The most magical and precious of metals, emblem of prosperity universally reverred and even in the reflected glow of Chinese philosophy rife with the symbolism of phonetic similarities, gold as a metal, as jewellery or as another object that is called by the same name in dialect – Cantonese for orange and gold sound the same – is a coveted possession.
Resistant to atmospheric attacks and inert to most chemicals, gold does not oxidise. Object d’art of sunken treasure salvage after centuries gleam with a sensuous glory undimmed by the corrosion of time and elements.
Indestructable and incredibly malleable as handsome chunky jewellery or strung out into filament fineness woven into fabrics, gold has been used as war masks by ancient Etruscans, gilded on eaves of ancient temples and coated the life-lines of astronauts who went space-walking.
There are four ways in which gold is extracted from the earth. Alluvial gold is obtained when water is used to break down stratified rocks and quartz veins in stratified rocks, in sedimentary or igneous rocks and panned from pebble river beds.
Purity in gold alloy is measured in carats, pure gold being 24 carats. In an alloy containing 75 percent gold, 18 parts of the 24 are gold, therefore it is classified as 18 carat.
Continental Europeans work largely in 18 carat, Americans in 14 carat and 95 percent of British gold jewellery is nine carat. Craftsmen who work with the higher grade gold may well sniff at the lowly nine carat but others know its hardness make jewellery design much more interesting and creative.
Anything above 18 carat is near impossible to design because of its softness and only the simplest chain links can be created – the type most Chinese women are fond of wearing.
Its colour depends on the metal used in the blend. Copper gives it the reddish hue much loved by the Chinese as “cheok kim” or full gold, often 22 carats or even 24. Silver and copper give gold the yellow tint much preferred by Europeans. Nickel, palladium and zinc added to the alloy produces white gold or platinum.
Mention of gold jewellery can hardly be made without including Italian gold craftsmanship, which has been surpassed for centuries. Not least the quantity Italy produces, some 20 percent of the total world output, which makes it the largest single producer and 60 percent of the European production.
Each year in Vincenza, the Vincenza-oro fair attracts millions of buyers from all over the world. Some 6,000 firms and 40,000 craftsmen transform 300 tons of gold into jewellery that range from children’s trinkets to magnificent works of monarchical splendour.
Together, the three Italian cities of Arezzo in Tuscany, Vicenza in the basin of the Veneto and Valenza Po in Turin form the Golden Triangle that produces 80 percent of Italy’s gold jewellery. Here too, jewellers from around the world send their artisans to learn the craft from specialists whose skills date back centuries. With the Renaissance, Florence became the El Dorado of gold craftsmanship giving her name to the particular style of Florentine goldwork.
Today, some 7,000 goldworkers work on 100 tons of gold each year producing stunning jewellery sold around the world.
Vincenza has goldsmithing traditions going back to medieval times when goldsmiths were commissioned to design gold diadems for wealthy Venetian merchant families.
Manufacturers buy their gold in ingots from banks that get them from Switzerland, the world’s greatest gold refiners.
Security is as fierce as that in Fort Knox – more so because so much can be “lost” in workshop processing.
Each year, some 5 percent of gold is unaccountable as gold dust from the ceaseless polishing. Recovery is assiduous with factory floors swept with a fine tooth comb and the “dust” sent to gold recovery firms that specialise in winnowing out the precious metal, so fine it cannot be seen by the naked eye. Even waste litter is filtered each day at Italian workshops.
There is some threat for the Italians today as Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and Latin America churn out tons of gold jewellery at a fraction of the labour costs incurred in Italy. To battle this, the Italians have united their efforts to maintain standards while keeping costs down.