvia Vollenhoven and Fredrik Gertten, 2019.

Louise Nevelson, necklaces for theatre costumes, crushed tin cans, and fishing floats, 1984, on display at Tefaf Maastricht 2020 at Didier Ltd, London.
Photo: Saskia van Es.

(1) Patricia Pisters, “Follow the Gold # Metallurgy, Media, Minds”, a research project on the idea of ‘filmmakers as metallurgists’.
(2) 10 to 20 million people work in Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining, providing 12-20% of the gold production. Global Trends in Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM): A review of key numbers and issues.
(3) Stones Have Laws, a documentary about the Marrons in Suriname, directed by Tolin Alexander and Siebren de Haan, 2018.
(4) Responsible Gold, Sieraad Art Fair Talks, Amsterdam, November 2018; phone conversation between Diana van der Pad and the author, January 2021.
(5) Phone conversation between Ted Noten and the author November 2020.
(6) Marie-Joseé van den Hout quoted during the webinar ‘Jewellery and Art: the Gold Choice’, 16 June 2020, at the occasion of Van den Hout curating the ‘Art Room’ exhibition with only gold jewellery at the Museo del Gioello Vicenza


About the author

Saskia van Es​
(Amsterdam, 1972) is an art historian. She writes texts on contemporary jewellery, such as exhibition reviews. Her fascination: jewellery materials. She was a board member of the Françoise van den Bosch Foundation. More at