Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The new golden age

While the pound and euro teeter on the brink, gold is more valuable than ever. But what inspires our lust? It's more than mere money – it speaks to something elemental in all of us
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The Independent Online

The price of gold rises, a brash tropical sun, both mocking and relieving the gloom and turmoil of a worldwide recession. Since the credit ratings of Greece and Portugal were lowered, and now with Spain joining the austerity circus, the world market price of the burnished metal is shooting up faster and more than most other commodities. Always happens. Did when the world turned fearful of terrorist attacks and when the dotcom bubble burst. In uncertain times hard-headed and stony-hearted financial gamblers get gold, hoping its glare will blind and fell economic hexes, turnabout bad kismet and tumbling fortunes. For those who unload their holdings, the decision is hard and often proves unwise.

Among Gordon Brown's many regrets must be that he sold off substantial gold reserves between 1999 and 2002 and netted $4bn. Today the return would be more than $15bn. (Can it be a coincidence that gold hit its highest price on the day he resigned?) Long before the banks and markets went into meltdown many financial speculators had shed paper money and were building up their stock of bullion. As soon as that happened, savvy shoppers followed. Those who could, took their lead from big-time investors.

Alert to the wishes of the well heeled, Harrods started flogging gleaming metal bricks and slabs, some costing a million pounds apiece. The middle classes then picked up the hint, and started buying bankable jewellery and coins. Two local bank managers I know tell me they are losing hair and sleep worrying about heists because so many customers are depositing boxes, containing, they suspect, "asset" jewellery; one has stopped accepting any more and says thieves are now loitering near banks looking out for these caches as they are brought in.

Meanwhile the broke too are being persuaded that the useless bits of their Ratner and Argos trinkets – backs of earrings, broken bracelets and chains, made of nine carat gold – could fetch a nice sum. So too the unwanted pressies from the last dud lover. Adverts beam on daytime telly – send us your discarded jewellery by post and by return get HUNDREDS OF POUNDS!!! Business is brisk I believe, and growing.

Then came an American import – girlie house parties where guests are invited to sell their redundant gold objects. Ann Summers cry your eyes out. They are flocking to vend, not buy, objects of temptation. I went to one bash in West London – address kept secret as you don't want robbers spoiling the fun. Over glasses of perfectly drinkable sparkling rosé and canapés, women and girls came to make fast bucks. The pieces were weighed sombrely and offers made. There were squeals of delight as the ladies handed over the booty. Nobody thought to haggle or question the amount. Post-divorce items – some classy and pricey– were given up with bitter relish. (This is part of the successful spiel – share the bad guy stories and get even by disposing of his pathetic presents.)

Two agents were buying – a Londoner in a tight red dress and an American who had the Brad Pitt look. The girls loved that and him. I recognised the voracity and sham congeniality. Back in Uganda, my friend's dad, a pawnbroker, was a practiced fake friend to the desperate, smiling reassuringly as he ripped them off. But, it seems, these postal and home based sell-offs have created real excitement and for some people may be the only way out of crises. Two women at the party, Sandra and Yvonne, sisters from Hounslow who owed £2,000 between them to loan sharks, made £1,100 trading in their junk trinkets. They had more at home, they said – so they could see a way out of the hell they were in.

For many Asians and Arabs the rush to unload gold is baffling and rash. Selling it off is harder to understand than selling your own skin. And yet, oddly, we tell ourselves, it is the only commodity you can rely on to save you from ruin. Back in Uganda our shoemakers made hugger-mugger shoes with secret, velvet-lined cavities to smuggle gold Krugerrands out of the country when black politicians were victimising Asians. The sons of the poorer Asians would be hired to take these to Swiss or British bands. One or two absconded. "It would be better to kill me or burn the house down," said one of the desolate men who lost a shoeful of his extensive hoard.

When, in 1988, my ex-husband departed, my son and I were left shattered and suddenly impoverished. My mother took off her four, thin gold bangles and offered them to me. I could not take them, and got a bank loan instead. Nor could I bear to sell any of my own small stash of wedding jewellery-that would have been surrender to circumstances, a shameful lack of self worth, and disrespectful to the most prized, most legendary of substances.

Gold has been used as currency for more than 5,000 years. Through the centuries efforts have been made to ensure its genuineness – using official stamps and symbols. It is soft, malleable, ductile. When alloyed with other elements its density changes and you can get a whole range from reddish orange to white. Talented artisans and craftsmen have been inspired by it and worked it to make objects of eternal beauty, treasured and desired by humans through the world, through the ages.

My dear old aunt Mariyam would get her grey green strongbox from the bank where it had been getting heavier over time, away from thieves, away from grasping relatives, away from her own hands. We would lock ourselves in her bedroom, turn on some loud Indian music so no one would hear and bring out the dazzling mound- chains two feet long, impossibly heavy fat bangles, lockets, necklaces and bracelets, ankle bells, vast earrings, hair ornaments, nose rings, coins. The sight of it gave Mariyam all the sensual pleasure she needed. She wore cheap clothes from Shepherd's Bush Market, saved scraps of food, tinfoil, towels. But every few months she took the bus to Wembley, to her trusted goldsmith, Mr AK Patel. Each piece bought was weighed and recorded with its current price. She entered that carefully into a ledger. How she would have cackled to know the unbelievable prices today.

