Perth Mint

 



David Whitley tries to get his hands on what he patently can’t afford in Western Australia

 

In a climate of banking instability, bail-outs and business collapses, it’s unusual to come across an operation that is not just surviving, but booming. The Perth Mint is one of the unexpected beneficiaries of the global financial crisis. With the public jittery over the banks, house prices rocky and stocks and shares plummeting, people have turned to gold as a safe investment. And if there’s one thing that the Perth Mint has got, it’s lots of gold. The Government-owned institution produces commemorative coins and bullion, plus it acts as both a depository and trading centre. The gold price has shot up in 2008, and the Mint has seen a flurry of interest, both from investors and curious visitors. Sales of gold and silver coins from the Mint’s shop have more than doubled in the last year – visitors are clearly putting their money where the metal is.

 

The Perth Mint is a curious mix of high security trading centre, upmarket souvenir shop and tourist attraction. Many go in purely to buy jewellery and look at the collector’s coins – and these cover everything from cutesy koala engravings to Prince Charles memorabilia. The coins are all legal tender, but it would be absurd to use them as such. A coin with a face value of $2 is sold for $90, and will probably be worth a lot more in years to come – handing it over in return for a bottle of Coke would be a costly error. The mint also revels in its Gold Exhibition, which traces the history of gold in Western Australia and has a couple of fairly awesome set pieces. By the reception are a few of the medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which were made at the Mint. But the history goes back a lot further than the turn of the 21st century.

 

WA’s first gold was found in Coolgardie in 1892, and the state’s population more than trebled in the next four years as people flocked to cash in. Soon after, the world’s “richest mile” was discovered in Kalgoorlie and it wasn’t long before it seemed sensible to mint it in Perth rather than send everything back to London. That’s where the big limestone building that still houses the goodies today came in. After the brief history lesson, visitors are led through to a mocked-up prospector’s camp, where some giant gold nuggets are on display. Unfortunately, they’re models, and painted polystyrene isn’t quite as valuable. One of the big beasts – the Hand of Faith - was found in rural Victoria, and is the largest nugget in the world today (other larger ones have been broken down). The real version is on display at the fittingly-named Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas.

 

Back inside is the world’s largest collection of gold bars, all wisely kept behind glass aside from one that visitors can attempt to lift. It’s pretty small, but takes a bit of muscle. It weighs 12.54 kilos, was worth $200,000 at the time it was made and is now worth considerably more. There are also opportunities to see how much your bodyweight in gold would be worth (a cool $3,712,752) and engrave your own coin. But the real highlight is watching the gold being poured. Danny Martin has the unenviable task of standing by a 1,300 degree furnace and handling $200,000 worth of molten gold. “Please don’t try and jump me,” he says as he pulls the searing liquid metal out in a clay crucible.

 

He’s wearing a wool shirt, as that smoulders rather than bursts into flames, and has an apron and gloves made of Kevlar. He brushes the crucible against his left mitt just to prove how hot it is – the sizzling sound is shudder-inducing. Very carefully, he proceeds to pour the gold into a mould. “Would anyone like to lick the bowl?” he asks.  The crucibles, understandably, have a limited lifespan, and traces of the gold stay in them. These are all carefully removed with chemicals before the sturdy old warhorses are put out to pasture. The bar takes five to ten seconds to solidify, a process that it should be well used to by now. The same bar has been melted down and re-used for the demonstration 30,000 times over the years. Remarkably, none of it has been lost in this time – the weight is carefully logged after every demonstration. The cooling process is nothing fancy – the mould is just dunked in a sink of water – but soon enough, the reformed bar is possible to touch with the bare hand. 

 

But anyone who wants to be able to touch gold on a more permanent basis is better off heading to the shop – the security guards and cameras are enough to deter any chancers. And afterwards, people really do flock to the shop – under present conditions, it seems as though the Perth Mint has the golden touch. 

 

More photos here

 

The Perth Mint can be found at 310 Hay Street, East Perth. It is open from 9am to 5pm on weekdays and 9am to 1pm on weekends/ public holidays.