By Shawna Kulpa
What does it mean to be an environmentally responsible jeweler? Is it knowing the origin of the precious metals and gemstones used in your work and ensuring that they were sourced responsibly? Is it recycling all of your metal scrap? Or is it knowing about and choosing the greenest options for all of the materials that go into the process of making jewelry?
It’s actually all of the above. While a lot of attention has been paid to responsible sourcing of late, not as many jewelers are aware of the environmental risks posed by a lot of the materials used in jewelry making. Jewelry workshops are typically filled with solutions and chemicals needed to give precious metals just the right look. But have you ever paid attention to what’s in those solutions and how to properly dispose of them? Have you looked at your shop practices and wondered if you’re doing everything you can to lessen their environmental impact?
If that idea seems a little overwhelming, don’t worry. Read on and you’ll find that there are many small things you can start doing today that will put you on the right path.
Used to remove flux and oxidation from metal pieces after heating, pickle is probably found in most jewelry workshops. The most common pickles in use within the industry today contain granular sodium bisulfate. When mixed with water, they can release sulfuric acid and cause eye damage, skin irritation, and breathing difficulties if not used properly. It should also never be disposed of in a manner where it can enter drains or sewers, as it can pollute the environment.
For jewelers who want something more natural, solutions are available. One of the most common is food-grade citric acid, which can usually be purchased in a grocery store. Many jewelers also use white vinegar, often “with a teaspoon of salt to increase the strength,” says Christine Dhein, a jeweler, educator, and the author of Eco Jewelry Handbook: A Practical Guide for a Healthy, Safe, and Sustainable Shop. These solutions can still cause eye irritation, but the risk and severity are lower than using chemical-based solutions. The trade off, however, is that these natural solutions may not work as quickly, so you may need to add more acid or extend the work time.
There’s another grocery-store product that can do double-duty as pickle. When David Thorp, a metalsmith and co-owner of Mercurius Jewelry in Oakland, California, was in college, he learned to boil alum to dissolve broken drill bits. He also learned that alum was the original pickle once used by blacksmiths. Liking that it was nontoxic, Thorp has opted to use a granulated alum powder mixed with water as pickle in his studio.
“It doesn’t act the same way [as traditional pickle solutions], but it does clean the metal quickly,” he says. However, he does caution that pieces containing silver solder shouldn’t be left in the pickle for an extended period of time, as the alum will dissolve the joint. “But for gold and platinum, there’s no problem.”
Though alum can be purchased in most grocery stores, Thorp notes that could get expensive, especially if buying it in any quantity. Instead, he’s found it cheaper to buy in larger quantities on Amazon. He estimates that 1 ounce of alum lasts him about two years.
Regardless of the type of pickle chosen, proper disposal is key. Pickle first needs to be neutralized, which can be done by adding baking soda. However, even after it has been neutralized, it should not be flushed down a drain if the solution was used to clean alloys containing copper, such as sterling silver and most karated gold. Copper atoms are hazardous to the water supply.
“There’s heavy metal in solution. And according to most regulatory boards, heavy metals shouldn’t be poured down the drain,” says Dhein.
When the time comes for Thorp to dispose of his spent pickle solution, he pours it into a bucket and allows the solution to dehydrate before sending the remains to his refiner.
Wanting to use a nontoxic pickle solution in his shop, David Thorp opts to use a granulated alum powder mixed with water. He estimates that 1 ounce of alum lasts him about two years. When he’s ready to dispose of the pickle, he pours the liquid into a bucket and allows it
to dehydrate before sending the remains to his refiner.
If you don’t work with precious metal that you’re trying to recover, Dhein says that you could bring the spent solution to a hazardous waste collector. For many jewelers disposing of small amounts, they may be able to dispose of them at a local hazardous waste facility, though each state has its own regulations. In these instances, “there is no need to neutralize prior to bringing the solution to a hazardous waste disposal site for proper disposal,” says Dhein.
To minimize the amount of waste generated, Dhein says that jewelers should pay attention to how much pickle they really need. Too often it’s easy to just fill up a large container, but that creates more material that will one day need disposal. Instead, Dhein recommends using a small pickle pot. “The pickle pot should be just big enough to accommodate the largest piece you’re making,” she says.
Jewelers can also prolong the life of their pickle by keeping it clean. For example, “bits of a soldering pad can stick to a piece, building up debris in the pickle pot,” says Dhein. “The pickle can be strained with a coffee filter to filter out those particles.”
