By Dan Moren
May 7, 2015 9:49 AM PT
All that glitters is not (pure) gold
On a blustery day in early April, piles of snow from our brutal winter still in evidence, I found myself in front of an unassuming brick building in Attleboro, Massachusetts.
I was going to see how gold was made.
“Made” is a strange word to use—gold, after all, is a naturally occurring element. Forged in the heart of ancient supernovae, it’s right there on the periodic table at number 79. But, as I was about to learn, there’s gold… and then there’s gold.
Much has been made of the Apple Watch Edition, mostly centered around its hefty price tag, but also about the device’s gold case, made from a special version of the metal that Apple claims is “twice as hard as standard gold.”
Even my colleague Jason Snell commented on that, in his first impressions of the Edition:
I know what you’re thinking. You’re a jeweler. You’re looking at Apple and thinking, “Technology guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.” But here’s Apple, fresh to the watch game and claiming they’ve fixed gold.
Thing is, improving on gold is nothing new. The company I visited on that early April day is LeachGarner, a firm that’s been around for more than a hundred years and whose specialty is custom formulations of precious metals. What Apple’s doing now, well, LeachGarner’s been doing for decades. And the folks there are pretty darn good at it.
Walking the floor
Getting ushered into LeachGarner’s production facility is a lot like going to the airport. I couldn’t take my belt, my cellphone, or my keys onto the shop floor, and I had to take my shoes off before going through a metal detector that was far more precisely attuned than the ones you’ve used at the airport. 1 The machine checks you on the way in and the way out and compares its readings to make sure that you haven’t made off with any of the goods, intentionally or accidentally.
All of that is for good reason, too, because when you pass through into the factory part of LeachGarner’s business, there are solid bricks of gold, silver, copper, and other precious metals all over the place. I felt like I’d wandered into a reboot of Goldfinger.
Senior Vice President of Sales Ed Rigano toured me around the facility, walking me through the process of what LeachGarner does, start to finish. 2
Here’s the thing: most commercial gold is an alloy of one form or another. There are a couple reasons for that: for one thing, pure gold is, obviously, very expensive. Even 24-karat gold, which is about as good as it gets for an alloy, is still just 99.95 percent gold. The 18-karat gold used by Apple in the Edition, by comparison, is just 18 parts gold out of 24, or 75 percent gold. The rest—at least according to Apple’s own gold video—is silver, copper, and palladium.
But the other, and arguably more important factor, is that gold itself isn’t always an ideal material for the purposes for which it’s used. It’s incredibly soft and malleable, which is great for working it, but also means it’s easy to damage. That’s where LeachGarner comes in. The company has made a specialty out of being able to produce a wide variety of precious metals in various tints and hardnesses.
The best explanation is that they sort of “cook” gold to order. LeachGarner gets requests from its clients for materials with certain properties: for example, one of its buyers might want 14-karat gold with a certain hardness and color for a product it wants to make. LeachGarner takes that “recipe” and the raw materials—in this case the gold, whatever base metals it needs to achieve the desired hardness and other properties, any other metals it uses to provide a particular color, and then combines them to form the exact specification of gold requested.
One key to that process is annealing, in which the metal is heated to soften it; the metal is then rolled out into thin sheets. This process gets repeated over and over again, until the desired result is reached. The annealing process does in some cases have the side effect of adding a layer of residue on top, which then must be milled off to give the metal its actual lustrous appearance. It’s then either delivered to clients, if they’re just requesting raw materials, or further worked into whatever finished forms are needed.
As we walked through LeachGarner’s factory, we passed roaring ovens, industrial rollers, and machines used to create everything from fine chain to metal beads. LeachGarner is involved in pretty much every step of the metals process save the actual mining of metals and the final retail process.
Some of the materials they produce are quite impressive. Rigano showed me one thin gold bracelet made for a client that has a springform quality: bend or twist it, and it bounces back to its original state. Try doing that with a lot of gold jewelry, and you’ll irreparably damage it.
In short, all gold is not created equal, and that’s as true for what Apple’s doing with the Watch Edition as it is for LeachGarner’s far more extensive catalog of products.
While Rigano doesn’t have inside knowledge of the exact process that Apple is using for the metal in the Apple Watch Edition, he did tell me that most of what the company showed off in its material video is pretty much the same as LeachGarner’s process. In other words, Apple isn’t blowing smoke about the quality of the materials it’s delivering, but neither is what it’s doing totally unprecedented.
But keep in mind that Apple and LeachGarner are hardly competitors: Cupertino is doing only a fraction of what LeachGarner does, and only for—thus far—a single product line. As ever, Apple can afford to be very focused about what it learns and how it applies that knowledge.
It also speaks, however, to the depths that Apple will go to in order to ensure that it’s building a great product. Apple could probably have contracted a company like LeachGarner to produce exactly the materials it wanted for the Apple Watch; instead it decided to hire the talent and produce it in house.
That investment says that Apple is firmly committed to the Watch as a significant product. You don’t hire metallurgists and create your own gold formulation for a device that’s produced on a whim, or as some sort of self-indulgent prestige product—this isn’t, in other words, a Motorola ROKR or Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh. The Apple Watch—and, by extension, the Apple Watch Edition—may only be in its first few weeks, but like the material on which it’s based, it’s clearly here to stay.
I forgot to take off the plastic visitor card that I’d been given, and the small metal clip on that set off the machine; meanwhile, I’ve walked through airport metal detectors with my belt on or keys in my pocket with no alarm whatsoever. ↩
Though LeachGarner is actually now a part of billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway empire, the company itself feels tight knit and local. It’s not a small place, but Rigano knew everybody by name, and stopped to chat in friendly fashion with them all. ↩
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