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Good As Gold

The Metal That Put California and South Africa on the Map Is Still a Hot Commodity Around the World
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

(continued from page 1)

Over time, geologists showed that the reef extended in a wide arc that stretched 40 miles east of present-day Johannesburg to 90 miles west. It then picked up again, some 200 miles to the southwest as well as to the southeast. In all, the arc of gold covers more than 300 miles. But the arc, lying as much as three miles beneath the ground, is on average, only one foot thick. This gold was well worth having--but oh so hard to get.

No Tom, Dick or Geraldo could mine this gold. The names associated with South Africa's gold mines were more on the order of Cecil Rhodes and the Rothschilds, men outfitted with money instead of pans and shovels. Four of the six mining houses formed at the time still exist, including Rhodes' Gold Fields of South Africa.

The money was needed to sink shafts deep into the earth and to tunnel out the gold. Then, in 1888, a cyanide process was invented by three local chemists, a method by which the minute bits of gold dispersed in the rock could be extracted.

And so we return to our explorations of Western Deep Levels where by now the dust has settled. Four hours after the blast, noxious gases have dissipated and the second shift of miners descends to load up the ore and transport it to the surface. Processing takes place at the mine. The ore, some as large as boulders, some already smashed to pebbles by the blast, goes through a series of crushers that ultimately reduce all of it to a powder. The talcum-fine powder is mixed with water and thickened to a pulp; then a very diluted cyanide solution is added. The solution is treated, stirred, mixed, filtered and finally mixed with zinc dust to precipitate the gold and other metals present.

The ultimate result is a gold and silver alloy called doré, which is cast into rough bars. These huge bars, with a gold content that ranges from 30 to 90 percent, weigh about 62 pounds. Now they're ready to be shipped to the Rand Refinery near Johannesburg to be melted for assay. Once assayed, they are refined to separate the gold from the silver and other metals that usually occur with it. The refined gold is poured into ingots that shape the gold into bars weighing 400 troy ounces (25 pounds).

Each gleaming bar is incised with the name of the refinery, an identifying number and its exact purity. All the bars assay at least 99 percent pure--but the purity varies slightly. One may be 99.6 percent, another 99.7 percent and a third somewhere in between. This has generally been sufficient for use in jewelry. But the growing use of gold in the so-called "developing world" has resulted in an increase in demand for gold of greater purity, a level of purity once reserved for non-jewelry uses. For these buyers, the already refined bars are subject to an electrolytic process. This increases the purity to "four nines fine," gold that is 99.99 percent pure and destined to be made into 24 karat gold jewelry.

And so, finally, we have our gold. Now, what shall we do with it? All that glitters does not turn into jewelry (though that is the largest end use by far--85 percent of newly mined gold). But gold is as useful as it is decorative. Gold makes it possible for men to walk on the moon: thin coatings of gold, capable of reflecting as much as 98 percent of radiation, are painted onto space suit visors and also control the temperature inside satellites through heat-reflecting shields.

Back on earth, thin films of gold are sandwiched between office building windows, reflecting the sun's heat while adding a beautiful golden glow to the edifice, yet still allowing light to enter. Sheets of gold as fine as gossamer are used to gild the tops of buildings--older buildings whose upper levels still seek to soar skyward in the form of pyramids. Gold is beaten into leaves as thin as 1/280,000 of an inch to decorate leather-bound books. Invisible but vital, gold is used to protect etched circuit boards, in the manufacture of transistors and in telephone relay contacts. In all these uses, gold's own inertness makes it an invaluable ally of industry. This stability--gold doesn't tarnish even over centuries--makes it ideal for use even in the human body.

Given the reverence that gold inspired, the greed it generated and the lengths to which men were willing to go to find it, it was inevitable that gold would be associated with wealth, and in time would become the physical expression of that wealth. In sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, the acquisition of wealth, especially in the form of gold, was equated with national policy. Gold was good--though no one could ever explain exactly how it benefited a nation's economy.

When the U.S. Congress enacted the Gold Standard Act in March 1900, it stipulated that the Treasury had to maintain a gold reserve of $150 million. According to the international gold standard in effect until the First World War, a country's unit of currency had the value of a fixed weight of gold and could even be exchanged for that weight of gold. Hence, U.S. dollars carried the phrase "gold certificate" and a dollar was defined as 23.22 grains of pure gold.

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