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Radical Jewelry Makeover Transforms Art, Promotes Ethical Mining Issues at Appalachian State University

By Megan Northcote

Sarah Parker, ASU senior painting major and RJM participant, plays with strands of beads, which were donated to the RJM project. Photo by Megan Northcote

Oct. 2, 2012. Wedding rings from a failed marriage, childhood butterfly charms with a missing wing, mismatched gold earrings, over-loved and overstretched silver chain bracelets. 

Each of these pieces of forgotten jewelry tells a very personal story of a community member in the High Country who donated their jewelry to the seventh Radical Jewelry Makeover (RJM), a traveling, international collaborative community jewelry mining and recycling project, hosted by the Caterhine J. Smith Gallery and Art Department at Appalachian State University.

Last Thursday marked the event kickoff, featuring RJM Project Director Susie Ganch, who introduced the project to the community.

For the next couple weeks, students and community members will collaborate to transform old, broken jewelry received through community donations, into new recycled jewelry. The jewelry will be sold at a pop-up jewelry exhibition on Tuesday, Oct. 23 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Solarium of the Plemmons Student Union.    

RJM is an offshoot project of Ethical Metalsmiths, a nonprofit founded to spread awareness of ethical, sustainable metal mining among artisans.

In addition, Ethical Metalsmiths hopes to promote what is known as a transparent supply chain, which means helping artisans and jewelry consumers track the origins of their jewelry to make sure the metals are being mined from sustainable sites.

Yet sometimes tracking the origins of your jewelry is easier said than done.

That’s where Radical Jewelry Makeover comes in.

RJM participant and ASU student Sarah Parker displays a possible layout for a sweater pin design. Photo by Megan Northcote

RJM is designed to teach community members about ethical metal mining issues, while encouraging them to recycle old jewelry into new renewable pieces instead of purchasing more unethically sourced jewelry, Ganch said.   

The RJM in Boone marks the seventh project since the projects inception in February 2007 at the Virginia Commonwealth University. Ganch, a studio artist, teaches at the university as an associate art professor and heads their metals program.

Ganch teamed up with Miller from Ethical Metalsmiths when she realized they were both struggling with similar issues in the jewelry industry.

“We were both thinking about the jewelry industry and the glut of product being made every year,” Ganch said.  “For instance, in the jewelry industry, most things are made for one season and then it’s destined for the landfill, like when the glue joint breaks or the painting comes off. It’s not made for long term use; it’s made for the trash can.” 

In addition to failing to recycle jewelry, many other environmental and health issues result from unethically sourced jewelry.

According to Ethical Metalsmith’s website, metal mining is the most toxic polluter in the United States, responsible for 96 percent of arsenic emissions and 76 percent of lead emissions. 

RJM Project Director Susie Ganch (left) works alongside Meg Roberts (right), who has served as Ganch’s project assistant since the project’s inception in February 2007. Roberts was also Ganch’s former student at Virginia Commonwealth University. Photo by Megan Northcote

In particular, up to 95 percent of the mercury that is released into the environment is released through small scale, artisanal mining, yet an estimated 100 million people depend on artisanal mining for their livelihood, Ganch said.

While the unethical artisanal mining of any metal, such as copper, silver or aluminum, is reason for alarm, Ganch said gold mining has some of the worst environmental consequences.

“Between 60 to 80 percent of gold mined in the United States is made into jewelry,” Ganch said.  “It has this high profile. If we could clean up gold mining, maybe the mining of other metals will also follow, like the domino effect.”

Both Ganch and Miller decided the best way to raise awareness about the unsustainable practices of the jewelry industry was by taking action to educate the community.

The result – RJM.

While the project has traveled to a variety of different locations, including Pennsylvania, San Francisco and even Australia, the basic premise stays the same.

About a month before the event, community members donate broken, unused jewelry to the project. Then, community artists and jewelers spend a few weeks collaborating to produce recycled jewelry, which is later exhibited and sold.

