Tag Archives: gold

… Is Not Gold

TreasureChestOkay, we have all been bombarded with advertising slogans and when it comes around to holiday time, the main event is perfume and jewelry. “A diamond is forever” and “Quality is Remembered Long After the Price is Forgotten” are two ubiquitous refrains from the world of luxury-item sales pitches. Naturally, advertising can run the gamut from  bending the truth to down and dirty lying, but recent events have convinced me that the whole of the jewelry industry is a fictional construct that is rivaled only by the lore of the world’s religions. And who here doesn’t believe in the power imbued in jewelry?

I admit, I never did. Fancy things hanging from my fingers, neck and ears just kept me from doing things that were active and fun. I never found the pleasure involved in passively glittering, as if a hunting lure for birds or fish. It is possible that some women find a kind of empowerment in being be-jeweled, but for me it was quite the opposite; limiting and inhibiting – maybe even as a control mechanism. Here, dear, take this shiny object and be content, this is how much I care (in value). And, over time, it hasn’t changed much as both a token of affection or guilt.

Marilyn and friends

So imagine the bind I find myself in, having inherited objects of desire and/or apology crafted in gold and precious stones from people I valued, people now absent. Yes, there is the sentimental factor, but, mostly, there is reversion to the material stuff. Plus, there is no placeness in it. And there the stuff sits, languishing in much the same way that it did when it decorated those who appreciated it more than I ever can. After a seemingly appropriate waiting period, it is time for a parting of ways. But how, with something that has such a commodious value? I headed out for “jewelers row” to unload the stuff.

In large cities there are diamond dealers, even diamond districts. An entire industry is built on the jewelry trade. That should be the place to go. It is like its own city within the city, an enclave of people who live and breathe gold. They fill entire blocks of four or five story buildings. The funny thing is that they all work in competition with each other but there is a symbiosis, a collaborative atmosphere. Their shops are separate but they come and go freely to other shops, and I get the distinct feeling that they trade among themselves and maybe even do group buying from the same distributors. Perhaps they are all related by marriage, as in a small town. I imagine that all the shop facades are joined backstage, like a false Western storefront set, and where many of the honchos are gathered around a table gambling with diamonds. I mean, they are worth way more than money, right?

Gold jewelry on display in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Some of the shops have fancy showrooms with lots of mirrors and crystal chandeliers, similar to casinos I have visited. Others are less glitzy and even more tacky than casinos. One had an office atmosphere with a line of desks (and a surveillance camera over each) and a counter more like you might see at an optician’s. The workers break down into the bosses, those who sell, those who assess, those who test and weigh, those who make or fix. The seven dwarfs may mine the gems, but there is definitely a hierarchical structure to the business of jewelry. I even heard an employee describe the man to see as not just a jeweler, but a watchmaker – a man of skill as well as know-how.


What did I come away with? It is all lights and mirrors and the only science, let alone alchemy, is the weighing and pricing of gold – not market price, but rather jewelers’ price. I was told a few times that the only value in the booty I presented is as scrap. How does one explain that thirty years before, just one of the items I held was appraised at four times what I was being offered for the entire lot today? Surprisingly, two potential buyers quoted the same amount for the “load”; the next doubled their matching bids; a fourth offered the same as the first two but for just three items, with no interest in the “lot”; and the last shop offered three times as much as the first two, but in three weeks, not now (this one must be psychic about gold values).

So despite all the pretense of acid tests and digital scales, the monetary value of these “forever” baubles was fairly low. Of course, all that overhead has to be factored (and I didn’t even see the bodyguards), and also the price that the jewels could possibly fetch in the current retail market and then subtracting the age-related style deflation – well, being a seller in a buyer’s world – you can see where I am headed with this. Just like a casino, you can’t possibly beat the house. Since the game is made up and controlled by the dealers, you can’t compete. The only “forever” with jewels is the endless supply of suckers who keep the industry afloat. The family jewels is a hoax. Except for those whose families are in the business.


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Cheque-ing Out

Roughly the size of paper currency, which it acts as substitute for, it originated in the 1600s in England as a bill of exchange. By adding a serial number to it to certify its value, we know it today as a cheque (a/k/a “check”). Following the California gold rush, banks on the East Coast, vulnerable to stage-coach robberies by transporting large amounts of ore from points west, started accepting drafts or cheques. And around 1913, the cheque became an accepted payment standard in the United States. The Federal Reserve set up a system of clearinghouses to expedite processing, coast to coast. By 1952, 47 million checking accounts existed, with annual cheque-writing reaching eight billion. Nearly fifty years later, the numbers were more like 70 billion a year.

