June 6, 2015 by Darius
Throughout most of human history, one metal has stood out as a measure of wealth and value: gold. I recently read Gold: The Race for the World’s Most Seductive Metal by Matthew Hart. The book is a tour of the gold industry past and present.
Hart’s journey begins in South Africa, at Mponeng, the world’s deepest gold mine. Mponeng extends nearly three miles beneath the surface. Due to the temperature of the rock at that depth, it takes 6,000 tons of ice every day to keep the air at a stifling 83 degrees Fahrenheit. It can take hours for miners to even reach the mining sites from the surface: the elevator cage can only go down 2.3 miles. But every day, 6,400 tons of rock, some of it gold-bearing ore, is carted away from the mine. It is this gold that finances the entire enterprise.
Hart goes on to detail the theft of gold from South African mines. Exact numbers are unknown, but it is thought that between 10 and 20 percent of a mine’s ore is lost to thieves, who can spend months at a time underground to smuggle out their ore. The stolen gold eventually makes its way into the market.
Even though South Africa has the world’s richest, deepest gold mines, the world’s largest gold producer is actually China. The Chinese model of gold mining involves thousands of tiny mines, often bootleg, which attempt to satiate China’s soaring demand for gold.
In addition to the mining, Hart explores the history of gold as a commodity and a substance to drive men mad, from Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca to the present. He also details the history of gold as an economic standard, from the earliest adoptions of the gold standard for currency to the post-WWII Bretton Woods conference to the flight from gold in the 1970s. Gold today is an investment commodity; based on Hart’s research, I intend to stay well clear of it.
Inevitably, Gold will be compared to Hart’s similar book, Diamond: The History of a Cold-Blooded Love Affair. I found Diamond to be the better book, though not necessarily through any fault on the part of the author. Gold is by its inherent nature homogenous: gold ore is mined, the gold is separated from the rock via chemical processes, and the gold is melted down into standard bars of bullion. Gold simply does not make for stories the way diamonds do: each diamond is unique, and many have their own long histories.
Gold combines geology, history, and economics, and would appeal to anyone with an interest in any of the three.