THE PROSPECTOR "What happens is, everything in the pan will move except the gold. You can swirl the sediment around, but there it will sit," says Jim Laidlaw. Twice in his life, the prospector has felt the thrill of finding nuggets of gold while panning in Eastern Ontario. A find like that is pretty rare, though. More often, searching for gold involves using advanced geochemistry to detect microscopic particles in soil and rock samples. Knowing where to look is key-volcanic terrain, near quartz and sulphide minerals like pyrite. That's where Laidlaw comes in. He's a geological gun-for-hire who has been prospecting on behalf of junior mining companies, plus working his own claims, for more than 30 years. His work has taken him to gold camps from Quebec to Saskatchewan and, most recently, to Timmins-Ontario's gold hot spot of the moment. "Some of the things I've worked on, we've been able to sell it and move it into a junior," says Laidlaw. "That's sort of the dream."
Home for the geological technician is near Madoc, a tiny town midway between Toronto and Ottawa. The province's first gold mine was built here in the mid-1800s, at a place called Eldorado. "It was basically a hole in the ground with a door on top," says Laidlaw. But the find spurred a gold rush, and the local government mustered a mounted police force to keep the peace. Laidlaw first came here in 1987, while working for a junior mining company searching for gold.
His biggest challenge now is finding open land to stake. In Northern Ontario especially, "everything is staked solid," says Laidlaw. "Everyone and their dog is out there with a hammer and drill, dreaming they're gonna hit big."
THE PITCHMAN Here's my newest ad!" Russell Oliver cranks up the volume on the TV, which is tuned to CP24, a Toronto-area news station that makes a mint off the prolific pitchman. "I'll give you cash for your used jewellery," shouts the TV Oliver-a.k.a. the Cashman, a.k.a. the Loan Arranger-in his South African accent, signing off with his signature "Ohhh yeahhhhh." Oliver produced his first spot in 1994. Since then, he has spent $25 million on TV advertising. That helps explain the constant stream of customers being buzzed into Oliver's shop on Eglinton Avenue. They come bearing bags full of bracelets, chains, coins and trinkets, handing them to the youngest of Oliver's four sons, Jonas-a.k.a. the Cash Kid-who uses an acid kit to determine the karat of each piece (a skill he learned as a kid from his dad). In exchange, Jonas hands over a wad of cash-generally 70% to 80% of the gold's scrap value. Behind the scenes, four employees sort the day's haul by karat into muffin tins, then cart it into the back office to be inspected by Oliver himself, using a loupe that hangs around his neck.
Oliver started selling jewellery in 1970, after spending a student loan meant for law school to buy a shop downtown. When the recession hit in the early 1990s, he switched from new to used jewellery, and eventually gave up selling the stuff altogether. Besides, he says, "buying jewellery is so much nicer. You're giving people money, and you don't have to sell them on it."
Another Oliver spot comes on-the one with the scantily clad dancing girls. "This is the one I love the most," Oliver says dreamily. "I'll never get rid of this one." Ohhh yeahhhhh.
THE REFINER Jerry Stein's desk is littered with bags of gold-chains, tarnished spoons, delicate rings. There are two bricks of melted-down dental fillings worth $20,000. A TV set hooked up to seven security cameras shares space with all this loot, and a "Beware of Dog" sign hangs in the window, though there is no pooch in sight. This is the headquarters of Cash Gold Canada, the three-year-old company run by Stein's daughter.
But for 24 years, Stein's mainstay has been the unsexy stuff, like slag-encrusted crucibles and gold shavings from a jeweller's floor. (He points to one bucket of sweepings and estimates it contains $2,000 worth of gold.) This soft metal leaves a bit of itself on everything it touches, and Stein specializes in buying it, refining it and selling it back into the market. "I look like a biker"-Harley-Davidson jacket, studded belt, bulging biceps-"but I am really very educated," says the Israeli-born chemical engineer.
