A Bit About Gold
February 5, 2014

A Bit About Gold

As the Sochi Winter Olympics prepare to begin, I have been learning a little about the much loved, and loathed, substance that winning athletes will have draped around their necks – gold.

Last year, a $7.5 million dollar Lamborghini was auctioned in Dubai; the car was carved from a 500kg block of solid gold. It was claimed that it was the world’s most expensive car, but a year earlier UK entrepreneur and TV personality Theo Paphitis had his Maybach 62 completely covered in gold bullion, at a reported cost of $57 million. Perhaps the difference is that the Dubai car is actually made of gold whereas Paphitis only added gold to an existing car (an addition which meant the car could then only do 47 miles per hour due to the extra weight). Regardless of the technicalities, either story would give the impression that for those with enough money gold is abundant.

But the fact remains that the value of gold lies in its scarcity as much as its aesthetic appeal and durability. Astonishingly, all the gold ever mined would only make a block of 16 meters cubed. That is 100,000 tons, a small enough amount that it could be carried on one ship (one pretty huge ship designed to move oil rigs, but still, one ship). Forty percent of all of history’s mined gold came from Witwatersrand in South Africa.

The gold mining industry employs 500,000 workers worldwide, but between them they only extract 2,500 tons a year. It is estimated that barely twenty years’ worth of easily minable gold remains.

Gold can be found in less obvious places. The largest collection of gold is in the seas and oceans, with ten million tons of it just floating around, but the cost and effort involved in extracting it effectively puts it off-limits. There is also gold in our bodies, mainly in our bloodstream, but again it is very difficult to extract. Easier to get our hands on is the gold in our teeth; dentists use 2 percent of the gold mined around the world each year, but despite all the despicable things the human race has done for gold over the centuries, one would hope it doesn’t come down to trying to pull each other’s’ teeth out.

Electronics and particularly cell phones contain huge amounts of gold, a ton of which would harvest 150 grams of gold, compared to a ton of minable ore that would only yield 5 grams. Recycling of gold is huge in the Far East. Japan, a country short on natural resources, is keen on gathering gold in this way. Most of the dirty work, though, is done in one location in China where 150,000 workers sift through post-apocalyptic piles of old electronics, and where 80 percent of the local children suffer from lead poisoning.

The lengths that humans will go to for gold are perhaps too great, after all. Teeth pulling aside, our appetite for gold has apparently not receded since the Spanish conquistadors searched South America obsessively for the stuff. Incidentally, the word bonanza comes from Spanish and was used in reference to striking gold.

China has recently replaced India as the world’s largest consumer of gold, but then China seems to be becoming the world’s largest consumer of everything. India’s obsession with gold goes back much further. It is adored and used in celebrations such as weddings, but is also seen as a safe investment in a traditionally unstable economy. The Indian government has had to resort to strict controls on it because it threatens the more modern economic model, bank accounts and the like, that they are striving for.

Finally, on those Olympic medals. Olympic gold medals are famously not solid gold, and have not been since 1912. They are now more than 90 percent silver, but must contain at least 6 grams of gold plating. Seems a bit like cheating the hardworking athletes, but given what we now know about gold, maybe a commendable choice.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on Amazon.com.

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