In the first of our series celebrating the weirder and more wonderful manufacturers of London, Isabelle Aron visits the secretive Baird & Co, the capital’s only gold foundry. Photography Andy Parsons
It’s a misty Wednesday afternoon and I’m in the middle of nowhere at a station I’ve never heard of. After an eerie mile-long walk along winding, deserted streets, I reach my destination – a nondescript business park. A voice crackles through the entryphone beside the metal gates: ‘Can I help you?’ I tell the faceless voice my name. ‘Ah yes, I’m expecting you.’
I’m not trying to infiltrate a secret government facility, though it feels like it. I’ve arrived at Baird & Co’s precious-metal foundry to see how gold bars are made. At least, I hope I have. The place is shrouded in secrecy. There’s no signage on the building and once the security guard buzzes me in, I’m immediately asked to hand over my phone so it can be locked away. A man in red overalls appears and introduces himself as the refinery manager – let’s call him Jim. I would tell you his actual name but… well, I can’t. Security around the foundry is so tight that staff aren’t allowed to tell anyone what they do for a living. It’s like being a spy – if spies spent their days producing gold bars.
‘I tell people I work in scrap metal,’ says Jim. ‘Which is basically what it is.’ Not even the people in the building next door know what goes on in the factory, another worker tells me. ‘When they asked, I said we make cardboard boxes,’ he adds. When it came up in conversation with bar staff on a recent work night out, the Baird employees used a pie factory as their cover story.
The reality is way more interesting than a load of boxes or a production line of steak-and-ale. Baird & Co, the UK’s largest gold refinery, has been in business since 1967. The company specialises in bullion – great chunks of precious metal which are sold as an investment. Unlike money in the bank or shares in a company, bullion is a physical asset that can provide a hedge against inflation. As a result, demand for it soars whenever there’s a crisis or political instability such as the 2008 financial crash, oil shortages or North Korean nuclear tests. As well as handling gold, Baird & Co produces silver, platinum, palladium and rhodium bullion, gold sovereigns, wedding rings and bespoke commissions. Jim says that one customer came in asking for solid-gold stair rods. ‘We didn’t end up doing them,’ he says. ‘He balked at the idea of how much it was going to cost.’
The factory floor is buzzing with activity. When I walk in, two workers are using huge metal tongs to lift a red hot crucible that’s used to melt gold and silver. The most impressive part is the gold refinery room. ‘This is my baby,’ says Jim as we step inside. ‘You’re going to love this.’ He’s not wrong. It’s like walking into a mad scientist’s laboratory. Glass flasks bubbling with chemicals are connected by a complex network of tubes and pipes. The whole contraption fills the room and stretches up to the ceiling. On the floor, two grubby yellow buckets are filled with what looks like sand. Turns out that’s what it is (sort of). It’s grains of gold. ‘There’s around £600,000 in those two buckets,’ says Jim. ‘We call it “gold sand”.’
All sorts of machines mould, stamp and decorate the refined metal. One of the workers fires up a ring-making machine, which transforms what looks like a metal nut into a silver wedding band in ten seconds flat. It’s like magic. In another room, a guy is stamping tiny one-gram pieces of gold with the Baird & Co logo. They’re smaller than a postage stamp, but worth around £30 each. One-kilogram gold bars are slightly less affordable, clocking in at about £32,000 apiece; they’re smaller than I expected (not as big as an iPhone) but deceptively heavy.
If a single gram of gold is worth £30, even the dust floating around must be worth a few quid. How do they stop particles on the workers’ clothes getting lost in the wash? ‘Nothing leaves the premises,’ says Jim. ‘We have our own launderette on site and all the uniforms are washed there. The water is processed so that the gold can be retrieved.’ That rule doesn’t apply to visitors, so while I might not have my own gold bar to take away, there’s a chance I’m leaving with a tiny smattering of precious dust on my jumper. I’m quids in!
How Baird & Co makes gold bullion
Gems are removed from old jewellery (above) before they’re melted down. Scrap metal arrives in all shapes and sizes: tableware, candle sticks and even gold teeth. Who knew that lustrous pure gold bars could come from such unglamorous origins?
The gold is melted into a scrap bar, which is heated and placed in water during the refining process, shattering it into ‘golden cornflakes’ (above). Instead of milk, though, they add a mix of nitric and hydrochloric acids, known as ‘aqua regia’ (‘royal water’). It’s then purified with sulphur dioxide and becomes ‘gold sand’ (below), which is melted in a crucible (top right) at a whopping 1,100C. Just a few degrees higher than the Central line in a heatwave, then.
The molten gold is then poured into water through a sieve, forming gold beads (above). A single bead is worth about £30. Once the gold has passed a test to determine its purity, it’s officially investment-grade and ready to be cast into 1kg (below) and 1g (below) bars. Most people store their gold bullion in high-security vaults – it’s not the kind of thing you keep in a shoebox under your bed, y’know?
Want more solid gold content? Meet the dogs of London