Hatten Garden, London's colorful Diamond District, whirred like a movie in a speeded-up projector. Historic gold and silver prices sent normally sedate Hassidic merchants dressed in black suits and black overcoats, with long side curls tucked up under black hats, hurrying to their stores at a faster clip. Their hands gripped black, combination-locked briefcases tighter, their eyes were more intent.
Homemade signs hawked the morning gold price in store windows. Street merchants called Runners, walking display windows themselves, with necklaces piled to their chins, watches and bracelets past their elbows and several rings weighting down each finger, hustled their customers with new verve.
Inside the sober stone walls of Johnson-Matthey Metals Ltd., a branch of one of London's oldest and largest banking houses, a long, mannerly queue wated in front of the Scrap Metal window. As one customer finished at the window and pocketed his money, another, clutching the inevitable brown paper bag, moved up.
"Now what have you got for me today, Rodney?" asked the man behind the window.
In response, Rodney emptied his bag on the counter.
"Now what's this?" asked the man, holding, to the queue's delight, what was obviously gold dental bridgework.
"Are those your Uncle Henry's? Are you sure he still doesn't need them? He's dead you, say. Then he doesn't need them, and you do."
"In addition to the bridgework, Rodney brought the scrap man bits of chain, two broken bracelets and several rings without stones. The man dropped small amounts of sulfuric acid on all the pieces.
"Sorry, Rodney," he said, handing back a bracelet with a green spot. "This one's brass." The others he tosed into a box to be mailed to an assayer who would melt them down to determine their precise gold content. Rodney's small amount of gold will be added to others' until there is enough to make a bar, or ingot.
"You should get a bit for this," said the man. "I'll have your money for you within the week . . . And if Uncle Hernry really isn't dead, you'd better feed him soup this weekend."
Downtown from Hatten Garden at the corner of King and St. James, next to Christie's and a few blocks from Sothbey's, four women and two men sat quietly in the carpeted Metals Departemt of Spink and Sons Ltd. As they waited, they studied superior pieces of silver displyed in velvet cases against the wall.
Andrew Hutton, an appraiser for Spinks, a store best known for its coins, spoke in hushed tones to a man who had just pulled a sparkling bracelet out of a battered briefcase. Hutton fingered the bracelet and whispered two valuation; one for its gold, one for its stones.Tenderly he handed the jewelry back.
Also in whispers, the man said he would wait the market out, taking his chances on an even higher gold price.
Hutton's next customer, a tal woman in a tweed coat, pulled many newpaper-wrapped bundles out of a straw marketing bag. They turned out to be fine Georgian flatware, service for 12.
Upstairs, Nigel Tooley, in charge of Spinks' coin departement, worked like a highly successful bookie. Cigarette dangling from his lips, he answered the telephone caller in terse phrases, jotting records of sales on small white notepaper in front of him, while he held several other customers at bay on other phones.
He kept track in his head of how many coins he had, mostly South African Kruegerrands, English sovereigns and Canadian Maple Leaves. He managed never to sell more than what was available.
"It's really very exciting," he said of his peripatetic work ritual. "When the prices changes virtually from minute to minute, you can't help but feel the prickles."
At 4:30 p.m., the gold market had officially closed for the day. London's square mile referred to as The City, where N.M. Rothschild's and other prestigious banking houses are located, had begun to wind down.
One of the seven bullion dealers at Samuel Montagu and Co. Ltd. sat tapping his peaked fingers, his nerves drawn as tightly as the telephone wires which connect him to his million-dollar customers around the world.
"I never know who I'm buying for or selling to," he said. "I deal in such large amounts that it's best not to know."
The price of gold is officially fixed twice daily, at 10:30 a.m. and at 3:00 p.m., in a ceremonious meeting of representatives from five major banks. In an elegant old paneled room at Rothschild's each representative sits at a desk with a direct telephone line to his own office. A small British flag stands on each desk.
The meeting opens with each member, on the advice of his bullion dealer at the other end of the telephone wire, declaring himself either a buyer or seller. Through a sophisticated form of haggling whose roots are as old as the marketplace itself, the price is fixed when -- as nearly as possible -- the number of buyers equals the number of sellers. Each member then demonstrates his satisfaction with the bargain by laying down his small flag, and the word goes all over the world that London has fixed a price.
"The mystique surrounding gold is what drives people to buy," said the bullion dealer. With a sharp eye and a cautious tongue, he gave the impression that in another setting or another era he would find the same vicarious thrill in croupeeing at Monacco or card-sharking on a Mississippi paddle boat as dealing bullion at Samuel Montagu.
"There really are better investments," he added. "But you can't convince someone bent on buying gold of that. It pays no dividends, like stocks. The money you pay for it doesn't go back into a company to earn more money. Once you have it, you can't do anything with it . . . Oh, I suppose you could bring it home and use it as a doorstop.
"In spite of the recent flutter, the British, like the Americans, aren't gold crazy. We aren't like the French who hide it in their mattresses.