Also, when the pickle’s effectiveness weakens, Dhein says it can usually be refreshed without having to be replaced entirely. She sees many jewelers who think that the pickle needs to be changed if it turns color.
“Often it turns blue, which indicates that there’s copper in the solution,” she says. “But pickle removes copper oxides from the surface of metals; it doesn’t mean it’s ineffective.” When in doubt, try refreshing it with more acid. If that doesn’t work, then consider changing it out. “Take care of the pickle. It can last longer than you might expect,” Dhein advises.
When it comes to flux, jewelers can choose from among several options, each with its own pros and cons. For jewelers looking to err on the side of caution, Dhein recommends using a non-fluoride type of flux. Fluoride is often added to fluxes to help with performance, but that performance advantage needs to be traded against the risks that the flux presents: its fumes can cause respiratory issues. “More exposure creates more problems,” says Dhein.
Check the ingredient list but be aware that you need to look for more than just the word “fluoride” on the label. According to Dhein, other substances in the same family cause similar issues. “Potassium fluoborate is one,” she says. “It’s not as intense as fluoride, but it’s in the same family.”
Popular fluoride-free flux options for jewelers include Fire-scoff, Pro-Craft, and My-T-Flux.
Christine Dhein recommends jewelers avoid fluxes that contain fluoride, which can cause respiratory issues when inhaled. Instead, she advises jewelers use a fluoride-free flux. Her favorite option is a borax cone, which she grinds into a powder and then mixes with water to create a paste that she can make as thick or thin as needed.
Suitable for use as a flux and firescale preventer, Firescoff is an odorless spray-on ceramic coating. However, Dhein notes that “in order for it to work to prevent firescale, you have to coat the entire piece.” This can be a disadvantage, as it requires the use of more product than you might normally use with another flux.
Pro-Craft is a biodegradable gel flux and My-T-Flux is a liquid solution that’s good for helping solder flow at high temperatures. However, according to the Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) for each, they do contain reproductive toxicants, so proper ventilation and personal protection equipment should be used. Leftover My-T-Flux should be treated as hazardous and disposed of according to local hazardous waste regulations.
Dhein’s favorite green flux option is a borax cone. The cone is first ground in a special dish with an abrasive surface. The powder can then be mixed with water, allowing the user to make it thinner or thicker as needed. It’s not classified as environmentally hazardous, but the SDS for it indicates that the waste should be classified as hazardous and disposed of according to local regulations.
When it comes to blackening agents, jewelers have several options, all with varying levels of risk. One of the more traditional blackening products for use on gold and silver is Jax Silver Blackener. Because it contains hydrochloric acid, it can potentially cause severe burns and damage eyes. It can also be toxic if inhaled, so proper ventilation and protective gear should be used. (It’s also toxic to plants and animals.) Jax Silver Blackener must be properly disposed of as hazardous waste material.
A greener option is liver of sulfur. It’s not a bioaccumulative solution, though it is classified as a health hazard so it should be used in well-ventilated areas to avoid inhalation or ingestion. “Liver of sulfur is probably the most eco-friendly of the blackening agents,” says Dhein. The solution itself is safe enough to dispose of with household waste, but as with pickle solutions, once used it can have heavy metals in solution. Hazardous material disposal guidelines for your area should be followed.
Another green method for blackening metals involves using old eggs that have been hard-boiled. If the jewelry piece is placed with a chopped-up, hard-boiled egg in a tightly sealed container, such as a mason jar, the sulfur from the egg will slowly blacken it. The length of time needed depends on the level of blackening desired, but it can be a slow process requiring hours of exposure for a deep black. (While opinions differ on the proper disposal of the eggs following the blackening process, they’re in agreement that the eggs should not be consumed.)
Plastic is all around us—and that can be a problem, since it does not de-compose and has become one of the major contaminants in the Earth’s ecosystem.
Nanz Aalund, author, goldsmith, and the owner of Nanz Aalund Art Jewelry in Poulsbo, Washington, is a big advocate against single-use plastic, and she encourages jewelers to seek out better options whenever possible. “Why use something that is disposable [and] will be around forever?”
One thing that’s particularly bothersome to her are mylar sanding discs and strips, where the sanding grit is adhered to the mylar instead of to paper. The discs or strips get used up, leaving the mylar core. “Refiners might be able to refine them, but they’re putting a heavier burden on refiners and producing toxins,” she says.
Instead, she points to paper sandpaper and paper snap-on discs as the better alternatives, since the paper at their centers can later be recycled. “I had some [mylar discs] I got as a sample,” says Aalund. “They were very nice but I never thought to purchase them again because they’re plastic. They were not so much better at what they do that I couldn’t replace them with a paper alternative that is so much better environmentally.”
