Modern, sustainable living

Ashley Heather turns e-waste into jewellery you’ll want to keep forever

by | Apr 3, 2020

Ashley Heather fell into jewellery making by accident. But since she first spotted a crucible of molten silver she has married her commitment to slow fashion and mindful consumption with her technical metalworking skills and a background in fine art. Recognising the global e-waste problem, Ashley sources her raw materials from this waste. Globally e-waste has increased to 44,7 million metric tonnes annually with only 20% of e-waste of it recycled properly according to the Global E-waste Monitor 2017. This means that the other 80% of electronic products are discarded in landfills or incinerators releasing harmful toxins into the air and soil.

Ashley says, “We believe that while some metal mining may always be necessary, ultimately our most important extraction operations should be taking place in scrap yards and recycling centres rather than sensitive ecological areas and ancestral lands.”

We spoke to Ashely about her work.

What inspired you to start making jewellery? 

I had always discounted it as an option for myself because of the environmental and social issues associated with mining and precious metals. Then one day I was visiting a friend who happened to be melting a crucible full of silver. I was completely spellbound by its shimmering viscosity. I signed up for a part time course the next day and one lesson in signed up for a full time jewellery design and manufacture course.

How did you find out you could use circuit boards to make jewellery?

We started off working in recycled silver from photographic waste but it became harder and harder to source the waste solutions as dark room photography is a dying art. We began looking for other single source recycling opportunities and e-waste presented itself as the ideal challenge to tackle. It is the fastest growing waste stream in the world and as a bonus contains both silver and gold, an ideal combination for a sustainable jewellery project.

What is the ethos of your brand?

We believe in slow fashion, in mindful consumption, in style that transcends trends. Our contemporary designs are pared down to their essential elements; simplicity and quality craftsmanship become as timeless as the materials themselves. Our hope is to return to a view of jewellery as an heirloom worthy of passing down; it’s not just about the object itself but also about a just world for future generations.

Is everything on the circuit board smelted? 

The whole board is smelted, the plastic of the board burns away (all the fumes are processed in special air scrubbers so no pollution is created during this process), the remnants of the boards are tapped off as a by-product and the remaining metal mass is then separated and purified.

Where do you source the circuit boards?

We source boards from all over the country both independently and in partnerships with e-waste aggregators.

Do you only use circuit boards to make jewellery or do you use other kinds of e-waste too?

Gold and silver are used in electronics because they are such great conductors of electricity. When people think of circuit boards they often think of green printed circuit boards but there is also gold and silver in elements related to them such as contractors and CPUs, we process these as well.

What inspires your designs?

Our designs are inspired by the world around us. I find the massive hulk of a building’s angles just as inspiring as the texture of a delicate blade of grass but mainly I delight in the challenge of distilling any design, no matter what its inspiration is, down to its essential elements.

What kind of packaging do you use to sell the jewellery?

All our jewellery comes in a handmade hemp bag with a story about the process printed on recycled paper.

Are there any sustainability challenges you face in your work? If so, what are some of these challenges?

As with most sustainable alternatives there are huge challenges. Right now however, sourcing the e-waste is not our biggest problem. There is an alarming amount of electronic products discarded in South Africa everyday. However, e-waste processing is a highly technical operation and this has been the source of most of our recent challenges. We have to be very careful in our planning to make sure we have enough gold and silver with which to work. It’s not a process of popping down to the local jewellery supply store to get some more untraceable metals if we run out. The transformation from e-waste to high quality jewellery grade gold and silver can take a few months. 

How has the covid-19 pandemic affected your business?

I am currently typing this from my dining room table. Our team is off during this time with full pay although we are all pitching in remotely where we can to tackle admin and communication tasks. Our expenses remain pretty much the same but our income has all but ground to a halt. Like for all small businesses this is going to be a challenging time us. ⁠Our online store is running as usual, but all orders placed now will be manufactured once the lockdown has been lifted. I’ll still very much be on the other end of my email and on social media to answer any questions people may have.

Where can the general public dispose of their e-waste responsibly? 

People are welcome to drop off their e-waste at our Woodstock studio otherwise this is a helpful link for finding a drop off site near you.

Image credits: @ashleyheatherjewellery, Tink Photos, Karin Schermbrucker, Slingshot Media, Lydia Harper @lids_harper Model:Andrea Goodman @andrea.nunezt


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