A golden op­por­tu­nity

Wreathed in leg­end, revered through the ages, lus­trous gold ore con­tin­ues to cast a spell. Nick Ham­mond vis­its a fac­tory turn­ing old jew­ellery into gold bul­lion

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Richard Can­non

Lon­don’s last gold re­fin­ery is still cre­at­ing for­tunes from old jew­ellery, finds Nick Ham­mond

HE’S not quite cack­ling ma­ni­a­cally and gib­ber­ing around the lab­o­ra­tory, but I hon­estly wouldn’t be sur­prised if he did. The frock-coated al­chemist be­fore me is dash­ing be­tween over­sized casks of cas­cad­ing liq­uids—turn­ing a valve here, ad­just­ing a dial there—grin­ning, as two trans­par­ent pipes gush forth into a gi­ant con­i­cal flask. This is Dan: I can’t give his full name for se­cu­rity rea­sons, but I can tell you that he’s the man­ager of a Willy Wonka fac­tory of a work­place—and he knows the recipe to a price­less magic po­tion.

Un­wanted jew­ellery flows in at one end of this fac­tory and, at the other, gleam­ing gold bul­lion emerges, to be taken off to safes and vaults around the world. Dan and his col­leagues deal in mil­lions of pounds worth of pre­cious metal each and ev­ery day—this is Lon­don’s last re­main­ing gold re­fin­ery.

‘My late hus­band, Tony, be­came fas­ci­nated by gold coins as a child,’ ex­plains the petite and vi­va­cious Lorena Baird, who now con­trols Baird & Co and whose of­fice sits above the sprawl­ing work­shop. She’s Pe­ru­vian, colour­ful, funny and recog­nised the world over as a gold ex­pert bar none.

‘His pas­sion grew from there. It seems amaz­ing now that the com­pany was only formed in the late 1960s. When Tony built this fac­tory, there were many more like it in Lon­don. One by one, they’ve closed. Now, we’re all that’s left of Lon­don’s once great gold trade.’

Since the first hu­man laid eyes on its lus­trous gleam, gold has been cov­eted. From an­cient civil­i­sa­tions through pesti­lence, war, famine, pros­per­ity, greed and fear, gold has re­mained the world’s uni­ver­sal cur­rency.

Re­fin­ing gold is still based on a method de­vised by those cun­ning Egyp­tians

It’s as pre­cious to­day as it ever was to Inca deities, tomb raiders or Nazi hoard­ers.

‘It’s the safest in­vest­ment in the world,’ shrugs Mrs Baird. ‘The price can fluc­tu­ate from time to time, but when the mar­ket gets fear­ful and economies suf­fer, the price of gold rises. There’s only so much of it in the world and it’s al­ways been pre­cious.’

That daily gold price is set in Lon­don, still recog­nised as the cap­i­tal of gold trad­ing. At Baird & Co, whether the gold comes in as un­wanted jew­ellery or as gold ore dug from the earth (doré, as it’s known) what comes out at the end must carry the Baird seal of ap­proval—99.99% pure gold.

‘Four nines are what we’re all about,’ de­clares Mrs Baird as she strides across the re­fin­ery floor, where molten met­als are poured and bars of pure sil­ver are stacked non­cha­lantly in a cor­ner. ‘That’s more than the in­dus­try stan­dard re­quire­ment. We con­sider our gold the finest.’

Ghosts of old lives and loves are given a new life here, too. Un­wanted gold jew­ellery, when melted down, re­sults in a ‘soup’ that av­er­ages out at a rather measly 37% pu­rity. This is where the re­fin­ing be­gins.

At ev­ery stage, sam­ples are taken, tested, filed away. All is trans­par­ent, ev­ery step trace­able. The Baird & Co stamp at the end of the process brooks no ar­gu­ment.

De­spite new tech­nolo­gies (such as an ex­tra­or­di­nary ma­chine that ac­cu­rately tests the gold con­tent of a cuff­link purely by scan­ning it in 20 sec­onds flat), the re­mark­able thing about gold is that re­fin­ing it is still based on a method de­vised by those cun­ning Egyp­tians.

Cu­pel­la­tion is the process of tak­ing a small sam­ple of the metal, wrap­ping it in lead foil with added sil­ver and melt­ing it in a fur­nace to re­move all other base met­als. It’s still as ac­cu­rate as the day it was de­vised and hasn’t ever been bet­tered.

