In downtown Anchorage, a sign on a mall storefront shouts what miners and investors already know:
THE NEW GOLD RUSH IS HERE!
Record high gold prices, driven in part by insecurity over U.S. government solvency and faltering debt-ceiling negotiations, have driven the price of gold to more than $1,600 per ounce.
And in Alaska, a state with a rich history of gold fever, store owners are reporting more people are buying, selling and even mining the precious metal.
Authorities say applications for gold mining permits are up by a quarter. Local stores selling gold coins and bullion can’t keep products on the shelf. National chains have set up mall kiosks encouraging people to trade in old jewelry for cash.
At the 5th Avenue Mall, a national chain of pop-up stores looking to capitalize off the high price of gold set up shop about a month ago.
The chain Gold Buyers At The Mall’s franchise, decorated with faux leather couches and faux potted plants, exists to buy “scrap gold” -- usually in the form of old jewelry. The gold’s quality is tested with a chemical kit before acceptable samples are purchased, melted down at the company’s offsite refiner and resold.
Business, so far, is booming.
“I’ve done six tests already today,” says Andrew Edwards, a Gold Buyers At The Mall employee wearing huge cubic zirconium studs in his years. It's not yet noon.
Gold Buyers at the Mall will open a Dimond Mall location soon, Edwards says.
While some are trying to get top dollar for offloaded gold, others are buying. Some investors see gold as an insurance policy against instability in global financial markets.
And people -- especially after the stock market crash of 2008 -- simply like to turn their wealth into something they can hold, says Gene Pool, who works at Oxford Assayers and Refiners, which has locations in Anchorage and Fairbanks. The company buys gold directly from Alaskan miners and refines it. In its retail store, it sells gold coins, bars and bullion. He’s seen an increased demand for gold starting a few years ago.
Gold is perhaps especially attractive in Alaska, Pool says.
“We have a lot of old-timers who like to get it and bury it," Pool said.
Some customers buy just an ounce of gold, others buy hundreds, he says.
Pool says Oxford, which deals directly with mom-and-pop miners, has seen an uptick in the number of miners it works with, especially younger miners.
“We’ve seen a huge increase,” he said.
Actually, applications to mine gold in Alaska are up by about 25 percent, according to Kerwin Krause, who works for the Department of Natural Resources’ mining permitting division.
Applications for mining permits used to average 350 to 450 a year, according to Krause, but now they’re up to 550 or so.
Of those 550, about 100 are large businesses. The rest are small operations.
Other retail outlets in Anchorage that sell gold are also seeing brisk business.
At Roy’s Coins and Tokens in Spenard, Larry Campbell – who wears a hefty gold coin surrounded by raw gold nuggets on a chain around his neck -- can’t keep solid gold coins in stock. The few he has in the store today will be purchased before the day is over, he says.
“It’ll be gone tomorrow,” Campbell says.