The decision that Kate Middleton's wedding ring will be fashioned by the crown jeweller Harry Collins, from a nugget of Welsh gold donated by the queen, continues a British royal tradition dating back to 1923 when Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the Duke of York, later to become George VI.
With tomorrow's royal nuptials billed as a very modern wedding, there are some who feel that the royal family missed a trick by upholding tradition rather than opting for a ring crafted from the first batch of Fairtrade and Fairmined certified gold, released in February.
To be entirely fair, as the groom is Prince William of Wales it is only fitting that his bride should wear a band of Welsh gold. For the rest of us, though, the advent of ethical gold adds a whole new dimension to jewellery, and in particular to the highly emotive choice of wedding rings. Just as we are able to make informed choices regarding ethically sourced food, clothing and precious stones, so gold is now coming under scrutiny in terms of provenance.
Spearheaded by the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK in partnership with the Alliance for Responsible Mining (AIM), Fairtrade and Fairmined gold is initially being sourced from small-scale artisanal mines in South America.
"Mining is the second-largest employer after agricultural and textiles production worldwide and globally 100 million people are dependent on mining, if you take into account the miners' families. Of those, 15 million work in gold," explains Gemma Cartwright, the gold market co-ordinator at the Fairtrade Foundation. "Ninety per cent of the people working in gold mining are working in artisanal small-scale mines in developing countries, which are affected the most in terms of poverty and work conditions. Ours is the only independent certification system for gold, as we use independent auditors to verify what we are doing."
According to the ethical gold campaigners nodirtygold.org, just one gold ring leaves an average of 20 tonnes of rock waste from the mine. Pollution and water contamination from the toxic chemicals involved, such as cyanide, arsenic and mercury, can be devastating for workers and local residents. Child labour is common and women often work in hazardous conditions with babies strapped to their backs and toddlers by their side, according to a policy report at the Fairtrade Foundation. Artisanal miners rarely get the correct price for their gold.
With a view to an international roll-out, more than 20 UK-based jewellery designers including the world's oldest jeweller, Garrard, plus the bespoke jewellers Stephen Webster, Annaloucah, EC One, Ingle & Rhodes and the ethical jeweller Cred Jewellery, are currently Fairtrade and Fairmined gold licensees. Only licensees are able to use the dual Fairtrade and Fairmined hallmarks on their designs. Cartier has also announced that it plans to begin using Fairmined gold.
"As we stand, the supply of ethical gold is small and the awareness is still quite low; this is much more about the future," says Stephen Webster, the creative director for both Stephen Webster and Garrard, who has just added a Fairtrade bridal collection to his eponymous line.
Adding about 10 per cent to the total bill, certified gold comes at a price, but many designers are absorbing these costs rather than charging the customer extra. "We pay a premium to the miners and process the gold in an isolated system to ensure physical traceability which has associated costs," comments Christian Cheesman, the director of Cred Jewellery. "For us the question is not why Fairtrade and Fairmined gold costs more, but rather why is standard gold so cheap?"
Jos Skeates, the co-founder and owner of EC One, agrees. "Who wouldn't want to have a symbol of love made from the most ethical materials? It reflects the person who has commissioned the piece in the first place, and says something about them and their ethics."
While ethical gold is exactly the same as gold produced in unethical conditions, "the unique properties associated with Fairtrade and Fairmined gold are emotional," according to Tim Ingle, the director of Ingle & Rhodes, "based on the knowledge that by choosing it you have used your spending power as a consumer to say no to exploitation and yes to social and environmental responsibility."
Adding celebrity kudos to ethical gold, the film producer and Fairtrade ambassador Livia Firth wore a beautiful set of Fairtrade jewellery by Annaloucah, which also created her jewellery for the Golden Globes, to watch her husband Colin Firth collect his Oscar for The King's Speech. Firth's covetable Oscar pieces were named after Juana Pena Endova, the female Bolivian gold miner who took the first bar of Fairtrade and Fairmined gold to London to launch the initiative. "Her stories of the harsh realities of mining for gold 35,000ft above sea level made a deep impact on everybody present," says Anna Loucah of Annaloucah, whose Oscar designs recently raised £25,000 (Dh151,000) for Oxfam.
"I'm very proud to have been a part of the project," she adds. "The Golden Globes pieces are being auctioned at the Dubai International Film Festival later this year, so you'll have to watch this space."