Mr Patel's grandson now the boss, is just as solicitous, just as meticulous to the Asian ladies who crowd in carrying thousands of pounds in their bras or small pockets stitched into the insides of their waistbands. They haggle, argue and try the young man's patience before buying. He is a qualified civil engineer who was doing well enough until he couldn't resist the lure of the family business: "Iron and steel are OK but gold is in my every cell – my great grandfather was a goldsmith. Also I love it. Every morning I open the shop and feel like Aladdin." For others in the trade it becomes the meaning of life. We knew a Muslim goldsmith who made exquisite lockets inscribed with the name of Allah. He began to lose his sight when only 60 and killed himself, leaving a note: "Without gold working I am nothing. I will do my work for Him up there. Nothing here now."

Gold validates entire communities too. In Leicester thousands of Ugandan Asian settlers regenerated the city and created a thriving precinct with jewellers, beautiful clothes shops and the best Indian food in England. It is famously known as "the golden mile", the name a hallmark of their success against the odds, a recognition of their shining creativity and resilience.

People have always been mesmerised by the gold shine that seems to penetrate the pupils as you look at it, infusing your eyes with light. Think of the Egyptians, Romans, Persians, Incas, Mercians, Indians, West Africans and so many other civilisations. If Tutankhamun had been encased in silver his coffin would have been tarnished and the world would not have been as fired up as it was on his discovery. Cultures differ in their preferences and snobbery – yellow bling is thought coarse while pale is refined in the west; while in the east they like the strong colours and are disdainful of low-carat light gold. Mariyam used to say: "My spoon is worth more than English gold, nothing, stainless steel." Meanwhile for my white girlfriends Indian gold is too garish and showy.

Power seeks glittering endorsements. Think of crowns and thrones, chains and medals of pomp. Just when the Royal family was deeply unpopular after Diana's death, the restored Albert Memorial in Hyde Park was unveiled, only this time (unlike the original) it was gilded with 675 20-page books of real 24 carat gold leaf. The restoration of the regal order came with a bold statement. Within churches and temples the precious metal reflects both the might of God and the supplicant's ultimate sacrifice. When in Rajasthan a few years back, we went into an ornate Jain temples. Outside sat a mass of indigents, including tiny infants too weak to cry and inside, every single day priests added gold leaf on to the statues of Hindu gods. One sanctimonious, flabby priest told me in Gujarati that the wealthy paid for leafing and thereby pleased the Gods who rewarded them with more riches. And the poor? Oh they were just paying for crimes and failures in their previous lives. Mosques inside are usually beautifully simple and other worldly, though domes are often golden and some in the past were adorned with real gold again presumably to flatter Allah.

Arabs are as covetous of gold as South Asians. Dubai, with its brazen jewellery stores, is Mecca for both. Both use weddings to showcase their collections which whips up envy and humiliates those with less. There are tragic stories of fathers who couldn't compete and committed suicide to save face. These days in Britain, some Hindu parents positively encourage second and third daughters to find themselves a nice English chap ready to marry for love. Mr Vanibahi Patel gave his eldest girl "enough gold sets, four, heavy sets" when she married a distant cousin. He is delighted though that none of that was necessary for his three younger lasses because they married a John, another John and an Adam: "These modern ways are cheaper and better. We Indians are too materialistic. You can't eat bangles and chains can you? Gold is just a metal." Yes and no. This mere metal has meanings far beyond high price tags – emblematic, metaphorical, literary and emotional meanings.

For the erudite design guru Stephen Bailey: "The cash value of gold is trivial compared to its overwhelming symbolic importance in culture. That gold signifies two opposites is eloquent of the strange torsions in our belief system. Since the Bible, gold has signified sinful idolatry and vulgarity; but it also signifies the highest standards and the wisdom of ages. Aristotle called the most important proportional rules in art 'The Golden Section'. One of the Fathers of the Early Christian Church was St John Chrysostom – Greek for "Golden-mouthed" on account of his persuasive rhetoric. In Greco-Byzantine icons, the gold background signified the heavenly status of the saints. This fed directly into Renaissance art."

Glowing gold – the substance and the colour- produces religious and romantic euphoria but can be toxic. Remember Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger? She was painted by baddies in gold to look as if she was made of it and died, suffocated because her skin couldn't breathe. Or Midas, lucky bugger, whose fingers can turn twigs and straw to gold, but then he touches food and drink and his own daughter. A warning – this seductive stuff is irresistible and lethal.

Think of the human cost of mining the stuff. How many people have died or lost limbs? Desperation rises when supplies slow down. In South Africa production was neglected after the terrible exploitation during Apartheid. Attempts are being made to resuscitate the business – but the tortured ghosts of yore will not lie down. Prospecting is taking off and again, though some make money, the consequences are calamitous. In 2007, a schoolteacher posted online his own discovery of gold in Apui in Amazonas, Brazil. So began a modern gold rush of tens of thousands. Deforestation there and in other parts of South America where alluvial gold is found is destroying the habitat, polluting the waters, damaging the health of desperados frantic to get the element before others do.

The most important symbolic aspect of gold is to be found in the heads of old alchemists, says Bailey. The idea of turning base lead into noble gold, a transmutation, took many into the clouds of fantasy. In their pursuit of gold, they were also in pursuit of the "elixir of life". They didn't find it. High-flying financial gamblers like Bernie Madoff and investment bankers were latter-day alchemists, making fantastical promises. They couldn't turn paper into gold. So the people only trust the real stuff now, an act of faith. Its value depends on how much people believe in it. Millions clearly do. It will be fascinating to see what comes next in this new gold age and whether the shining yellow hope people are clutching will turn to straw.