Up in the Scottish Highlands, Britain’s only gold mine has sprung quietly into life. Avril Groom reports on an unlikely tale of panning and perseverance, whose first fruits are being turned into jewellery of unique provenance
April 21 2020
BY AVRIL GROOM
Blink and you miss it. Cononish, Britain’s only commercial goldmine, is well camouflaged, tucked into a rocky Highland hillside halfway between Loch Lomond and Rannoch Moor, and totally unlike the usual mining image of vast workings and industrial mess. By mining standards this is small scale and, as its location near the village of Tyndrum is in a National Park, environmental unobtrusiveness is top priority.
At present it comprises two large sheds and some earth heaps – the latter will eventually be planted with native vegetation to blend with the hummocks of glacial moraine that dot the natural landscape. The whole project takes some believing, especially if you assume – and why would you not? – that Scottish gold is as mythical as Nessie. But this metal has history, as the mining company’s main jewellery-making partner knows. In the archives of the grand Edinburgh jeweller and silversmith Hamilton & Inches are two Victorian pieces bearing a special mark: it shows that the gold itself, and not just the making of it into jewellery, is of Scottish provenance. It goes back much further, too: gold was known to have been refined for jewellery in the Iron Age and was worn by Scottish monarchs.
In fact, people have panned Highland streams for alluvial gold for centuries, says Chris Sangster, CEO of mining company Scotgold. “Commercial research didn’t begin until the early 1980s, after the British Geological Survey found gold during a study of stream sediment in Northern Ireland, in a similar rock structure which runs right across to Scotland,” he says.
Getting investment wasn’t easy for a painstaking project which entails following the gold upstream until it disappears, and then following the nearest tributaries until you find the right kind of rock and – maybe – some gold. “Any mining project takes large amounts of time and money, and this one is also very small scale for an industry where the minimum investment is usually £100 million,” Sangster explains. “Big companies wouldn’t bother, but we have generous shareholders who are committed to the Scottish gold project.”
Planning permission was another major hurdle in such a sensitive area, especially when scientific tests showed a potentially larger amount of gold than initially envisaged. The mine is now planned to run for between 10 and 17 years, and estimates of the total value of its gold go up to £200 million at current prices, which are gently rising (gold is seen as a safe haven in times of economic uncertainty). The gold is smelted on site and is made to an unusually pure 22 carats, a point of difference from the normal 18 carats used in top-end British jewellery. It has a pleasing, rich yet subtle yellow tone.
The mine will come fully on stream during 2020, but has already been producing gold, and the first precious harvest has been made into fine jewellery by Hamilton & Inches. The evocative and unmistakably Scottish collection of 30 unique jewellery pieces is probably a sound investment on rarity value alone, but their beautiful design adds profound appeal for anyone whose heart – or ancestry – is in the Highlands. It is the first step in what both partners hope will be a fruitful alliance, though it has been a twisting and rocky road requiring, says Hamilton & Inches CEO Victoria Houghton, “commitment and patience on both sides”.
Scotgold’s association with the only Scottish jeweller to bear the Royal warrant goes back to the mid-1990s, when Hamilton & Inches’ then CEO took a farsighted view on the nascent project. Now Houghton has the job of overseeing its fruition. The collection has been designed and made in the studio and workshop above the brand’s store on Edinburgh’s imposing George Street, and it is hard to imagine a location more conducive to creating Scottish-inspired jewellery. The workshop runs the whole width of the building and looks both south to the rugged Pentland Hills and north to the Firth of Forth, a permanent taster of the landscapes which the collection evokes. Woven round this are tokens of Scottish history, symbols of the nation, sometimes on the back of a piece and therefore very personal to the owner.
Everything is hand-made using traditional crafts like engraving and gem setting, and even the names reflect their inspiration. The collection divides into two: major pieces with gold as a beautiful foil for an array of carefully chosen gems, including sizeable stones, and smaller items where gold craftwork is foremost.
Among the hero pieces are a trio of dramatic rings. One, named after Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, is as grand as its title, with a 4.7-carat, radiant cut diamond, set high above a frame of smaller diamonds in pear, brilliant and baguette cuts. At £96,500 it is the collection’s most expensive item. The Queen of Scots ring (£29,995) features a rich and clear Sri Lankan sapphire of almost 9 carats plus diamonds and an intricately engraved shank, its back decorated with a gold saltire, Scotland’s ultimate symbol. The third is a bombé ring (£74,500) with a stunning 4 carat, oval yellow diamond.
Other key pieces include cascades of unusual stones in soft shades redolent of Highland landscapes. The most evocative are the Tyndrum Waterfall chandelier earrings (£11,900) named after a fall near the mine, with blue green tourmalines flexibly set and shimmering, set off by little diamonds, and the Holyrood Palace cuff (£24,250) of hammered gold set with an emerald and tourmalines in autumnal shades, its outline based on the French fleur de lys as a symbol of the Auld Alliance, yet fit for a Celtic warrior princess.
Other chandelier earrings feature Burmese rubies or multi-hued “watercolour” spinels, while the Stirling Castle necklace (£34,500) has a rainbow of pear-shaped tourmalines, recalling both sunlit waterfall rainbows and Victorian acrostic jewellery where stones’ initials spelled out a romantic message. Earrings with detachable drops holding sapphires, tourmalines or garnets are also based on Victorian designs. The smaller items, priced from £1,450 to £9,950, have a different slant, with finely engraved gold designs based around the fleur de lys, trimmed with diamonds and backed with “host rock”, the quartz mineral in which the gold is found. Some reverse to a gold saltire, backed with lapis lazuli or trimmed with sapphire.
The collection was designed, says Houghton, “with both Scots and people from abroad with Scottish ancestry in mind”. So far about a third of the collection has been sold especially, she says, “the fleur de lys and heraldic heritage pieces, the host rock items and multi-coloured pieces, and most of our buyers have been Scottish or Americans with Scottish backgrounds”. Because the stones are unique the main pieces cannot be replicated, and the rarity of the gold means no more can be made at present. However, Houghton says, “we will get new supplies in the spring as production increases and we are already taking commissions. We will make more of the popular pieces and hope to create more limited edition items as interest grows”. Clients are already encouraged to visit the workshops to see their commissions take shape and may eventually be able to visit the mine too.
Scotgold’s long-term hope is that the mine will become an upmarket tourist attraction with considerable benefits for the local community. But this is an unpredictable industry. As Sangster says, “we virtually fell over this very important seam, and we are targeting other sites but we haven’t found anything comparable yet”. You’d better get a piece of this vanishingly rare metal now, just in case it really is a flash in the pan.
Avril Groom is a journalist covering the worlds of fashion, jewellery and fine watches for the likes of FT How To Spend It, the Daily Telegraph and Country & Townhouse