As we fol­low the ‘gold soup’, a gauntleted worker rem­i­nis­cent of a smithy at the vil­lage forge uses tongs to re­move a cru­cible from the sav­age heat of a fur­nace. He pours a rivulet of the white-hot metal into a nearby bucket of wa­ter. The re­sult, for the briefest sec­ond, cre­ates golden rain within the pail.

Once the hiss­ing and siz­zling has sub­sided, what’s left at the bot­tom are ‘gold corn­flakes’—that’s ex­actly what they look

like. The re­fined gold has sunk and gleams dully from the bot­tom of the bucket.

Next, we head to Dan’s lair. After his care­fully or­ches­trated sluic­ing of the gold corn­flakes in a so­lu­tion of hy­drochlo­ric and ni­tric acid, the liq­uid in the con­i­cal flask be­gins to turn a peat-burn brown. After a few min­utes have passed, the gold is now vis­i­ble as a heavy sed­i­ment at the bot­tom of the flask. A bucket of it is placed be­fore me, re­sem­bling noth­ing so much as plain old wet sand.

‘Lift her up then,’ in­structs Dan, with a twin­kle in his eye, so I do. Wet sand is heavy enough; this bucket is twice as heavy. It’s ba­si­cally pure gold dust and worth a cool £250,000. There are many mil­lions of pounds more on this or­di­nary look­ing ‘fac­tory floor’. Not only is gold re­fined here, and bul­lion bars man­u­fac­tured in part­ner­ship with the Royal Mint, but there’s also a stor­age vault for cus­tomer-bought gold.

‘I don’t like to talk too much about se­cu­rity,’ cau­tions Mrs Baird, ‘although I will say it’s here all right—and you won’t have no­ticed most of it.’ At the end of Baird & Co’s pro­duc­tion line is what I’ve se­cretly been long­ing to catch a glimpse of: ac­tual bars of gold bul­lion. A low stack of them sits on the fac­tory floor, rich, gleam­ing and just like ev­ery heist movie you ever saw.

I reach out and pick up a small bar. Of course, the first thing I no­tice is the weight, yet pure gold is also warm and soapy, sen­sual to the touch. I’ve al­ways been more of a sil­ver man my­self, but I’d hap­pily pop one of these in my pocket to croon over later—i have sud­den em­pa­thy for Gol­lum and his Pre­cious.

‘It’s £30,000, that lit­tle one,’ notes Mrs Baird, gen­tly tak­ing the bar and re­plac­ing it neatly on the grow­ing pile.

As I later walk away from this dull-look­ing build­ing, I pon­der the many facts I’ve learned. Ap­par­ently, like en­ergy, gold can’t be de­stroyed. Even the hottest of fires sim­ply melts it, but it will weigh the same af­ter­wards as it did be­fore. That means that all the gold ever dug out of the earth is still in ex­is­tence, yet if you col­lected ev­ery last scrap, it would all fit in­side Wim­ble­don’s Cen­tre Court— stacked only 10m (33ft) high.

Gold is valu­able, of course, be­cause of this rar­ity, yet the real rea­son is, I reckon, be­cause it’s so damned cov­etable. When you see it, you want it. That’s why gold has changed the course of his­tory, al­tered con­ti­nents, shaped dy­nas­ties and started wars.

All that glis­ters is not gold, as a great man once said, but 99.99% pure Baird & Co bul­lion most cer­tainly is—and I can at­test that it glis­ters quite beau­ti­fully. Visit www.baird­mint.com

I’d hap­pily pop a bar in my pocket to croon over later–i have sud­den em­pa­thy for Gol­lum and his Pre­cious

As close as we will ever get to alchemy: man­ager Dan con­jures pure gold from Baird & Co’s Willy Wonka-es­que fac­tory

Gold stan­dard: com­pany owner Lorena Baird in­sists on her fac­tory pro­duc­ing the high­est qual­ity pos­si­ble, 99.99% pure gold

Rare as gold dust: all the gold in the world would fit into Wim­ble­don’s Cen­tre Court

Above: A gold bar, soft, sen­sual and in­fin­itely de­sir­able. Fac­ing page: Cre­at­ing golden rain

Top left: Sort­ing gold sand by the buck­et­load. Left: Not for break­fast: when the un­re­fined gold hits wa­ter, it turns into flakes of brown­ish metal. Above: One ounce of purest gold

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