A Trip to a Colombian Gold Mine
NYC jewelry brand WWAKE lets us come along as they source their precious metals.
We’re game for a virtual trip of sipping aperol spritzes on a boat in St. Tropez any day. But there is something extra special and meaningful about taking a flight to the other side of the world with WWAKE founder Wing Yau to see where she sources the precious metals she uses in her designs. It’s a deeply cultural and stunning trip, and she took us through it by way of her lens.
Why was it important for you to travel to Colombia to the gold mines?
“WWAKE is about intimacy—from the personal scale of the designs, to the story of our materials. I think every bit of the brand is about making a connection to something that feels magical, but also something very real and inspiring. Part of my work as a designer is using my materials to design something that evokes that feeling—but the other part of my work is building relationships with the very people who have a hand in our jewelry.
“Mining is personal to me because my father worked on mines his whole life and (at short points of my childhood) we even lived in mining communities—these people are very real to me, it’s not an idealistic abstraction. If I’m going to make meaningful impact with my design, it’s important to visit and have a deeper understanding of the culture to inform my design decisions. I’m not here to repeat history and impose my vision on others, I’m here to build a real relationship. Our visit to our gold mines in Colombia allowed me to understand who is mining the gold, how they do it, and why they do it this way. As a result, we’re building a dialogue directly with the miners about what is important to them and how we can support each other.”
What are some common practices in mining that you find concerning?
“Unfair payment to miners, uncontrolled deforestation, toxic waste leaching, and unsafe mining practices by uneducated, impoverished miners, to name a few. It’s confusing to run them off in a list like this though—every mine is different in size (some are just individuals working on their own), and they don’t all share the same practices.
“My primary concern, above all, is that gold is often mixed together from several sources. This makes it impossible to trace back to its origin and isolate the issues in a constructive way (this is why we work with recycled and fair-mined gold to every degree possible).”
How are these mines doing things differently?
“First of all, these mines are run as co-ops, so each miner owns a share of the mining operation! They’re very much in control of their own standards, so health and safety are taken very seriously and very much a point of pride. Secondly, these mines are certified as ‘Fair-mined’: This means miners must work beyond international standards and regulations with their mining practices. In exchange, they’re guaranteed fair pay for their gold and additional payment to cover the costs of the certification and to invest in mining operations, social development, and environmental protection. These decisions are then made collaboratively by the co-op. They’re great examples on how micro mines will not only sustain a community, but help it flourish.”
What was the highlight of the trip?
“I met Yannitce and Narcisa, two female miners at Coodmilla Mine, and was awestruck that they liked my jewelry. Gold is the reason we met, but the metal means something very different to them, as miners, than it does to me, as a designer—jewelry, on the other hand, is universal. They tried it on, took selfies...and suddenly, we had a lot in common.”
What surprised you most?
“Mining has always struck me as a male-dominated profession, but Coodmilla Mine has a ton of women working in the field. I loved hearing their perspective on the job and on what a significant role they have in the mine. Women are kicking ass everywhere.”
Has the trip changed the way you work?
“When you see how much work is involved in safely extracting precious minerals and gemstones, and how dangerous this work can be if a mine is not set up for safety, it becomes important for us as a company to pay a little more to ensure that we know the conditions our materials are coming from. It can be tricky to do and keep prices accessible; but, like many things, it’s a constant work in progress! I believe this ethos should be, and will be, available to everyone with time.”