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Can we be more sustainable in the studio?

We will revisit the journey taken from the time we arrive at the studio until we finish a piece of jewellery, in order to identify more sustainable ways of working.

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Sustainability in the studio is a journey undergoing experimentation and ongoing evolution.

 

 

In a jewellery studio, we often use a broad range of materials, tools, products and techniques, as well as energy sources and other services. Can we improve the sustainability of our daily practices? In order to discover new ways of working, and to remember others, in this article we propose an experiential review of the journey taken from the moment we enter the workshop until completing a piece of jewellery.

Shall we begin?

LIFTING UP THE SHUTTERS  

1. The first thing we do upon arriving at the studio is switch on the light. What type of energy supply have we subscribed to? Energy services can be supplied from renewable sources, and from small businesses or from our surrounding environment. We can extend the example to gas, if we need to procure this type of energy. And also to water, although there are generally few options when it comes to sourcing a water supply. What we try to do is to be efficient and use them in an environmentally friendly way.

We proceed in the same way in the case of lighting, using low-energy installations, LED bulbs and fluorescent bulbs, smart sockets, etc., in order to optimise and reduce our energy needs. At the same time, we can consider ensuring that the thermal phases are well defined in order to dispense with latent electricity consumption. And remember what we were told at home since childhood: “Switch the light off when you leave the room!”

2. We probably turn on the computer to answer emails, and make quotations or invoices. We create documents in digital format and, if they need to be printed, we print them double-sided.

We must also be aware of the carbon footprint we create in the digital world. For instance, leaving the computer on until the following day, saving files in the cloud or making video calls causes greenhouse gases associated with global warming. Did you know that the emails you don’t reply to (as well as the lists you subscribe to and don’t read) are also polluting? The vast infrastructures needed to run information technologies generate around 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions [1].

It is of vital importance to choose suppliers that target emission reductions. We can also make small gestures such as deleting emails we don’t need, unsubscribing from lists that don’t really interest us, avoiding sending wholly unnecessary messages, and closing browser windows that we are not using.

3. We continue our day and begin to design a new piece of jewellery. Even if we choose 3D design, we usually make the first sketches on paper, and even present these drawings to the person who is commissioning the piece. Here, the questions to ask ourselves are as follows: What type of paper do we use? Do we reuse cuttings, “dirty” paper? Do we have a recycling point?

GETTING OUR HANDS DIRTY

4. Now comes the moment we are most looking forward to: all hands on deck. This is also the part of the process where we can examine the materials we use and their lifespan. As a general rule, we apply reduction, reuse and recycling in all possible aspects of the workshop, in order to avoid unnecessary consumption and to foster the circular economy.

The quality of consumables and small tools is a key issue; the old saying “buying cheap is a false economy” is often true. We try to make them reusable to avoid disposable packaging and consumables. And wherever possible, we always opt for local suppliers, with social and sustainability values.

Researching and experimenting with less polluting products and techniques is one of the key ways to manage to minimise the environmental impact of our work in the workshop. Here are some practical tips on how to do this.

TOOLS

Keep them in good condition to try to extend their useful life as much as possible. Putting silicon sachets (silica gel) in drawers or places where there is humidity can help to reduce it (e.g. for burins, which rust very quickly). Keeping tools lubricated also helps to reduce metal rust, particularly on tools that are rarely used, which can be stored in a drawer wrapped in a cotton cloth soaked in oil.

SOLDERING

Cadmium and fluoride are chemicals that are commonly used in the soldering process, but have negative effects on the respiratory system when we inhale their fumes. Damage from sustained exposure to these toxins can be avoided by using cadmium-free solders and fluorine-free fluxes [2].

Among the supporting materials for soldering, we can also find more environmentally friendly and much cheaper alternatives than those we can find at specialised suppliers to protect other solder joints or some gemstones. There are heat protection pastes on the market that we can substitute with a mixture of talcum powder and distilled water or alcohol, or use clay. They are highly effective solutions for which only small quantities are needed.

Jewellers even share different tricks with each other that can be useful, such as soldering solitaires with a diamond or another gemstone by dipping the stone part in a small container of water and working with the soldering torch only on the opposite side of the ring. We can use a similar technique with delicate welds by dipping these parts in a potato, where the moisture and coolness of the potato dissipates the heat and does not affect the area that we do not want to come into contact with the torch.

STRIPPING

Wherever possible, look for less hazardous alternatives, such as biodegradable stripping salts or citric acid, as well as biodegradable oil-based soaps (Castile soap, in herbalists’ shops).