Another reason to choose paper over plastic? She points out that the paper alternatives are often cheaper than the mylar versions.
Like many jewelers, Thorp has noted the sheer number of plastic bags in which suppliers tend to package things. He tries to remove any labels so he can reuse as many bags as possible, but noticed that many labels don’t easily come off. That can mean leaving bits of torn labels behind or, worse yet, tearing a hole in the bag, rendering it useless. But one day he noticed that he never had an issue with removing the labels sent to him from his platinum caster. He contacted the caster to inquire about the printer that created them. He learned that they use the Brother Label Printer QL-800 with sticker labels from Betckey Premium Labels.
“I’m about to start a campaign to ask companies to switch to this printer so their labels aren’t so sticky and are easier to remove,” he explains. “It’s a little thing, but I’m a big believer that a lot of little things can make a big difference.”
Aalund would like to see companies set up a bag-return option where customers could send back the bags, which the companies could then reuse. Better yet, she’d prefer that people embrace the use of parchment paper envelopes that could then be recycled. “I’d like to see the entire jewelry industry shift away from using plastic baggies and go back to parchment or paper options.”
Because jewelry making can be a dirty process, jewelers can go through a lot of cleaning products. Many traditional cleaning solutions contain chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulfate, which is toxic to aquatic life, and phthalates, which have been linked to reproductive health issues in animals. Exposure to them can also cause skin and lung irritation.
In an effort to go green in his shop, David Thorp removes all of the labels from the plastic bags he receives from suppliers and tucks them away to reuse. He also prefers biocompatible cleaning products and uses Simple Green’s Industrial Cleaner & Degreaser in his magnetic tumbler and for devesting things.
That’s why Thorp tries to use all biocompatible cleaning products in his shop. One of his favorite products is Simple Green’s Industrial Cleaner & Degreaser. “It has a lovely scent, is biodegradable, and has great cleaning power,” he says. In addition to working well in a magnetic tumbler, the cleaning solution does a great job of devesting things. Thorp notes that he’ll put pieces to be devested in “a jar filled with Simple Green and drop it in the ultrasonic.” The solution will effectively take off the investment.
Several years ago, Sharon Zimmerman, a jeweler, instructor, and owner of Sharon Z Jewelry in San Francisco, along with her studiomates at the time went through the process of getting certified as a San Francisco Green Business. As part of that process, Zimmerman had to have the sinks in her studio tested for water pressure output to make sure it conformed to water-saving recommendations. While the tests showed good results, they could still be better. The city sent someone out to install aerators on all of the sink faucets in the bathrooms.
“They increase the water pressure by forcing the water through smaller holes while reducing water usage,” she explains. “It saves money and water, and it was easy and inexpensive to do. It was the easiest thing that all of us could be doing.”
Jewelry making requires energy, both physical, mental, and electric. While a good night’s sleep and a positive work environment can help power you physically and mentally, you still need electricity for many of your projects, whether it’s for powering your flex-shaft or heating your kiln.
There are a few ways that jewelers can help conserve electricity. While Zimmerman can’t install solar panels on the roof of her rented studio, she does what she can to save elsewhere. She swapped out all of the fluorescent lightbulbs for LEDs, which are more energy efficient. She also got into the habit of turning off lights when they’re not needed. There’s no need to keep the lights on your bench blazing if you’re working across the studio at the anvil. And Zimmerman’s home studio gets a lot of natural light so on sunny days she can leave the lights off for most of the day.
Sharon Zimmerman tries to conserve energy wherever she can. She’s swapped out all of her shop’s fluorescent lightbulbs for LEDs and posts eye-catching reminders near light switches to remind people to turn off the lights.
Conserving energy can also mean changing up the products you use at the bench. For example, Dhein says that vegetable-based polishing compounds can be removed without heat, unlike the more traditional animal fat–based ones (which need a hot ultrasonic for removal). Dhein didn’t notice a difference in performance between the animal-fat– and vegetable-based compounds with which she worked. In fact, she says, the vegetable-based ones “produce fewer airborne particles because they become liquid at a much lower temperature,” which means there’s less material for jewelers to potentially inhale.
In his effort to move away from using petroleum-based products, Thorp has replaced his normal epoxy with a bio-based epoxy. “It’s tricky to work with,” he explains. “It takes a little more effort—it’s more than just mixing it and using it. There are more nuances with it.” He often uses the epoxy on wood, which he features in his jewelry, and has found a trick to make things easier: He heats the epoxy before applying it.
