Move over, Midas. South Africa’s largest privately owned gold refinery is giving gold bullion a facelift.
Humankind has always had a strange relationship with gold. Our arcane obsession with “all that glitters” is certainly informed by lucid, capital-driven preoccupations, but it is also somehow visceral; the enduring legacy of a primal instinct.
Natanya Van Niekerk, the zealous product development manager for MetCon minted gold manufacturers, is clearly attuned to the peculiar fascination gold has inspired since times of yore: “If you’re a Christian, you’ll read on the first page in the Bible about the rivers that contain gold. If you’re Hindu, gold plays an enormous role in your wedding. No matter which culture you’re a part of, gold has always fascinated man. But the face of gold changes continuously.”
MetCon is South Africa’s largest privately owned precious metals refinery; it was the first of its kind in South Africa to be awarded the right to produce minted gold bars, when the relevant legislation changed about ten years ago. Now, this family-run foundry is playing a role in modernising the face of weighted gold.
MetCon recently inaugurated a range of sculpted bullion; they’re the first metal refinery in the world to have done so. “We are literally putting a face on the gold,” Van Niekerk says, while company director-cum-matriarch Charlotte Crosse nods her quiet assent.
“The face we want to put on (the gold) is a collection of different concepts. We are aiming, ultimately, to create something that in two thousand years will still represent this time, this era that we’ve lived in and which will still represent this country. Everything that we do has a cultural or historical link to something in this country, or on this continent.”
The company’s guiding ethos pertains to “the evolution of African wealth,” and this maxim extends to the casting of the gold itself: Nguni bulls and cows, and thumb-nail-sized cowrie shells in gold and silver crown their collection of gilded wares. Both designs were chosen because each has historically signified wealth in an African context, and MetCon is hopeful that their bovine bullion might supplant real cattle in lobola exchanges among urbanised South African families.
MetCon’s having elected to simulate the symbols of prototypical currency is especially interesting, if one considers the nature of gold itself. “There is nothing else that doesn’t erode,” Van Niekerk reminds me solemnly. “Only gold and honey – that’s about it. Moths or rust will take everything else, except gold.” And as Crosse, who has an investment and finance background, reminds us: Gold is a resilient and safe-haven investment, especially in times of social, political or economic volatility.
MetCon’s journey into cultural icons has taken them into the world of fine art. A local virtuoso, Lungisa Kala, designed the cattle exemplars for the Nguni Gold collection; and Van Niekerk herself is responsible for the cowries and for Metcon’s “spiral collection,” which comprises delicately engraved minted gold bars, their etched veneers reminiscent of the ammonites or fossil shells found along the coast of Africa.
The spiral insignia also denotes the company’s expansionary aspirations: MetCon is hoping to become a global player in its field over the next few years. Crosse and Van Niekerk recently attended The World Money Fair in Berlin, the most important bourse on the calendar for minted-gold specialists internationally. MetCon, we are told, was engaged in fruitful “discussions” throughout. Moreover, Crosse says, the company has recently allied with the International Bullion Vault (IBV), which will empower MetCon’s clientele to cash in on the company’s buy-back policy on an international basis.
MetCon is the only precious metal refinery in South Africa that will purchase their products back from you (at three percent below the prevailing gold price), provided that their packaging, which enables them to trace the chain-of-custody, is intact, so that the gold will not have to be assayed (measured and tested) again.
The gold extraction process comes at an enormous price, both fiscally and in terms of the human-cost factor, which is a reality to which both Van Niekerk and Crosse are sensitive. It disturbs them that most of the gold that is extracted in South Africa leaves it in London Good delivery bars. “It’s the worst thing that can happen to products that people are sweating, dying for, underground. And (South Africans) get the least value of all! It goes to Turkey, it goes to India, it gets beneficiated there! We want to do that here. And add the most value we can, to the hardships it takes to get gold out of the ground.”
“People underestimate what individual companies can do for a country,” Van Niekerk says. “If you look at the Scandinavian countries, and brands like Ikea and SAAB, or of Germany and its famous engineering – those companies helped to put those countries on the map.” Her dream is for MetCon to at least ensure South Africa is on the refinery map.