Jon de Vos: There’s no gold in these thar hills
I have this recurring dream where I find gold in the backyard under the begonias. Dirt flies in a big rooster tail as I dig furiously with both hands. In my dream, I’m floating above the ground and I watch myself, frantically scratching away at the earth like a lunatic. The wife exhibits concern and tries to reason with me, “That’s it, you Loonie, I’m packed and outta here.”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,” I scream maniacally over the sound of her squealing tires, “then it’s mine, all mine.” I gasp audibly as my shovel scrapes across a wooden lid. More scraping reveals a skull and crossbones on the front. I break the lock and the chest spews out gold spittoons, uh, no, make that doubloons. Hey, wait. It’s not a chest after all, it’s a Leprechaun’s pot bulging with bullion . . . no, no. It’s a bank vault puking krugerrands. It’s . . . it’s . . . buzzing?
The alarm clock announces 6 a.m. and my newly-dug wealth burrows back under the begonias, just to start all over again tonight. Because it does not tarnish, because it is malleable, ductile, and so hard to get that neighbors will shoot each other for it, gold is the ultimate, universal medium of exchange, amassed by Popes, pimps, and pirates alike. Gold is so malleable, an ounce can be rolled into a single leaf, twelve feet long and 15-feet wide.
A medieval religion called Alchemy grew out of the desire for gold. Alchemy searched for, and claimed to have answered, three questions. The first was how to turn lesser metals into gold. The second was how to cure all disease and live forever, and the third was to discover a “universal solvent,” something that would dissolve everything it contacted. What they couldn’t figure out was what to carry it around in.
That was 1,500 ago. We still haven’t figured out comprehensive health care.
Euphonious names ruled in 300 AD when Zosimos of Panopolis, an Egyptian alchemist, laboriously described the process of changing the base metals into gold, through a chemical, color-changing sequence of baths, involving black, white, yellow, purple and then on to gold. Zosimos later describes refining the process into an elixir that would instantly transmute iron into gold. This elixir became known as the “philosopher’s stone.”
It’s been estimated that all the gold ever mined, about 125,000 tons, would make a cube about 60 feet on a side ” 90 percent of that was mined since 1848, the year of the California discovery at Sutter’s Mill. Easily the largest producer in the world is South Africa, where huge gold reefs lie within the Witwatersrand Basin. Forty percent of all the gold ever produced came from these reefs.
The first wave of gold production came after Columbus paved the way for the looting of Indian palaces, temples and graves in Central and South America. The Spaniards converted the New World inhabitants into Catholics and slaves to mine gold. From 1490 to 1600 Spain extracted 225,000 kilograms of gold, so much that it literally unbalanced the economic structure of Europe. In the 18th century, 1,350,000 kilograms were mined in South America, mostly from slave-labor mines in Columbia.
Closer to home, gold fever hit Grand County in 1880. That year, there were 50 men feverishly working the placers of the Bobtail Mine, located in the “upper reaches of the William Fork.” Preliminary reports to investors indicated rich silver ore, promising 1,500 ounces to the ton. Grand County’s mineral “bubble” deflated quicker than today’s housing market. The entire gold, silver and copper output in the Grand County region from Jones Pass to Wyoming for 1881 was a mere $10,000, while that same year, Lake County, led by Leadville produced over $18,000,000. The figures for 1882 were the same and by 1883 it was all over.*
Today, world production of gold is about 2,600 tons with a demand for about 3,800 tons, hence the rising price. The annual shortfall is made up with about 600 tons of reclaimed jewelry and the rest is from sales from National Banks. Germany, for example, sold 12 tons in 2001 as commemorative gold coins. Pure gold is too soft to allow prolonged handling, so gold is alloyed with other metals to increase its hardness. Most gold used in jewelry is alloyed with silver, copper and zinc. Gold alloyed with more than 70 percent silver is called white gold. The content of gold alloys is expressed in 24ths, called karats. A 12 karat gold alloy contains 50 percent gold, and 24 karat gold is pure.
Somewhere along the few millennia some dummy dropped the recipe for the philosopher’s stone into a moat. Thanks to him, today iron is iron and gold is the ultimate adornment.
*The Grand County information is from Robert C. Black’s book, “Island in the Rockies.”
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