Potassium alum is a good alternative to pickling salts; a caustic salt suitable for precious and non-ferrous metals. It removes oxides and flux deposits at the soldering points. It dissolves in water and produces a whitish solution that can make it difficult to distinguish, so it is advisable to place the pieces in a strainer or plastic mesh. We can buy it in local drug and hardware shops.

POLISHING

When it comes to polishing jewellery to finish it, we can use options that do not contain silica or silicon dioxide, since it may produce a fine silica dust that, over the years, can cause silicosis, a serious long-term lung disease.

A good idea can be to look for waterproof emery wheels because, on the one hand, it reduces the dust generated during polishing and, on the other hand, it is a material that can be reused and is subject to less wear and tear than conventional emery wheels. In the case of the typical rolls for a handheld motor, 3M brand paper performs well because of its resistance.

Emery cloth can also be used in some parts of the process. This is an abrasive cloth that is used like sandpaper, but in this case a fabric (canvas) is used as a backing material. Abrasive cloth is more resistant to mechanical loads and thus has a longer service life. It also performs well for machine sanding.

ENAMELLING

Avoid enamels containing lead. Current regulations prohibit the manufacturing of lead-containing enamels, although existing quantities of old ones, which have a higher gloss, are still on the market, but we should adapt to the changes.

Before starting to use the enamel, it must be ground and cleaned. To use transparent colours, a drop of nitric acid is usually added in the final water changes, which purifies the colour of any remaining impurities and makes it brighter, although this is a step that can be easily avoided.

Copper is often used for enamelling, and the best way to clean and prepare it before starting to load the enamel is to use vinegar saturated with salt. This mixture degreases and cleans the metal perfectly in order to be able to enamel without the need to resort to much more aggressive acids.

For enamelling techniques such as champlevé or cloisonné, it is often necessary to apply lapidary techniques on the enamelled work in order to smooth the surface, and the open pore of the enamel is usually cleaned with ammonia. However, if we work carefully we can clean the enamel thoroughly by boiling the piece in water for a few moments or by passing it through an ultrasonic cleaner with distilled water.

OXIDATION AND PATINATIONS

In order to achieve an aged finish on metal and to obtain coloured patinas, there are many methods and chemicals that can be mixed to obtain various effects and colours. Replacing the chemical action with less aggressive and polluting methods is difficult, but there are proposals such as Swellegant patinas, which are low in toxicity, odourless and easy to handle, as they are diluted with a water base.

It is also possible to achieve good results by treating the metal with foodstuffs such as vinegar or lemon and salt, among others, which require more time for action and, in some cases, result in less intense colours. These processes require further experimentation to reach equally interesting effects.

In the case of oxidised (aged or black) silver, an alternative method of substituting commercial patina, which is highly toxic and polluting, is to use boiled eggs. There are also less toxic products like palladium and ethanol solution sold by the German supplier Fischer (Oxidising Flux 100 ccm); it is harmless but highly flammable, so it must be handled and stored with great care.

OTHER ISSUES

For cleaning silver, there are non-toxic and non-hazardous deoxidising options, such as bicarbonate or strained ash. Whenever possible, avoid jewellery cleaning liquids, which bleach silver in a few seconds, since these products are highly carcinogenic.

There are also non-toxic products available of the likes of a spray coating to protect silver from oxidation, or chamois leather, which is harmless. A couple of options are Germar-Silver Care 25 ml and Germar-Noblesse Spray 25 ml.

Additionally, and in a generalised manner in the workshop, it is crucial to pay special attention to the safety data sheets of the products. Being non-toxic does not mean that they are biodegradable, so we cannot pour the liquid products we use (paint strippers, oxides and other solutions) into the sewage system. It is important to properly dispose of the waste generated in the workshop at a green point.

JEWELLERY READY TO DELIVER

5. Have you ever stopped to wonder with which materials you deliver and ship your jewellery? Packaging has an impact that can also be positive when working with, for example, local and entrepreneurial companies that use recycled and recyclable materials, or materials from controlled deforestation under certification, with non-toxic inks, etc.

In addition, it is also worth considering what type of packaging to use for shipping orders or whether it can be recycled, and with which companies to ship orders. Increasing numbers of companies are using green packaging, and we can reduce our carbon footprint by choosing less polluting means of transport or companies that offer environmental offset programmes.

Sustainability in the studio is a journey undergoing ongoing evolution and review, so we always try to seek improvement in a natural way, being responsible and questioning whether what we are doing is still the right thing to do or whether there is something we can change. Perhaps these questions will lead us to some unwelcome answers, such as considering giving up an activity that brings us income. Do not forget that we have a business, but there will always be room for improvement, and having a list of specific goals will help us to move forward.