Yvonne Leblonde weighs freshly minted Canadian Maple Leaf gold bullion coins -- thousands a day, lifting them out of a wooden tray with her rubber-gloved fingers, putting them on an electronic scale, taking them off again. These days she and her fellow workers at the Royal Canadian Mint here are especially busy. The government mint is running three shifts a day to keep up with orders for its gold coins.
Canadian sales have benefited from the banning of South African Krugerrands by the United States and some other key nations as a protest against apartheid. Further, late last year South Africa decided to cease minting Krugerrands and replace them with the Protea, another gold coin.
Last year Maple Leaf coins won 65 percent of the world market for ``investment'' gold coins, compared with 28 percent in 1984. So far this year sales are 13 percent above the same period last year.
``Virtually we are the market at this time,'' says Sallie L. Storey, sales manager for North America, the biggest market.
That won't last for long.
The Perth Mint, which is owned by the state government of Western Australia, announced last month it will produce four gold coins, named Australian Nuggets, to compete for investors' money. They will go on sale in Australia in September and then elsewhere in the world.
More important, the United States Mint will start selling its four gold bullion coins Oct. 1. Each will have a symbol of Liberty on the obverse side, a family of eagles on the reverse side. Many Americans may prefer to buy their own country's coins.
In the meantime, the Coinmaster 3, a British machine, is stamping out the various Maple Leaf coins (1 oz., oz., oz., and 1/10 oz.) at about 10,000 to 12,000 a shift on average. For coins meant for investors, the gold blanks are struck only once, with the maple leaf design on top and the image of Queen Elizabeth II on the bottom. Numismatic coins (for collectors) are struck twice to get a clearer, deeper design.
Production manager Donald Dupras says visitors to the mint, now in a temporary location, are rare. But when they do visit an area where gold coins are being minted, weighed, or packaged for shipment, they cannot enter or leave the room until all the coins are counted. Besides that, anyone entering the mint must deposit all metal objects in a small locker (coins, pocket knives, pens, etc.) and undergo a search, which includes one's shoes, by a hand-held metal detector on the way out.
Visitors here will be less rare in the fall, when the mint returns to its rehabilitated old quarters not far from Parliament Hill. From now on they will be able to view the minting operation from an elevated, glass-enclosed walkway. For Canada, the minting of gold coins has at least two advantages. First, the coins consume some 65 percent of the gold produced in the country -- 1.87 million ounces last year, compared with 1 million in 1984. That reduces any marketing problems for Canadian gold mines. Canada is the third-largest gold producer in the world after South Africa and the Soviet Union.
Second, the operation is profitable. The 1 oz. coin, for example, has a legal-tender value of $50 but retails for around $350. The mint wholesales it at 3 percent above the value of the gold content and it retails at a 4.5 to 5 percent premium. Smaller coins have a higher premium. Whatever size coin, the mint makes sufficient numbers to cover both the cost of manufacturing and promotion, then end up with a good profit.
According to Miss Storey, the typical buyer of Maple Leaf coins is male, over 38 years old, with an investment portfolio of more than $100,000. He is likely to buy not just one coin but several for storage in a safe deposit vault or some other secure place.
``We target a more sophisticated kind of investor,'' she says. Gold coins offer no interest for buyers. But investors do hope to hedge their wealth against inflation or increase it, should the price of gold rise.
Some coins, however, are converted into jewelry as pendants, rings, or cuff links.
One selling point Storey emphasizes is that the Maple Leaf is the purest gold bullion coin available, at 0.9999 fine. The gold is first refined by the mint, then put through an electrolytic process.
Storey spends about 50 percent of her time on the road keeping up with the mint's distributors and major retailers in North America. Around the world there are 20 distributors in North America, Europe, and the Far East -- firms such as Johnson Matthey Bankers Ltd.; Goldman, Sachs; Bank of Nova Scotia; and Cr'edit Suisse. The number of retailers, including coin dealers, banks, and brokerages, is far more numerous.
The mint has been trying to broaden interest in the Maple Leaf by finding new markets. The coins were introduced into Hong Kong last September. A new oz. coin was launched in Tokyo in June. This one avoids the tax Japan puts on gold coins of 1 oz. or larger. All the gold coins were introduced into Singapore in June.
``We have picked a new market every year which we thought had a potential and then made a big splash there,'' Storey says. By now the Maple Leaf coin is ``well entrenched'' in many markets, she figures. ``It has taken a long time to build up confidence.''
The result is that Mrs. Leblonde has a full-time job making certain that each coin weighs the tiniest fraction of an ounce more than its stated weight.
``We always give a little extra,'' she says.