Twelve years ago, Eliza Walter was studying design at high school in England when she learned about e-mining, the process of recovering precious metals from electronic waste. During a school trip to a local foundry in Melton Mowbray, the owner explained to Ms. Walter and other students that gold was mined from the earth, but there also was a way to obtain it from landfills.
“You just remember things, don’t you sometimes, when something is very, very memorable,” Ms. Walter, founder of the Lylie jewelry brand, said in an interview at her West London atelier.
After researching electronic waste and completing a course at Holts Academy (now the British Academy of Jewellery) in London’s Hatton Garden area, Ms. Walter opened her online jewelry business in 2017. She now designs pieces that are produced by about 30 freelance goldsmiths using gold recovered from electronics as well as dental waste, like gold fillings.
Jewelry brands big and small have been turning to e-mining, using metals reprocessed from devices such as mobile phones, laptops, gaming consoles and graphics cards as an alternative to mined materials. Among the reasons gold and other precious metals are used in electronics is because they are good conductors of electricity and tend to resist corrosion. Recycling can reduce the need for mining, which can be harmful to the environment.
In 2020 the world’s largest jewelry maker by volume, the Danish brand Pandora, announced that by 2025 all of its jewelry would be made from recycled gold and silver, some of which would come from electronic waste. It had noted in its 2020 annual report: “Recycling of consumer electronics is particularly low — in Europe only around 40 percent of electronic waste is recycled, and in Asia only around 10 percent.”
‘There to Be Used’
Electronic waste “is an amazing resource and it’s there to be used,” said Kim Parker, a jewelry editor and the former executive fashion and jewelry director for Harper’s Bazaar U.K. Recycled gold, she said, “started off being a kind of a small consumer-led sort of trend, but now, you know, it’s something that consumers are actually demanding.”
“Part of the problem has been having the technology and the resources to be able to refine” the waste, she said.
The Royal Mint, owned by the British government, has been working on that issue. In late 2021, it announced a partnership with the Canadian start-up Excir to recover metals from discarded technology.
And since March it has been building a multimillion-pound plant in South Wales that, after its completion in 2023, is expected to process 90 tons of electronic waste per week.
Some of the metals recovered by the mint’s new plant will be used in its jewelry collection, a product line that the business, which historically made coins and commemorative items, introduced in May.
Sean Millard, the mint’s chief growth officer, said during a video interview that the partnership and the plant were both part of what he called a “vertically integrated strategy” to turn the mint into a manufacturer, enabling it to produce materials “for U.K. jewelers who want to have a source in the U.K., and equally international brands that want to be able to manufacture in the U.K.”
Looking to the Future
Several small jewelers said there are still advances needed in reclaiming metals. For example, at Lylie’s operation, gold recovered from as many as 17.5 phones is required to produce one wedding band.
Ms. Walter said she once had a customer “who met his girlfriend on a dating app and he wanted to be able to use the gold from his exact phone when they first connected to make their wedding rings.” She couldn’t make that dream come true but, she said, it is something she would like to introduce one day.
The brand does give credit to customers who present broken or unwanted jewelry for recycling, and it plans to accept old phones for metal recovery by next year. (Gold is found on a phone’s motherboard.)
Cellphone recycling is something the jewelry brand NoWa, established in the Netherlands in 2019, already offers.
Its founder, Josette de Vroeg, had been doing marketing for Closing the Loop, a waste compensation organization in Amsterdam that collects discarded electronics from repair shops and other partners such as schools and churches in Africa, when she had the idea for NoWa, short for No Waste.
“But it annoyed me that it was so complicated to tell the story,” she said in a video call. “I thought you have to make something really cool out of the resources from the mobile phone” — so she decided to make jewelry, even though she had no background in the field herself.
It took about two years and 15,000 euros ($15,385), raised on Kickstarter, to find a factory that could recycle phones and refine the metal, and to get the business started.
Now it sells pieces like the Infinity bracelet, made of silver with a finish of 14-karat gold, priced at €49.95; the line’s most expensive piece is the large version of the Eternal Connection necklace, also in 14-karat gold, at €795. All the jewelry is made in the Netherlands, which also is the business’s primary market, although Ms. De Vroeg said she has plans for international expansion next year.
Even at Paris’s Place Vendôme, the world center of high jewelry, e-mining has been making inroads since 2018, when the jewelry brand Courbet debuted. Founded by Manuel Mallen and Marie-Ann Wachtmeister, it also has investment from Chanel.
“From the beginning,” said Mr. Mallen, who has 30 years experience working in luxury, including with the Richemont Group, “the idea was to create the first ecological jewelry brand of Place Vendôme,” he said. “And there is two parts very important in the jewelry: the diamonds on one side and the gold on the other side. And from the beginning, we decided to have recycled gold.”
Courbet uses only lab-grown diamonds, which are made by recreating the heat and pressure conditions of a mined diamond, and works with Agosi, a waste management company based in Germany, to source electronic waste metal for its high-jewelry designs, which start at €350. The most expensive piece on its website is the Céleste necklace in yellow gold and accented with 5.25 carats of diamonds, priced at €21,800.
“I think that ecological is everywhere today,” said Mr. Mallen, adding that half of the brand’s sales are engagement rings and wedding bands, bought by customers he described as 25 to 35 years old who have grown up with concern for the environment.
“They don’t want to celebrate something that’s very important for them with a gold or a diamond which damaged the earth,” he said.