Last Saturday, RJM project participants sorted all fifty donated jewelry pieces into categories based on material type or design, such as gold, leather, and organic. Photo by Megan Northcote

IlaSahai Prouty, assistant art professor at ASU, decided to invite Ganch to implement RJM at ASU in conjunction with Prouty’s class, Art for Social Change.

“I was interested in bringing Susie in because this [RJM] project changes the way people think and behave,” Prouty said.  “It can change the way they think about jewelry, metals, and mining and it changes their behavior as far as how they purchase jewelry in the future.”  

Prouty’s students, most of whom are not art majors, will collaborate with ASU metal students and a few professional jewelers in Boone to learn innovative metalsmithing skills. Each participant will have until Monday, October 15 to create either one or two pieces of recycled jewelry, which will then be sold to the community at the pop-up exhibition gallery on Oct. 23. Some of the proceeds will go back to the RJM project to help with funding for future projects and research, while 60 percent of the funding will be donated by the students to a nonprofit of their choice in the Boone art community.

Unlike other large-scale RJM events, the ASU RJM features a smaller group of 55 student and professional artists, allowing for a more intimate learning experience, Ganch said.

On Saturday, ASU students gathered to sort their “mining load,” that is, approximately 50 pieces of community donated jewelry, into material categories, such as leather, organic, and precious gold, as determined by the students.  

While most of the donations included cosmetic jewelry, pearls and stones, nearly two pounds of silver and 33 grams of gold were also sorted.

In addition, each item was photographed and documented in a spreadsheet as a systematic way of determining the value of each piece for gifting donors with a coupon to purchase recycled jewelry at the exhibition.    

“I think yesterday’s sorting day was the best sorting day in the history of Radical Jewelry Makeover,” Ganch said. “Because we didn’t have so many donations, we were able to slow the process down. We worked with students to teach them how to identify materials and recognize trends in jewelry and had them guide the process.”

Last Saturday, RJM project participants sorted all fifty donated jewelry pieces into categories based on material type or design, such as gold, leather, and organic. Photo by Megan Northcote

A written story record is kept on file for each donated item to preserve the personal history with each piece, which are often times incorporated into new pieces of jewelry. 

“Not only is the jewelry monetarily valuable, but it’s emotionally valuable,” Ganch said. “Sometimes our most precious possessions are jewelry. It’s pretty intense to think that the jewelry you’re wearing that signifies the everlasting love of your spouse was made and caused environmental damage in perpetuity. How can you link something so beautiful to something so awful and tragic?”

The solution – allow artists to find creative, more renewable ways to recycle this jewelry without altering the underlying personal significance of the piece.

For instance, instead of soldering metal, which is toxic to reheat, artists will use what Prouty calls, cold connections, including rivets and jump rings, to reconnect jewelry pieces without causing further harm to the environment.

By not melting down precious metals, the purity of the metal is also maintained, Ganch said.

In addition, artists are encouraged to anticipate future trends in the jewelry industry and create new pieces of jewelry, which incorporate those trend. 

“[RJM] offers design solutions that are forward thinking, that anticipate what these materials might do in the future when the work that is being made today is no longer interesting or viable or expresses the needs of the culture,” Ganch said.  “It’s not that we’re teaching any new techniques, we’re actually just saying, could you put on your radical jewelry makeover lenses and make something that might be wanted, needed, or desired later, seven generation down the road.” 

Want to go:

Jewelry Making Workshops
Date: Friday, Oct. 5 and Monday, Oct. 8 through Wednesday, Oct. 10
Location: Workshops are held in the metals lab on the first floor inside Wey Hall on the west side of ASU’s campus. 
Time: 12 p.m. until 6 p.m.
Workshops are free and open to the public

Pop-up Jewelry Exhibition Sale
Date: Tuesday, Oct. 23
Location: Solarium, Plemmons Student Union
Time: 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.   

Additional images

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