Going for gold

It’s unlikely that anyone has entered the world of investment without being encouraged by some over-zealous, self-proclaimed investment guru to purchase gold. The demand for gold is admittedly a global phenomenon, with the price of gold being affected more by sentiment than by changes in annual production. With the annual mine production of gold over the last few years being close to 2 500 tonnes, the uneducated investor would naturally assume a veritable abundance of gold above the surface of the earth. One might be surprised, therefore, to discover that all the gold that has ever been mined in recorded history equates to a cube measuring 20 metres on each side. To put the amount of mined gold into perspective, it’s roughly the size of two Olympic swimming pools. And while on the topic of the Olympics, although the Olympic gold medals in 1912 were made from solid gold, Chad le Clos’ well-deserved medal is a regulated 60 mm in diameter, 30 mm thick and plated in an obligatory 6 grams of gold.

The world’s fascination with gold can be traced back to around 4 000 BC when it’s believed the oldest gold jewellery was used by man. Being a highly prized precious metal in ancient Egypt, the ancient Egyptians saw it fit to line King Tutankhamun’s inner coffin with 110 kilograms of pure gold. Gold is a recurring theme in the Christian Bible, with over 400 hundred references to the precious metal throughout the New and Old Testaments, including specific instructions from God to cover the furniture in the tabernacle with pure gold.

Not confined to ancient Egypt and Israel, it’s worth knowing that gold has been discovered on all of the earth’s continents. In fact, almost all the rocks and soil in the world contain traces of gold, with the earth underneath the ocean’s surface being no exception. The oceans are the greatest single reservoir of gold on the earth’s surface, estimated to contain eight times the amount of gold mined to date. More interestingly, according to data recorded by airship NEAR in 1999, the amount of gold on the asteroid Eros is more than the sum that has ever been mined on earth.

Identified on the periodic table by the symbol ‘Au’, this chemical symbol stems from the Latin word ‘aurum’ which means ‘shining dawn’. As an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, some cars are manufactured using gold for heat dissipation. The inherently pure qualities of gold have made it the darling of the jewellery industry the world over, with India being the earth’s largest consumer of gold – using a massive 27% of the all the world’s gold (followed closely by America and China). Gold doesn’t react with air or water and is unable to rust, making it the near-perfect metal for coins and jewellery – near-perfect because it also happens to be an incredibly soft metal and is often reinforced with copper and silver in the manufacturing process. In fact, gold is so soft and pliable that it can be made into sewing thread, with once ounce of gold creating an impressive 50 miles of gold yarn.

Although the jewellery industry monopolizes a sizeable two-thirds of mined gold, the versatility of this incredible metal has resulted in its increased demand in the fields of industry, dentistry and medicine, with these three industries accounting for 12% of the world’s gold usage. While South Africa has historically been top of the gold mining charts, China has recently become the largest gold mining country in the world. Although no longer the largest supplier of gold, the South African Kruger Rand is still the most widely held gold bullion coin in the world, with over 1 400 tonnes in international circulation. In line with its versatile nature, the gold leaf (in its pure form) is classified as a natural food additive and is regularly used in alcohol drinks such as Goldschlager.

Not to be confined to terrestrial uses, the outside of the US Apollo airship was coated with gold foil to protect the astronauts from radiation. Presently, the helmets worn by astronauts are coated with a thin membrane of gold to protect the astronauts from intense light. With a boiling point of 1 064.34 degrees Celsius, it’s unlikely that gold will succumb to any extra-terrestrial heat encountered by the astronauts. The purity of gold is measured in Carats, with a ‘Carat’ being the unit of mass based on the carob seed used by ancient merchants. The Carat weight of gold can be 10, 12, 14, 18, 22 or 24 – the higher the number, the greater the purity of the metal. Solid gold must have a minimum weight of 10 Carats and pure gold must have a Carat weight of 24.

As a colour, gold is a symbol of wealth and status in every culture, denoting abundance, prosperity, quality and prestige. It is synonymous with all that is perfect and pure. It is the colour of the stars we use to commend our children’s school projects. It is the colour of the children’s hair in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales and the colour of our wedding bands. It is the colour of the medals awarded to our top athletes at the Olympic Games, and while Chad’s medal may only be plated with 6 grams of gold, there’s no doubt it feels like solid gold to him.

Top row: Chad le Clos’ gold medal, the asteroid Eros, gold thread. Middle row: an astronaut’s helmet, Goldschlager, Tutenkhamun’s coffin. Last row: Indian jewellery, the Kruger Rand, gold fillings.

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