By Anil Gujadhur
Throughout the ages of recorded history, gold has exerted considerable fascination on the mind of Man. The yellow metal is relatively scarce. It is a store of value that families learnt since ages immemorial to keep aside to be able to tide over difficult times if and when distress visited upon them.
Some 50-60 years ago, gold ‘sovereign’ coins bearing the effigies of British royalty, some of which may have been brought here in Mauritius by our ancestors from India, adorned the neckline of ladies. You could also purchase them from local jewellers. The coins which were 22-24 carats pure, were worn as ornaments on special occasions by Indo-Mauritian women of the previous generation when necklace snatching by roadside thieves was not a common occurrence as it is today. Apart from being worn as jewellery when attending a big ‘Pooja’ or weddings, the gold sovereigns represented the tangible savings of families. Banks were quasi-absent from the scene, especially in the rural areas; so, gold coins whether kept inside or under mattresses performed the savings bank function. They served as the ‘precautionary motive’ of economics in household savings just in case distress or adversity hit the family. They also served as security against which the village money lender would advance money. Converted into cash, they helped many immigrant families to acquire the land from which they were to earn their livelihood as small planters.
If a family was well off, that could be read from the number of sovereigns in the chain of thick black thread around which the gold coins were woven. In that sense, display of sovereign coins also represented the degree of economic emancipation achieved by distinct families. Not much of today’s intricate jewellery comes close in glamour and shine to those simple solid gold coins converted into ornaments for our womenfolk. Many of the ‘sovereigns’ which people possessed right from those days got sold and melted away for reasons of economic distress faced by families or simply because of change in fashion. The good thing to remember is that they proved their worth as a real hedge against adversity. What was happening in the quest for gold during the early stage of social development in Mauritius is part only of the universal craze the yellow metal has evoked all across humanity.
Why is gold special?
Gold has the highest density among materials; a cubic foot of gold weighs more than half a ton. That is why it is believed that the earth’s own gold is lying deep down at its molten centre. So the gold we see around would actually be coming from the hearts of gold-bearing comets which disintegrated as they entered the earth’s atmosphere at high speed and got lodged deep down into the earth’s crust thousands of years ago. If this is true, it explains why despite the unrelenting desire people all over the world have for the yellow metal, the entire stock we’ve been able to unearth since digging began is no more than 175,000 tons and worth as much as $9.7 trillion at today’s price of $1680 an ounce. Just as a comparison, Mauritius produces and sells 500,000 tons of sugar per annum.
Unlike other common metals, gold is not subject to corrosion and rusting. Attracted by its peculiar lustre and shine, man has been digging for it since pre-historic times. Now that the world’s most promising mines have yielded almost all that they had held in secret in their entrails for thousands of years, the stock of gold in man’s possession hardly increases by much no matter how high the price goes up to. This scarcity of gold, with reference to its demand for jewellery and for financial investment, gives it a high price relative to all other metals and objects.
While a well-cut diamond can capture and reflect light as no other stone can, the brilliance of the precious stone is no less enhanced when married to a nicely designed piece of gold ornament. Such is the yellow metal’s intrinsic worth that it adds value merely by lending support to others of a lesser mettle. There is no need to add that it can excel in its own right above all the rest, pure and neat, untainted by all that goes on around it.
Thanks to its high malleability and ductility compared with other metals and its unimpeachable visual appeal, it easily weaves itself into the production of almost any precious object of art and craft. However much you may soil it or smelt it, twist it into various shapes and forms, and put it to the test of furnaces, its fundamental sterling character will stand unaffected. It will stand up to the highest tests you can impose on it, being changeless in its very essence.
Gold stands out against all the rest in its own right in numerous forms of decoration. Goldsmiths have been crafting ornaments and artefacts of gold for centuries, engaging all the skills and talents they are capable of to give their products distinct, intricate and outstanding representations building up on the shine and glitter which this metal is endowed with. Many of those goldsmiths are no more but the marvellous works of art they created out of gold and left behind are still around, shining as glorified witnesses of times and cultures that will never come back again.
The quest for eternity
Gold is a reference for excellence in its pure form. This is no less so in objects wedded with gold. The latter get value not so much for their own intrinsic worth but more so because of their association with one of the most prized metals on earth. Thus a Rolex watch is costlier than all the rest not so much because it performs its basic duty as a watch with higher precision compared with other ordinary modern watches but rather because it is encased in gold and is associated with a perceived luxury brand the mechanics of which it is nigh impossible to replicate by imitators. This brand of watches draws value from a commercial attribute identical to that of gold inasmuch as not everyone has the means to afford it. So, if you can afford the costly object inter-mixed with gold, it puts you in a special class above the lot of ordinary mortals. Those other objects which combine themselves with gold in their final finished form want to claim, as it were, the same time-transcending attribute which people associate with gold in its natural state. The same quest for eternity dwells in the case of those objects having merged with gold as in the case of gold itself in its own pure state.
