Fool's gold

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The controversy over "fake gold" bought by several gold jewelers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City has raised many questions, with those who claimed to have been cheated not divulging crucial details of these transactions.

Gold merchants who have bought the gold mixed with wolfram, also known as tungsten, or other hard metals have not said how much of the impure gold they'd bought, at what prices they bought it and who they bought it from.

The only description of the sellers is that they were "irregular."

Meanwhile, an expert said that the gold bought by merchants in Vietnam may have come from Hong Kong.

A Hanoi-based gold merchant who wanted to remain unnamed and not reveal the volume of the impure gold bought, said the firm had incurred a loss of US$12,000 after buying gold bars with 49 percent of "strange" hard metals in April.

The company said tests by its gold analyzer machine showed the metal was pure gold. It was only when the gold was melted to make jewelry that the impurities were discovered.

The origin of this gold could not be ascertained because the merchants were unwilling to disclose any details about the sellers.

Hanoi jewelers had first sounded the alarm about impure gold in March. Two months later, their counterparts in HCMC and southern provinces began reporting similar cases.

Tests in the country's major laboratories show that most of the impure gold was made by mixing gold with hard metals like iridium, osmium, ruthenium, and rhodium. The rest was made by using a pure gold coating to mask a complex alloy in which wolfram made up the main part.

Nguyen Van Trung, chemistry professor at the Transport University, told the Saigon Tiep Thi newspaper that the "fake gold" was able to pass tests on the fluorescence spectrophotometer, which only "scans" and analyzes the surface of the gold bar.

Do Minh Phu, chairman of Doji Gold and Gems Group, said the mixture of iridium, osmium, and ruthenium costs around VND11.5 million ($560) per tael, or nearly one third of gold prices.

Wolfram is much cheaper as it is sold at about VND158,000 ($8) per tael, said Vu Minh Chau, general director of the Bao Tin Minh Chau Jewelry Company.

Given that the gold content in the impure gold ranges from 51 percent to 90 percent, jewelers lose up to 13 million ($632) per tael (if they have paid the market price for pure gold), traders said.

But the jewelers also took pains to allay public concern by saying the impure gold has not been sold to customers.

"For the moment, it is likely that losses have been suffered only by shop owners. The impure gold has yet to be sold to customers," said Nguyen Van Dung, chairman of the HCMC Jewelry Association, "If shops use gold mixed with iridium, osmium, or ruthenium to produce jewelry, customers can find out because the surface will be rough."

Chau also agreed that it was unlikely the gold has gone into the hands of customers, saying no one has so far complained about having bought impure gold or gold products.

However, purity concerns, along with a looming government ban on the unofficial trade in bullion, have slowed down sales in the retail gold market, traders said.

A similar scandal had broken out in Hong Kong in 2009, with jewelers and pawn shops finding at least 200 ounces of fake bullion -- worth about $280,000 -- were sold to them that year.

Haywood Cheung, president of the Chinese Gold & Silver Exchange Society, said 10 times that amount may have infiltrated the retail gold market, the Financial Times had reported then.

Dung said tests done by Vietnamese laboratories showed the same results as ones done in Hong Kong, and it is therefore likely that the impure gold recently found Vietnam came from the territory.

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