Opinion

Why it is time Wales protected its gold

21 Feb 2021 5 minutes Read
Wales’ gold has formed the basis of much Royal jewellery, including the wedding rings of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Picture by Londisland (CC BY 3.0).

Anthony Clarke, PhD student in geology

Chemically Welsh gold is no different than other gold, but few other commodities have such a romantic and historical attachment.

Welsh gold continues to adorn the British Royal Family – including the wedding rings of Harry and Meghan, Kate and William, and Charles and Diana – and once decorated ancient Celtic royalty. The spot-price of Welsh gold can be between 20 to 30 times more valuable than conventional gold.

Metal extraction including copper, iron, tin and principally gold has occurred in Wales for millennia. Even today the remains of Roman gold mine workings are seen in Dolaucothi in Carmarthenshire.

Over 2442kg of gold was extracted from the Dolgellau belt intermittently between 1862 and 1911 – Wales’ very own gold rush. However, both economic and technological factors have however made continued gold mining impossible in Wales. Diminishing reserves and increasing costs led to the closure of the Clogau St. David’s mine in 1998. Since then, alluvial panning has been the only source of new gold in Wales.

For all but the most expensive pieces questionable reserves of hoarded gold continue to be the source of the “Welsh gold” advertised. Even then most pieces that the average person could afford this is diluted with a mixture of Australian or Canadian gold.

Demand remains high, however. In 2017 a handful of Welsh gold samples mined between 1979 and 1981 sold for £9000, far exceeding all estimates.

Exploration

So, given that the demand for our precious resource is high and combined with record global gold prices, exploration is now ongoing at the former Clogau-St. David’s mine. Today exploration and mining are now far more scientifically rigorous – gone are the days of lucky prospectors armed with a pickaxe.

With permission from the Crown (not the Welsh-government) Alba Mineral Resources, a London registered stock exchange company now holds the exploration license for the Dolgellau area. The company is continuing to release promising news through its English-only press releases.

Using modern soil-sampling techniques combined with novel exploratory drilling from inside the mine the company has identified 10 new gold anomalies – all of which warrant further exploration.

Furthermore, a continuation of gold-bearing rocks 25m beneath former shafts at the Llechfraith area was discovered.  Both new and old areas are being investigated at an exciting pace.

Gold is notoriously difficult to explore for, being both rare (10 grams of gold per tonne of rock is seen as high grade) and being locked away in complicated to predict and mine veins. Alba Mineral Resources have confirmed recoveries of up to 20 grams of gold per tonne in some underground areas of the Clogau-St. David’s Mine.

The entire Dolgellau Gold belt is largely underexplored and potentially rich. With increasing gold prices and modern technology, it is likely that we will once again see Welsh gold being mined at a progressively large-scale.

Given the sensitive location of the exploration areas and former mine-sites both Natural Resources Wales and Snowdonia National Park Authority have been working closely with Alba Mineral Resources. It is exciting to see the competent authorities being proactive and positive by giving detailed planning permissions and consultation as production is approaching.

Hallmark

Much like Welsh gold Scottish gold attracts an expensive premium. ScotGold, the company operating the Cononish project in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park poured its first ingot of Scottish gold in 2020.

There are several parallels between the Cononish Project and future production in Wales, however the future path Welsh gold could take is unclear. With support from Holyrood there is a chain of custody guaranteeing Scottish gold, including its authenticity and value backed by the Edinburgh Assay Office.  The Scottish Government prevented such a precious resource from being backed and potentially profited from by another nation.

Currently, Welsh gold is largely assayed and hallmarked at the Edinburgh Assay Office. Aside from certifying its provenance and quality the office legally backs the Clogau company statement that “[some] Welsh gold is contained within each piece produced”.

It is concerning to see Welsh gold being certified in Edinburgh. Other Welsh resources, including food and drink are protected by law. A Welsh based Assay Office, perhaps working in conjunction with the Royal Mint in Llantrisant should be the sole authenticator of all new Welsh gold. Each ingot and piece should show a uniquely Welsh hallmark, with an associated chain of custody.

It makes sense for a resource which sells because of its Welshness to be certified in Wales. The Assay Office should develop a national, government-sponsored registry of Welsh gold reserves.

Currently, there are a diverse collection of records detailing gold production and consumption in Wales. A modern database for the future would help to monitor the industry and discourage the market manipulation caused by Welsh gold hoarding.

Beyond a novelty or a company slogan, a Welsh hallmark would be quite literally worth its weight in gold.

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