Stein caters to local jewellers and industrial clients at a slicker operation he runs in downtown Toronto, where he offers "refining while you wait." There, Stein dons a heavy silver apron, arm protectors and welder's mask, fires up the induction furnace and dumps a bag of rings into the crucible. Within minutes, they are molten metal, and flames shoot up as he pours it into the mould. When the bar has hardened, he files off some of the slag, then places it into a $75,000 X-ray machine. In 60 seconds, it spits out a breakdown: just 11.53% gold, the rest mostly silver, copper and zinc. This customer will receive 2% below the day's spot prices for gold and other metals. Retail customers get about 22% below-"I have to be a bit more conservative, you know what I mean?" Stein's prices are updated minute by minute on his website, a rarity in an industry where gouging customers is routine.
Stein wags his unadorned fingers. "Being so many years in the business, you lose any attraction to this metal. You can show me the most expensive piece and it doesn't even take my attention." One exception is the delicate golden hamsa-a Middle Eastern charm-that hangs on a heavy chain around his neck. "It gives me luck," he says.
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THE PARTY GIRL "Ach, who needs 'em?" says the woman as she slaps her and her husband's wedding bands onto a velvet tray heaped with necklaces, a watch, a pair of heart-shaped earrings and a one-ounce wafer of pure gold. On the other side of the table sits a petite blonde in a hot-pink T-shirt emblazoned with her company's name, Gold Party Princess. Sue Alexander puts a loupe to her eye to magnify each piece's karat stamp (when in doubt, she touches it with the wand of her $1,200 electronic gold tester) and separates them into piles: 10k, 14k, 18k. When she's done, she weighs each pile and taps on her calculator. Then she writes the woman a cheque for $2,453.
Gold Party Princess attends a dozen or more parties like this one each week, buying unwanted gold from guests. The hostess gets a $25 food allowance, plus 10% of whatever GPP pays out. As for GPP, it makes a healthy margin on the stuff when it's sold to a refiner. The Toronto-based company is the brainchild of Alexander's sister, Louise, a 20-year veteran of the jewellery business. They threw their first party in February, 2009, at Sue's house. They had $2,300 in the bank. An hour in, they'd run out of money. "One of the women went home and came back with more jewellery," says Louise. "Another went home and came back with a friend, then that friend hosted her own party." GPP has since been copied by dozens of companies across Canada, but that hasn't slowed the sisters down: They currently have 12 employees, with franchises in Calgary and Ottawa.
One by one, tonight's guests take a seat across from Sue, dumping out gifts from ex-boyfriends, a great-aunt's bracelet, a graduation watch engraved with "Love Mom and Dad," a gold dental bridge, a Gucci bracelet. She hands over cheques for $3,990, $500, $2,500. Over wine and sushi, the guests chatter about how they'll spend the unexpected windfall.
"This was a very good party," says Sue, a former Bay Street exec, as she packs away her tools. GPP's average haul is about $5,000 per party. Tonight's total: $12,283. The hostess nods her head and clutches her commission cheque to her chest.
THE BRIDE In the Hindu religion, it is said that a bride who wears 24-karat gold-a symbol of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity-is in for a lifetime of luck. So, on her wedding day this past May, Rupashi Goswami donned a set of bridal gold that had in part been passed down from her grandmother in New Delhi: an ornate necklace and matching earrings, rings on every finger, bangles up her arms. During the ceremony, Goswami's husband cemented their pact by tying a mangal sutra, a necklace of black beads and gold-the equivalent of a wedding band-around her neck. "Gold is a big tradition in our culture," says Goswami, a doctor based in Ontario. In India, it is much more than that: There, gold equals status. For rich and poor alike, it is a de rigueur part of not just weddings, but also birthdays, religious ceremonies and festivals. In 2009, India accounted for 25% of worldwide demand for gold jewellery. (It's also a popular investment, as a hedge against an inflation rate that hovers around 10%.) But as the price marched toward $1,000 (U.S.) an ounce early in '09, demand tanked-this is, after all, a country where the average annual income is less than $1,000. But then the Reserve Bank of India bought 200 tonnes, a message to Indians that prices would not be coming back to Earth. In the first quarter of 2010, demand was up by 700%, to 194 tonnes-$7 billion worth. "It's hard currency," says Goswami, whose gift table was laden with blenders and sheets, but also with gold trinkets and bangles. "No matter how much or how little money you have, people of Indian background will always have a little gold."