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
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