Gold refineries in Switzerland are working at their limit to cope with demand for the precious metal from investors seeking ways to shield their wealth.
The staff at the Argor-Heraeus company in the southern town of Mendrisio are putting in overtime to produce gold bars for people turning their backs on the financial markets.
"I've never experienced anything like this in my whole career," Erhard Oberle, chief executive of the firm for the past 20 years, told swissinfo.
He said the demand was so heavy that it could hardly be satisfied.
The reason for the gold – and silver - rush is that at a time of financial crisis many investors want real assets.
The general rule of the market is that gold is always attractive when everything else is unattractive.
"The current price development of the precious metal isn't really a determining factor," Oberle said.
Argo also produces semi-finished products for the jewellery and watch industries as well as coins and medals, but the booming bar business is at present clearly the hit.
The orders come from banks of all kinds, both at home and abroad.
After buying gold, customers keep the bars in a safe deposit box at the bank or even take them home. Even if everything goes wrong the owner still has the raw material value.
Argor-Heraeus introduced a three-shift operation several weeks ago to satisfy the demand and overtime is also done on Saturdays.
Part-time workers have also been hired and staff numbers have risen to 200, with many of them frontier workers from neighbouring Italy. The company processes more than 400 tonnes of gold a year and is one of the world's leaders.
Despite the increased demand for investment purposes, there have been no market shortfalls. "There is enough gold in circulation around the world," Oberle said.
The gold supply from mines has remained constant and added to that is an increasing amount of old jewellery being melted, as well as standard gold bars from the big banks. The problem is that on the production side, there is a limit.
Demand at present is first and foremost for bars weighing one kilo. But those with a more modest 100g and 50g are also very popular. The factory recycles the precious metal delivered to it and produces certified gold with a purity of 999 parts per 1,000.
The factory also produces gold mobile phone casings encrusted with diamonds, especially popular with retailers selling to customers in the Middle East or Asia who are willing to shell out around SFr250,000 ($211,811).
What is really important in the whole process are precise controls and the declaration of the country of origin of the precious metal.
The company was suspected in 2006 of breaking a United Nations embargo against gold from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The accusations later proved to be unfounded.
For the staff at the factory, working with gold is part of the daily routine.
"At the beginning you are impressed by moving such wealth around but then you realise it is only a product like anything else," one worker said.
However, security is tight. From the outside, the factory with its high walls looks like a prison and video cameras seem to be everywhere.
swissinfo, based on an article in German by Gerhard Lob
SWISS GOLD REFINERIES
Besides Argor-Heraeus there are gold factories located near Chiasso in canton Ticino – Valcambi in Balerna and Pamp in Castel San Pietro – and the Metalor company in Neuchâtel.
It is no coincidence that three of the Swiss refineries are located in Ticino. Neighbouring Italy, with its jewellery industry, was for a long time the largest buyer of gold and silver.
Another reason is that Italian labour was easy to find for what is at times heavy and monotonous work.
As a result of its strict precious metal controls, Switzerland is reputed for its quality.
The company was founded in 1951 as Argor. The name is formed from two French words – "argent" (silver) and "or" (gold).
In 1973 the company was a 100% subsidiary of the Union Bank of Switzerland (now UBS).
The firm moved to a new factory in Mendrisio in 1988. The Heraeus company of Germany bought the company in 1999.
The share capital is now owned by Heraeus, the Commerzbank of Luxembourg, the Austrian Mint and the company's management. The former Swiss big bank owner is now just a customer.
Argor-Heraeus Germany was founded in 2004. Its headquarters are in Pforzheim in the heart of the German jewellery industry. The company has representations in Latin America and Italy.
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