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The use of gold throughout history: how is gold extracted?

The characteristics of gold make it one of the most sought after precious metals throughout history. The application of ethical methods is absolutely essential to eliminate the environmental impact of its extraction.

Roca con oro (c) ARM

The massive extraction of gold by large mining companies has led to unsustainable environmental pollution of the planet.

Gold is one of the few heavy metals we can find in the ground, and its unique particularities have made it a much sought after precious metal throughout history. The discovery of gold dates back thousands of years before Christ. Despite not knowing exactly when in history that gold was first discovered, the Necropolis of Varna (in Bulgaria) is identified as the first site where worked gold was found. The site dates back to the end of the Bronze Age, between 4600 and 4200 BC.

The low alterability, its physical properties and sparkling features have made gold the most malleable precious metal on earth, which has made it one of the most valued raw materials for jewellery.

The forms of extracting gold: the risk of destroying the environment

Gold mines have been discovered throughout history on all the continents of the planet earth. Beyond the Necropolis of Varna, discoveries of gold mines were made in Sumer and Ancient Egypt dated thousands of years before Christ. With the passing of time, the techniques of gold extraction were gradually perfected, and the Romans began to use hydraulic mining. This method used water pressure to separate the gold from the rocky material in which it was encrusted.

During antiquity the method known as gold panning was also common. This technique involves using a concave recipient where the sand and gravel containing gold is poured. With this technique, the gold, on being denser than the sand and rock, ends up separating in the bottom of the recipient.

Nevertheless, the role of gold in the history of humanity took on more prominence in the 19th century, the period in which what is called the ‘gold standard’ was introduced. During that century Europe began to set the value of the currencies of their different economies in relation to a specific quantity of gold. This caused gold to become even more sought after, and methods of extraction began to be used based on the application of chemical products, such as cyanide.

This method of extraction consists of mixing a cyanide solution between thin rocks that may contain gold. To attain the separation of the gold from the rock a solution of zinc is also added, which generates chemical waste, and which is later eliminated with nitric or sulphuric acid. This extraction technique is much more efficient, but also means risks due the contamination that may be caused in the mines, their natural environment, and even in underground water.

The Fairmined certification, the guarantee of extracting gold without environmental impact

The massive extraction of gold undertaken by large mining companies has resulted in unsustainable environmental contamination for the planet. But today we have alternatives in precious metal extraction capable of respecting the environment. This is the case of Fairmined, a seal that certifies that the gold from the item of jewellery has been obtained respecting standards regarding people and the environment.

The Fairmined certification, issued through the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM) has a series of requisites aimed at “progressively minimising the major risks and negative environmental impacts” of mining activity. Thus, the Fairmined gold guarantees the minimum and correct use of mercury and cyanide in the extraction of gold. Among its numerous requisites, the Fairmined certificate also establishes mechanisms to protect the water sources close to gold mines, and actions to produce a positive environmental legacy in the zones of extraction.

Article originally published by Majoral, 18 March 2021.