BBC News

Gold refineries - another Swiss money-spinner

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Ticino

image captionGold refining and production of gold bars are thriving in Switzerland

The tranquil hills of southern Switzerland are famous for their palm trees, wine and the culture their villages share with neighbouring Italy.

But there is something else this region can boast of, although no-one cares to boast too loudly - gold.

Four of the world's biggest gold refineries are in Switzerland, three of them in the southern canton of Ticino, and - although there are no Swiss gold mines - it is estimated that two-thirds of the world's gold is refined in Switzerland.

"It's to do with history," explains Roberto Grassi of the Fidinam financial consultancy.

"The big Swiss banks owned the refineries. During World War Two, because of the large amount of gold that was stored in Switzerland, the banks decided to set up their own refineries, producing bars."

Today the banks do not own the refineries anymore, but gold refining and production of gold bars are thriving.

In 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, more than 2,600 tonnes of raw gold was imported into Switzerland, with a value of $103bn (£64bn).

Enormous stacks

media captionA rare look inside a Swiss gold refinery

The Pamp gold refinery looks like any other modern factory block from the outside. Even the entrance is not especially remarkable, apart from a somewhat higher-than-normal level of security.

But inside, things are very different. In one room molten ore is poured into moulds to make gold bars weighing 12.5kg (27.5lb).

Gold today is around $1,700 an ounce. As there are 32 troy ounces in a kilogram of bullion, one 12.5kg bar alone is worth $680,000.

Alberto Candiani, head of bullion production at the refinery, is keen to show his wares, from 50g gold bars right up to the 12.5kg variety.

There are enormous stacks of them, and more coming off the assembly line.

But ask Mr Candiani exactly how many are produced in a day, and he becomes less forthcoming. "I can't tell you that," he smiles.

In the absence of more concrete information, let's just say the amount of gold which slithered out of the back of Michael Caine's getaway van in the movie The Italian Job was modest in comparison.

'Safe investment'

Despite all the talk of a global economic downturn, or perhaps because of it, the market for gold is booming.

"Since the financial crisis of 2008, gold has gone mainstream," says the refinery's managing director, Mehdi Barkhordar.

"Suddenly there was a crisis of confidence," he continues. "People no longer could have certainty that their banking system was going to be intact, or even that their country's financial system would be intact… hence the big demand for gold bars and gold coins."

"I would describe it as a kind of insurance."

Financial adviser Roberto Grassi agrees with that analysis; gold is a commodity for uncertain times.

"Gold is a kind of investment that you buy and keep aside," he explains. "It's there for a particular reason, crisis, wartime, during those times it is absolutely valuable, wherever in the world."

And, Mr Grassi adds, despite the fact that the price of gold has risen sharply this year, it should be viewed not as a speculative, but as a safe investment.

"I think it is safe to have a portion of your investment in gold, for the simple reason that nowadays cash is no longer safe. Gold will still be there, whatever level inflation will be and whatever loss in value in paper currency."

Gold guidance

But despite the popularity of gold, there are questions about where it is sourced and about the conditions for workers in gold mines.

Since the introduction of the Kimberley certification process for diamonds, designed primarily to ensure diamonds are bought only from registered sources not connected with conflict, there have been moves to introduce a similar process for gold.

Mr Barkhordar has been involved in developing the London Bullion Market Association's Responsible Gold Guidance (LBMA),

The scheme requires refineries recognised by the LBMA "to combat systematic or widespread abuses of human rights, to avoid contributing to conflict, to comply with high standards of anti-money laundering and combating terrorist financing practice".

Mr Barkhordar says it is an issue the industry is taking very seriously, pointing out that it takes on average three months of checking before his refinery will go into business with a new gold mine.

"We need to understand where is the material coming from, how are they dealing with the people around them, how are they with the environment, are they respecting all the laws and so on," he explains.

"We take it very seriously and that's why with the advent of the new responsible gold guidance hopefully all refineries will follow these."

Eternal attraction

For fair trade campaigners in Switzerland, like Eva Schmassmann, this is good - but not enough.

She believes Switzerland itself needs to be more open about an industry which is so important on its territory, and has begun a petition calling for more transparency.

"The LBMA guidelines are certainly one step in the right direction," she admits. "Because the LBMA makes them compulsory for all the members."

"But the gold business in Switzerland is very untransparent.

"The Swiss trade statistics do not tell you where the gold comes from that is imported to Switzerland. What we want is that the statistics include the origin and also the destination of the gold that is traded through Switzerland," Ms Schmassmann says.

But any changes in Swiss law are likely to be a long way off.

Meanwhile, the price of gold stays high.

Although buying gold is not really an option for most people, whose savings (if they have them) are likely to be invested in a house and a pension, and despite the fact that there are other safe commodities around such as platinum or even oil, only gold has kept us in thrall for thousands of years.

Even those who make it, like Mr Barkhordar, cannot quite explain gold's eternal attraction.

"I don't know, why not nickel, why not something else," he says.

"Gold has a very special role, I don't know if someone can explain what that special role is - but it's vey special."

"Of course, you can't eat gold, nobody will die without gold. But it's magical… what do you want me to tell you, it's magical."

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