Cheques have been declining in use thanks to electronic methods of payment and easy access to cash. In some European countries, banks have stopped issuing cheques altogether. The future looks dim for the paper cheque, the place of cheques being usurped by newer technologies. I think about cheques because I write them often, have been writing them for years, and I have a number of memories associated with them.

As a child, my parents helped me to start a savings account. It was nice, with a small booklet or ledger in which transactions were written and balances kept. It was my own financial diary, for what it was worth. I used to watch my mother write cheques and it was she who taught me how to fill them in properly. I felt like an adult when I got my own checking account and started paying for things with cheques. It was kind of like getting a driver’s license for money management; ergo, perceived independence. The nice thing about cheques was that you were always aware of your outgo and your balance. And, with cheques, as opposed to credit cards, you couldn’t spend what wasn’t there.

Cheques are records of memories for me, something like photographs. I can look at old cheques and conjure up images of events or acquisitions of note. I have my mother’s old checkbook registers and cheques, and as I look through them I am reminded of years that certain things took place, expenditures that were made, when items found their way into the house, trips that were taken, how ridiculously cheap their mortgage was and how much they gave their parents every month. I have one of the final cheques my father wrote, when he paid cash for the last car he owned. (Yes, there was a time when you could write a cheque to cover the full price of a car.) I find that cheques can tell stories about lives. And for some inexplicable reason, I had a special chuckle when the sequential number on a cheque I wrote matched my address number. There was a strange circularity to it.

In 1981, newly married and living in Seattle, we switched banks and realized that there was now a box of useless cheques in our possession. Always eco-minded, I just couldn’t see the sense of throwing them out – they were cheques, after all: in one moment worth whatever we had in our bank account, the next moment without any value whatsoever (and maybe, at that time, one and the same). The winter holidays were approaching and I decided to put them to good use: I made a Christmas tree out of the cheques. I cut them lengthwise into strips and curled them, then fastened them to a wooden stand, layering and shortening the curled pieces until they became a facsimile of a conical evergreen in paper – pale-green paper, to boot. And the special meaning of Christmas as a symbol of money was perfect in every way. Those cheques never had such a meaningful existence.

The space on a cheque has been in my thoughts lately. As cost of living and inflation continue to rise, the cheque hasn’t increased in size accordingly. Over a few decades, the amounts written on my cheques have grown beyond the space provided. Whereas a cheque written when I was first starting out could have been for five dollars, these days cheques for thousands of dollars seem de rigeur. But the line to fill in the amount is unchanged, the same space whether the number has three places or six. There seem to be more zeros than ever before and, yet, the cheque design stays the same. Maybe for that reason alone, they will become obsolete – because they have run out of space.

I was always fascinated by the idea that a cheque could be written on anything and be legally binding. As long as it had the account number and signature, it didn’t have to be the “official” bank cheque. I doubt that it would be acceptable currently if it couldn’t be easily scanned; for instance, if it were on someone’s plaster cast. I used to try to think of possible surfaces to attempt to write a cheque on to challenge the system. According to M. Liepner, in Applying the Law, a Canadian farmer during the 1930s painted a cheque on the side of a cow and then cashed it. This idea might have been derived from Jewish law: a “get” (divorce document) can be written on any durable material, including the horn of a cow. Perhaps, to avoid this kind of thinking, banks devised “personalized” or customized cheques with images, colors, photos – you, your children or pets, your favorite candy bar, cartoon character or endangered species. Cheques have become cousins to the tee-shirt industry in advertising commercial products and also our sense of self (or is that the same thing?).

Not so long ago, you used to get your cheques returned by the bank after processing. Now you get an electronic image of that cheque, made smaller and smaller every year (somehow inversely proportional to the money amounts). The writing seems to be on the wall – that banks are doing everything they can to discourage us from using cheques. They are treated as necessary evils, separated out on your statements from the “electronic payments” as second-class citizens. Funny, since they helped to develop the banking industry. Just like they replaced money, they are being replaced by computerized virtuality and Internet clouds. The sad part is, these latter forms of banking will leave no relics, no artifacts to ponder. Try tracing your signature on airspace. It’s like blowing smoke rings. Cheques aren’t just about money, they are archival records of a life well (or mis-) spent.

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