New Gold Rush: The Jeweler Turning Tech Into Treasure
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Eliza Walter mines old phones and laptops for precious metals.
By Flora Macdonald Johnston
Ornate coral-motif earrings, sculptural silver hoops, a yellow-gold medallion choker: The jewelry made by up-and-coming British brand Lylie’s is beautiful and aesthetically intriguing. But these classic pieces, in which natural forms feature heavily, have surprising origins. Each one is made from material that has been electronically mined.
Electronic mining — the process of extracting gold, silver, copper and other materials from discarded electronic objects — is a growing industry. As our landfill sites fill up with old phones, tablets and computers, electronic disposal is now the fastest-growing category of waste in the world. A U.N. report estimates that nearly 50 million tons of electronic waste will be generated around the world in 2018, with only a tiny proportion likely to be recycled.
It can take years to collect enough electronic waste to mine, and more high-tech plants are needed to process it.
Eliza Walter, founder of Lylie’s
However, with this new waste comes new possibilities. London-based Eliza Walter, Lylie’s 26-year-old founder, is currently the only jeweler in the U.K. sourcing all the material for her designs from urban mining. Despite the brand having launched only last October, Walter has been awarded a hallmark by the London Assay Office for her efforts. “All of our jewelry is made from salvaged gold and salvaged silver, 100 percent recycled from electronic waste,” says Walter. “As well as two current collections, we also encourage customers to recycle unwanted jewelry with us.”
The e-mining industry has huge potential. A ton of circuit boards can contain as much as 30 times more gold than a ton of ore, and the extraction process has far lower environmental impact and social costs than traditional mining. A 2015 study suggests that in Europe, the materials in the biggest categories of e-waste add up to more than 2 billion euros in potential revenue. In five years’ time, the potential value could be 3.67 billion euros. So why don’t more jewelry designers e-mine?
“Despite the benefits, there are some downfalls,” says Walter. “The current process of mining electronic waste is slow and complicated, and to make it environmentally friendly, large quantities must be mined simultaneously.”
She works with refiners in Germany and the U.S., as there are currently no facilities within the U.K. “Even though the presence of gold makes it financially viable, and it is possible to recover many less valuable metals and ceramics too, huge effort is required to put these recycling schemes in place. It can take years to collect enough electronic waste to mine, and more high-tech plants are needed to process it.”
Walter is not alone in her quest for change. Earlier this year, U.S. computer maker Dell launched its second e-mined collaboration with the LA-based designer and actress Nikki Reed, who launched her own sustainable label Bayou With Love in 2016. It took a year to mine, design and fabricate, and the collection consists of 14 pieces made from 14- to 18-carat gold, ranging from miniature pinky rings, inset with sapphires, to delicate opal and pearl earrings that hang like droplets.
“Dell approached Nikki Reed in 2016 after our partner, Wistron GreenTech, developed an environmentally friendly gold-extraction process,” says Darrel Ward, Dell’s senior vice president of commercial products. “We wanted to bring awareness to the process and all the benefits to recycling electronics.”
The company has been recycling e-waste since 2008, and runs “takeback” programs to recycle obsolete tech waste in more than 83 countries around the world. “In 2013, we started putting e-waste–recovered plastics into new products,” says Ward. “We’ve since scaled this across 90 different products and used more than 20 million pounds of e-waste plastics in new products.”
Working on a far smaller scale, Lylie’s is making its own waves in the jewelry business. “I love working closely with clients to create truly personal pieces,” says Walter, whose bespoke designs take eight weeks to create. “I design to the client’s brief, producing three hand-rendered design ideas and sourcing a selection of recycled antique diamonds. The process is meticulous and involves a network of highly skilled craftspeople.”
And what of her hopes for the future? “My hope is that it becomes the norm for a customer, when considering the purchase of fine jewelry, to send the chosen brand all unworn pieces as well as broken bits to be recycled in exchange for credit against the new piece,” says Walter. “Longer-term, I’d love to partner up with a sustainable fashion house, to show jewelry during fashion weeks. There is no better way to see jewelry than being worn.”
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