Good As Gold

The Metal That Put California and South Africa on the Map Is Still a Hot Commodity Around the World

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The casting method used here, cuttlebone casting, differs from mass-production casting in nearly every respect. Casting is favored by goldsmiths because the gold faithfully follows the shape of the model. But conventional casting introduces air and gases into the piece, making it spongy or porous. The porosity can only be seen under high-power magnification, but the relative softness of the piece reveals itself in its somewhat duller look and a tendency to wear more quickly. On the plus side, it makes the piece lighter, and therefore, cheaper. In cuttlebone casting, the gases escape into the surrounding mold, made of the bones of cuttlefish (a form of mollusk). The casting is more dense; it contains more gold per volume than other cast pieces. It wears better, takes a better polish and feels more substantial to the touch.

Tools employed to achieve the various textures used on gold bear an uncanny similarity to those the dentist pokes in your mouth: those little spinning wheels push the gold around with beautiful results. The surface is made to look like fish scales or satin, like animal fur or pebbles. Countless thousands of strokes are used on each piece. Every link of a necklace is textured individually before it is assembled; every part of the link is beautiful. Fine jewelers always work this way; each element is polished before the piece is assembled. No matter that certain parts will be hidden from view; there is no sweeping under the rug here to speed things up.

Contemporary goldsmiths who work almost entirely by hand employ such ancient and mysterious techniques as granulation as part of their stock in trade. Granulation, the placement of tiny granules of pure gold on a gold surface, was once a lost art. Known to the Etruscans (seventh to fifth century b.c.), who covered gold surfaces with minute gold balls, the technique they used remained a mystery to others. Leap ahead some 25 centuries when it was recovered, in an equally unknown fashion, by the nineteenth century Italian jeweler Castellani. Parts of the puzzle were worked on during the ensuing century, but the secret was largely lost to jewelers until our time. Through trial and error, and sharing of information, the technique re-emerged in the 1970s, largely through the efforts of Jean Stark, Bob Kulicke and Cornelia Rothel. Today, anyone with reasonable hand skills and the patience of a candidate for beatification can enroll in the Jewelry Arts Institute in New York and learn granulation.

While 14 karat gold is standard in most mass-produced jewelry, contemporary goldsmiths prefer to spend their time on gold of higher purity: 18 karat, 22 karat, even 24 karat. The peculiar measurement of gold purity, based on the number 24, is said to derive from a medieval coin called a "mark" that weighed 24 carats, referring to the seeds of a certain tree. In any event, the term stuck, and we're stuck with it. Fourteen karat gold (58 percent gold) is an alloy of 14 parts of gold and 10 parts of other metal, usually silver, nickel or copper. Eighteen karat gold has 18 parts of gold to six parts of alloy; it is 75 percent gold. Twenty-two karat gold is nearly 92 percent gold.

Contemporary goldsmiths often alloy their own gold to get just the right color and purity they need for their work. Although gold is always gold color, gold alloys can vary from pink to green to white. There is even blue gold and purple gold, although these tend to be brittle and seem to defeat the whole point of using gold. Multicolors of gold, along with other metals, are layered in sandwiches to form the material called mokumé, a Japanese word that means wood-grained. George Sawyer of Minneapolis is one of the premier exponents of this style. His wedding rings have the individual look that is well suited to what should be a unique event in one's life. Marne Ryan of Newark, Delaware, also specializes in wedding rings, working various "karatages" of gold into complex and unique little sculptures.

With all the people in the world lusting after gold, are we likely to run out of the beautiful metal? It doesn't seem so. Production continues to rise, although at the moment demand is outpacing production. But at mine sites around the world, both old and new, plans are afoot to increase the world supply of gold.

At Anglo-American Corp.'s Western Deep Levels mine, work has begun to deepen the shaft system, which will extend the mine's life by 14 years and ultimately yield an estimated 475 tons of gold. Looking even deeper into the earth, another section of the mine, Western Ultra Deep Levels, could be developed to a mining depth of between roughly 11,000 and 16,000 feet. The cost to sink each shaft would be approximately $100 million--the prize: estimated reserves of more than 1,750 tons of gold. At such depths, the temperature of the rock is 140 degrees Fahrenheit. If you touch the rock, you burn your hand. The miners work in rubbery suits with pockets filled with ice.

In the West African nation of Mali, a mine owned by Anglo-American and three other entities is in the construction stage. This open-pit mine will be worked by bulldozers that strip away the earth in huge "bites" of ore, creating terraces that diminish in diameter as they descend into the earth. The cost to bring the mine to the start of production is more than $250 million. And in Peru, a joint venture involving Newmont and Barrick Gold, the two largest production firms in the United States, is embarked on a three-year-old operation said to be the most profitable mine in the world. The two firms also have mines in Nevada, where 60 percent of U.S. production comes from, that are part of the Carlin Trend, a vast store of gold that rivals the Witwatersrand of South Africa.

These open-pit mines are the target of environmentalists who are dismayed by the huge holes they create in the earth and the caustic recovery process that goes along with it. The question is whether they will be active enough to curtail future U.S. mining development as has happened already in Canada. U.S. production has soared over the past decade and a half. In 1980, the United States produced fewer than 32 tons. Now, production is nearing 344 tons annually. The nation has become the world's second biggest producer, after South Africa. If the trend continues, the United States could outpace South Africa, says John Lutley, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Gold Institute. In 1995, South Africa was number one with 522.4 tons; the United States was second with 329.3 tons, followed by Australia (253.5 tons) and Canada (150.3 tons).

The desire for gold is as old as the Bible and as new as space exploration. From the Golden Calf, the idol mentioned in Exodus: 32 in the Old Testament, to the first walk on the moon, gold has been part of our language and part of our lives. When space vehicles explored the moon, they were protected by a veneer of gold foil that deflected solar radiation. When the president flies in Air Force One, he is protected from attack by gold's anti-missile reflectors. And when a surgeon implants a pacemaker, gold goes into the human body. Unseen gold also helps the surgeon's laser cut out disease. We cannot, it seems, live without gold.

Ettagale Blauer is the author of Contemporary American Jewelry Design (Chapman & Hall, 1991).

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