Kathryn Bishop finds out just how the process is done.
While metal refining is a crucial spoke in the wheel of the jewellery industry, it is a process that has been kept very much out of the public eye. Kathryn Bishop travels to British refinery Capella to lift the veil on just how precious metals are melted down and restored to full purity.
The gold refining business in the UK is something that has long remained behind closed doors, involving process that many of us are unaware of but that plays a vital role in the creation of the jewellery retailers sell and the metals designers work with.
Capella, however, is changing this as it brings its precious metal refining service to a wider and more varied audience and last month opened its doors to Professional Jeweller, allowing insight
into the refining process and its growing UK business.
The company was founded in 1997 by three former employees of Auro Argenta, a gold refiner that was acquired 16 years ago by the Cookson Group. Its founders Kevin Bloor and Roy Massey teamed with Duncan Marshal to open the space, primarily a refiners and more recently a bullion dealers and the UK’s only refiner certified to refine Fairtrade Fairmined gold under Flo-CERT legislation.
Capella director Kevin Bloor explains that this year is Capella’s 15th in business and since its founding it has grown to work with jewellery retailers, pawnbrokers, manufacturers and brands of all levels, scrapping their metal, recovering diamonds and precious stones from old stock or jewellery, refining it for future use or simply paying the customer the scrap price and producing ingots of metal at the other end of its production line.
Capella has a number of what it terms products, which include its refining and stone recovery services, metal recycling and bullion-making, the latter primarily called upon by customers for investment purposes.
Bloor explains that, as the price of gold and precious metals have fluctuated in recent years, so has Capella’s market. “We’ve noticed a change in what our customers are bringing in," he says. "We’re now dealing more with scrap, whereas eight, nine years ago it was mostly pure metals and bullion that we were refining.”
As manufacturing comes full circle and is beginning to take roots in the UK once again – companies such as Brown & Newirth and Domino are priding themselves on offering British-made goods – Capella says this has driven customers to take on its UK-based services. And as more designers and manufacturers begin working with metals recycled within the UK, the more product choice Capella is able to offer, providing a chain of custody from old scrap to new designs.
“We have more and more customers coming to us because they can create lines with metal that is entirely recycled in the UK,” explains Bloor. “We have one lady who buys recycled silver from us who makes jewellery using old glass from bottles that have washed up on the beach, while another mixes recycled silver and wood.”
Capella also recently sponsored Bucks New University jewellery student Joanna Taylor, providing her with recycled silver to create her graduate collection after she contacted Capella for information during the writing of her dissertation.
The First Steps
But how does the process begin, and just what does it involve? In fact, it is much simpler than many might think, beginning with customers sending in metal to Capella to be processed or having it collected by the company’s in-house courier, who travels all over the UK collecting precious metals from its customer base.
Once it arrives at the refiner’s headquarters, every item is tested to determine its alloy, with everything from a simple magnet test, which will pick up anything that isn’t precious, to a quick blast of radiation using a desktop machine that will help determine its purity – especially important, says Capella, in the case of gold where some supposed 22ct products fall just below par at about 21ct.
All of the items of value are then logged and anything superfluous or non-precious is kept to one side to be returned to the customer. Often this can lead to surprising finds, such as chains that bear 9ct gold hallmarks at the loop near the clasp; while the clasp is gold the chain is base metal. This example highlights the way in which retailers might be mis-sold product that they have failed to test themselves, while also highlighting how much trust retailers put in hallmarks.
Once logged the items are then separated out by alloy and the customer is able to select between getting the price for the metal to be scrapped or having the metal refined and returned to them in a useable form or as a bar for investment.
The rise in people scrapping gold and silver is mostly related to finance, says Marshal, who works on the shop floor at the production site. He and a colleague are sorting through a mixed box of silver jewellery that includes several heavily laden charm bracelets, ingots, engraved cigarette cases and christening bangles.
“You can let yourself sit and consider the sentimentality of everything that comes in but right now many people are realising how much money is tied up into their precious metals or that old chain they’ve inherited, and what else they could do with the money,” says Marshal.
In the corner of the room sits a tub with a mixed number of silver items including tarnished silver teapots, solid silver commemorative coins celebrating everyone from Richard Nixon to Samuel Pepys, as well as bags of brand new silver lockets, chains and christening bangles, typically returned or dead stock from catalogue companies and jewellery manufacturers.
“[Customers] get more for scrapping these items today, as new, than they want to spend having them made,” reveals Marshal. “So even though they’re brand new products the scrap price can be worth more to them right now than the stock sitting idle in stock waiting to be purchased.”
The Refining Method
Capella has developed its own method of refining, using many traditional techniques but also enabling it to work to order, rather than producing large quantities of gold or silver that will be kept in its safe, waiting for an order.
Massey, Capella’s co-founder alongside Bloor, oversees the first stage of the refining process and is very much hands-on in his role.
At the point a customer’s rings, chains, bracelets, picture frames, coins, trinkets and charms reach Massey, they are poised to be transformed into a meltable product – a powder that is then refined one final time using an electrolytic process to create metal with a purity of 99.99%, a process that involves many steps and can take several days to achieve.
The company is able to refine about 200kg of mixed metal alloys a week, whether silver, gold, platinum or palladium. At present it is also the only UK refinery to be able to refine Fairtrade Fairmined gold, which typically arrives in bar form direct from Columbia, with a purity of about 98%.
Capella is able to refine the metal over and over again – sending it through various acid baths and filters – to make it the purest Fairtrade Fairmined gold possible with a purity of about 99.99%.
"The past 15 months the amount we’re processing has been increasing," explains Massey. As a result, Capella will soon welcome a new arrival — a smart piece of specialist equipment from Germany that will allow it to process an extra 30kg a day of precious alloy scrap, far beyond the capability of the heated acid beakers.
"Manufacturing in the UK has returned to being a cottage industry," says Bloor. "So it’s great when we see people who have used Capella and its services to make something new." Indeed, old methods are meeting new eras — long may it continue.