“I have a designated toaster oven to preheat the solution and the piece,” he explains. “Heating makes the liquid a little more viscous, so air bubbles naturally de-bubble themselves...it bonds with the pieces a little better.”
When David Thorp switched to using a bio-based epoxy, he had to adjust his method for applying it. He first heats the epoxy in a toaster oven to make it a little more viscous. After applying the epoxy, he mounts the piece on a custom-made rotating stand so the resin dries evenly.
He notes that these bio-based epoxies are a little more expensive than traditional ones, but because he uses such small amounts that doesn’t seem like a big deal. “Anything I can do to get me out of the realm of petrol chemicals, I’ll do.”
Dhein notes that there are several bio-based solvents on the market that are great replacements for other petroleum-based solvents. In fact, she notes that the company AstroBio in Italy has a comprehensive line of bio-based solvents, with specific ones designed for things such as removing resin and degreasing. Though bio-based products can still cause eye and skin irritation, they don’t have any hazardous material requirements.
Most carving waxes contain additives that allow them to hold up to higher temperatures when heated. Those additives prevent the waxes from melting while a jeweler carves them into models for casting. But exposure to the dust generated during cutting and grinding can cause irritation, and prolonged exposure to the dust can cause wheezing, chest tightness, nasal irritation, and even symptoms of chronic respiratory disease. It’s also recommended that users don’t breathe the fumes or vapors that result when the wax is molten.
One solution to traditional wax is beeswax. However, because it’s natural and doesn’t have the additives that carving waxes do, beeswax is best used for building models rather than carving.
“When you work with it, it’s really flexible,” says Ana María Sierra, founder and creative director of Moda Elan in Bogotá, Colombia. “It is solid at room temperature but when in contact with the fingers it is ductile and becomes highly malleable. There’s no manual [for working with it] but it’s easy to learn. It’s much better to build with it than to carve. But it allows you to produce incredible, organic pieces. You can even produce pieces as fine as filigree for casting.”
She uses beeswax when creating models using pre-Hispanic jewelry making techniques, surrounding her models with a blended mix of mud and ground charcoal and brick. For modern-day casting processes, she recommends jewelers discuss the material with their casters in advance, as many of their machines are likely not set up to burn out the material. “It might not be easy for them to do, but you might find a caster willing to do some experiments.”
As with any job, jewelry making involves a certain amount of paperwork. While Zimmerman tries to keep her printing to a minimum, when she does need to print out an invoice, she uses paper that comes from wheat straw and that is 80 percent tree-free. Wheat straw is a natural byproduct of wheat production, and farmers have often burned it after harvesting their crops. But some paper companies are now using it to create recycled products, which not only prevents trees from being harvested, but also eliminates the air pollution that results from burning the straw.
To make her business more green, Niki Grandics converted to using recyclable packaging that is 100 percent made from recyclable materials—from the customized stickers on her boxes to the shipping tape that secures her packages.
When Niki Grandics, founder of Enji Studio Jewelry in San Diego, was searching for ways to help make her business more green, she looked toward her packaging. “All of my packaging is 100 percent made from recyclable materials and is recyclable—right down to the stickers on my boxes and the shipping tape,” she says. She sources her materials from EcoEnclose, which specializes in eco-friendly packaging and shipping supplies. She notes that the supplies can all by custom printed and that the costs are comparable to what she was paying for less-green supplies. “It was an easy swap in my book.”
Zimmerman also tries to minimize her carbon footprint by batching her orders. “I used to be in a phase where if I needed something, I ordered it,” she explains. “Then, a few days later, if I needed something else, I ordered it.” Now, she waits to place orders until she has several to batch together.
For anyone interested in learning more about what they can do to be a little more green in their shop, Zimmerman recommends reaching out to local government for help. “There’s a chance that the local municipality has some kind of energy-saving program, so it’s worth checking with them,” she says. “They may even come around and help you with it,” as San Francisco officials did with Zimmerman and her faucet aerators.
And don’t let being a renter stop you from trying to make greener changes. Zimmerman points out that local municipal officials may be able to talk to your landlord on your behalf. She mentions that the organization she worked with on certification had a program that would replace toilets with low-flow toilets, covering the cost of everything except for the labor.
Also, take the time to learn about the products you’re using. Review their SDSs so that you’re aware of any risks they pose, what precautions should be taken, and the proper ways to safely dispose of them. And then follow those instructions to protect both yourself and everyone else sharing this planet. If you’re unsure about any product, reach out to the supplier or manufacturer for more information.
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