Gold when alloyed with silver is whitish. With copper, reddish. With cadmium and silver, greenish. With iron, bluish. Jewelers rate it by degrees of purity: refined to 99.5 percent, it’s rated 24 karat. A goldsmith can tell, by rubbing some off on his touchstone and adding a drop of nitric acid. The purer the gold, the less its color will change. If it isn’t gold at all, it’ll just bubble away.
Jewelry in the United States is usually 14 karat, or 58.33 percent, gold. In most of Europe it’s 18 karat, or 75 percent. In Cairo, 21 karat, or 87.5 percent. But here in West Bengal, noted throughout India for its goldsmiths, it’s 91.66 percent. That’s 22 karat.
A jeweler says that in some Indian states, in Bihar and Orissa, it’s 24 karat, which is rather soft and will lose its shape if worn daily. But then you simply have it remade, to a new design. Bengali ladies like to have their ornaments remade anyway, every five years or so. It’s cheap.
The charges, for workmanship, profit, et cetera, addtup at most to 7 percent of the gold value. (In the U. S., by contrast, it’s around 80 percent. If you spend $100 instant payday loans for a piece of machine-made jewelry in New York, the gold you get will be worth about $18.) I see a workroom full of men quietly filing, drilling, hammering, and heating and reheating the gold so it’ll remain workable (preceding page). Tiny chisels give it tiny reflecting surfaces, like cut stones.
It’s bad for India to have so much capital stashed away in gold, says a man from the Gold Control Administration. It retards economic development, and so there are strict government controls. Every family with more than four kilograms is required to report it. “But the legislation is a complete failure.”
This tradition says that gold is the noblest of metals, one of the foremost among the things pure and auspicious. When a father sees his newborn child, he should touch it with gold; when a person leaves the world, on the burning pyre, a speck of gold should be put in the mouth. Wearing gold brings prosperity and luck, giving it removes one’s sins. Gold kills infections, advises a distinguished doctor of Hinduism’s traditional Ayurvedic medicine. “Does your body have a deficiency? Gold will fill it. Take these pills, you’ll feel spring in your life.”
He adds that gold is so expensive now, the common man can no longer afford such medication. I visit villages in West Bengal and administrators tell me there’s a deep depression. Gold? Ten years ago the land laborers had a little, but food has become so costly, and work so scarce, that it’s long gone to the richer peasants, or to the goldsmiths who are India’s pawnbrokers.