Gold has been closely associated with wealth, power and position across all civilisations. Man’s highest aspirations, such as his deities, gods, and the most elusive of his concepts of the higher-up have been cast in intricate ornaments of gold, reflecting standards and styles which prevailed in differing circumstances during the history of time. Egyptian gods and those of the Mayas were enshrined in gold. Sheets of gold cover to this day the domes of temples like those of Amritsar and Tirumala in India, which makes them unique just as much as it makes them invest heavily in terms of security against hordes of people who usually covet treasures of gold. It is said that Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of the Americas, attributed to gold even the capacity to take souls to paradise.
The interiors of Maharajahs’ palaces of India were richly decorated with superb artistry in works of gold, to display and celebrate, as it were, the power, wealth and splendour of their owners. When it came to it, however, it was the palaces’ decorations of gold that were all scrupulously looted away by successive waves of invaders from foreign lands. India has to date the highest demand for gold, of all countries in the world. Gold carries the same high symbolic value today all over the world as much as it did in the past. It stands out at the top of the hierarchy in most matters temporal. The few remaining crowned heads on earth would be incomplete if they did not adorn themselves with their tiaras of gold. Sportsmen who achieve the highest positions in their arenas will get the medal of gold; others who may miss the podium by a split second would have to content themselves with medals of baser metals such as silver and bronze. Countries vie against each other in world sporting competitions like the Olympics reckoning by the numbers of gold medals each one of them managed to secure in the games.
The ‘science’ of Alchemy
The craze for gold was as widespread if not more so in Europeas in any other place during the age of discovery. So big was the gap between the desire for gold on the continent and the extent to which this desire could be satisfied, that there sprang up the science of ‘Alchemy’. The concept existed in antiquity but it asserted itself forcefully during the European Renaissance. It involved a quest to transmute base metals (like lead) into gold and silver. Whoever came to possess that transformative power would win the race by enriching himself beyond measure. That was without reckoning with the basic rule of economics that it is scarcity that confers value on specific goods, especially materials like gold which have very limited use in manufacturing activities. Nevertheless, the ‘science’ of Alchemy was built on a belief akin to the legend about the hands of King Midas which had the power to transform all they touched into gold. In the Alchemy version, it was more down to earth. The belief was that substances could be broken down into elements and that continuous refining of the latter would end up yielding the philosopher’s stone, an instrument which had the capacity to turn all base metals into gold and silver by its mere touch. It was also believed to be capable of producing the ‘elixir of life’, the drink of eternal rejuvenation. The philosopher’s stone was not obtained in spite of all the experimentation that went on but the foundation of modern chemistry was thereby laid down.
In parallel, the search for gold as it exists continued all the same. Gold was so closely associated with power that European kings and queens sent out numerous expeditions to the New World discovered after 1492, to be able to vie, with its help, for power against each other. Spanish galleons laden with gold, looted by soldiers and adventurers from unsuspecting indigenous populations of the Americas they killed for no valid reason, went under the sea. That however did not deter the frenzy with which ever-increasing hoards of gold were sought to be built up by European royalty. Numerous seafaring expeditions were launched across the Atlantic by several European kings in search of the mythical El Dorado (the golden one) in the hope that they will come across the place where gold was supposed to be lying down in heaps only to be picked up in large quantities for the enrichment of the monarchs who sent out those expeditions.
The perilous voyage on frail embarkations did not deter the adventurers. It was a dream too strong about getting on to effortless sudden empowerment. Later on, white settlers in America went out on what was called the “gold rush”, a relentless drive to be the first to hit the ‘gold nugget’ so that they would not have to put up with hard work and perseverance which usually goes with the ordinary earning of livelihoods. The belief that fortune would be made was so entrenched that many gold miners lost their eyesight probing for gold filings in streams and mountains but even that did not stop the rush.
Fully aware of the attraction gold exerts on people, some modern countries issue coins cast in gold of different degrees of purity and weights, going up to the ultimate 24 Carats in some cases. The Bank of Mauritius has been issuing not only gold coins of its own since many years, having thus joined the league of gold issuing majors such as the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. The Bank of Mauritius also recently took up to selling sheets of gold of different weights to the public, hoping to create a market for commodity gold.
The first ancient gold coins are believed to have been minted in 700 BC in either Greece or Turkey. Before the ‘gold standard’ of more recent times where the only money in circulation was expressed in terms of its value in gold, various gold coins freely changed hands in different parts of the world. They were here during the heydays of Greece and in the days of the Roman Empire. They provided the mainstay for the famed spice trade with India as also for the silk trade with China in ancient times, being at the heart of the trade exchange system. There was thus a universal recognition of the worth of gold in different parts of a world much less travelled then than that of today.
There have hardly been serious oppositions to the having of gold. One such opposition came from Sir Thomas Moore in his ‘Utopia’, gold being the least preoccupation of the idealistic characters which people this story. The other negative reference to it comes from Seneca, Roman writer, philosopher and statesman living around 50AD who stated, quoting from Virgil’s Aeneid, ‘auri sacra fames’, ‘what don’t you force mortal hearts to do, accursed hunger for gold’? All told, gold does not appear to have said its final word in the drama of human existence. Not yet.
* Published in print edition on 25 January 2013