'Gold' Ponders The Glittering Metal's Allure

Matthew Hart tells the story of humankind's obsession with gold around the world and through history in his new book, Gold: The Race for the World's Most Seductive Metal. He joins host Scott Simon to explain why he writes that "gold is its own country."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Gold glitters. But it's also grimy, slimy and often blood-stained. It's been a source of wealth and beauty, currency and crime. During the years of the world financial crisis, most forms of wealth plunged, but since 2008, the price of gold has skyrocketed. Now, that's set off a new gold rush of sorts, a fervor of exploration deeper and deeper into the earth, and into dreams. Matthew Hart, author of the previous award-winning book, "Diamond," has a new one that traces gold from the bowels of the earth onto the trading boards of London and beyond. His new book is called "Gold: The Race for the World's Most Seductive Metal." Matthew Hart joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MATTHEW HART: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: There were moments reading your book where I would read about the working conditions in mines; deep mines in South Africa, hideous conditions in mines in China. I wondered by buying a piece of gold jewelry, are we encouraging a trade that relies an awful lot on the exploitation of workers?

HART: A similar question was asked about diamonds, when blood diamonds were very much in the news. Should we be wearing diamond jewelry? And there were campaigns against it. With gold, China is the biggest producer and there is a lot of illegal gold mining there, and some of it in hideous conditions. And some of the mines in South Africa and some of the mining in Congo where people brutalize and enslave whole villages, whole areas in the gold fields, can be very, very bad and hideous. But there's a lot of gold that is mined in an orderly, proper way and the people benefit by being well-paid for their work. And I'm thinking not just of mines in the United States, where certainly the mines are very well paid, but also I'm thinking of a mine like the new Kibali mine in the Congo, where the people are very well paid and it's transformed the area that it's in. The truth is you can never stop the sale and mining of it, because it's cash essentially. People are digging up money. That, alas, will always attract people.

SIMON: Hearing what it takes to get gold out of the ground might make people look down at, let's say, a gold wedding band on their finger and wonder if it's really worth it. How do you get gold out of the ground?

HART: Well, with a certain amount of difficulty. And the deepest mining tunnels are at a depth of two and a half miles, in a very, very hot furnace-like environment - the rock temperature down there is 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the humidity is extremely high, the ground is constantly shaken with tremors. So, it's all together a hellish environment to work in.

SIMON: And we're not talking about six-hour shifts down there, are we?

HART: When you speak about shifts, we think of a shift in terms of hours. There's in fact another kind of miner inhabiting the deep mines of South Africa that stays under for a lot longer than that, and they're illegal miners. And they often stay down for three months at a time. Their skin turns gray. In fact, in South Africa they call them ghost miners, and the reason they stay down for three months is because it's very, very difficult to break through the security and get down there so they stay a long time when they're there.

SIMON: Toward the end of this book, you say gold is its own country.

HART: Yes. In the case that I was describing when I said gold is its own country, I was describing one of the most moving gold areas that I've ever been in, and that's the far east of Senegal on the Mali border. With the high gold prices, there was a lot of exploration on the Senegal side, and I wanted to see that. There's this vast bamboo forest that covers the east of Senegal, and I really wanted to see what was going on there, what it was like and visit this exciting new gold field. And when I got there, I found not only the industrial modern-day geologists with all their kit and gear and all their drills, but in fact all of the people who lived there, who lived in these little thatched villages in the forest were mining gold too and had been mining gold for hundreds and hundreds of years. Whole villages would go out - wives, husbands, children - they'd sink these shafts sometimes as deep as 20 yards. And underneath, far below the surface would be all these interconnected tunnels, and they would just dig, take it up. The women would have these huge calabashes and they basically panned the gold. This is so different from people almost enslaved two and a half miles down working in narrow tunnels. It's almost like working in a pizza oven. Compare that to this, where people are working and, you know, and this sort of sunlight in the forest, the whole village going out and following this immemorial pursuit of mining gold. And I found that quite moving.

SIMON: Matthew Hart. His new book, "Gold: The Race for the World's Most Seductive Metal." Thanks very much for being with us.

HART: Oh, thank you very much, Scott.

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