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Back in the days of the gold rush, assaying was the preferred form of shipping gold. Miners would bring their gold dust and nuggets to the assaying company for weighing and valuation. The assayer would then melt the miner's gold down and pour molten gold into moulds. Once these rectangular bars cooled, a sample was cut from one corner for testing and payment. The assayer would stamp the bar with the weight in ounces, a serial number, the fineness and usually the value in gold. Gold bars stamped by an assayer are a definite guarantee that it is of good quality.

Today, assaying does not limit itself to gold but all ore. Assaying is the process by which large amounts of ore samples are used to determine the nature, quality and quantity of the ore. Similar to the mineralogy field, an assayer is a laboratory technician who analyzes geologic materials, milling products, and waste by-products to provide data that makes it possible to locate, mine and extract minerals in a safe, economic and environmentally acceptable manner.

Fire assaying is a specialized form of assaying, which usually only applies to the analysis of gold, silver and other precious metals. These fire methods employ extreme heat on dry reagents, combined with sample material, to separate precious metals from base material. Kind of like alchemy.

Assayers work mainly in laboratories and they determine, by means of chemical processes or other experiments, the organic and inorganic compounds, intermediate products, process materials and final products of the raw materials. Working conditions vary from pleasant air-conditioned rooms to hot, dusty and physically demanding conditions. They analyze the quantity of elements in samples through atomic absorption, perform basic assay calculations and complete daily reports.

Assaying is a complex, multidisciplinary field. Unless a lab has strong internal quality review programs, hidden or fraudulent assay errors can lead to costly investment error. It is particularly important that people who buy assayer services review a lab's internal training documentation, quality assurance documentation, and general reputation before acting on any assay data. A reputable lab routinely verifies assayer excellence thorough administrative programs that include quality control systems, assayer training and proper method testing.

Safety is an important issue all assayers need to understand. Assayers begin their career with some form of general safety training. More advanced safety principles and knowledge usually embeds within area training, but some advanced issues, such as lab design, exposure monitoring and health control design come with age and experience.
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  Interests and Skills  
Assayers are interested in precious metals and ore and refining it to its best quality. They have excellent communication and interpersonal skills because they constantly deal with technicians, engineers and business clients. They should have a natural aptitude for mathematics and science and be able to visualize three-dimensional objects from two-dimensional drawings, which is not an easy task. Assayers must make quick, logical decisions, adapt from an office environment to a laboratory or mine site and be able to supervise and lead others.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Conduct research and analyze the quantity and distribution of minerals in rocks
  • Apply extreme heat on dry reagents, combined with sample material, to separate precious metals from base material
  • Collect and analyze rocks for mineral and ore content and determine other compounds within the rocks
  • Use A-ray diffraction machines and analytical spectroscopes
  • Explore mining areas to determine the structure and the types of minerals that exist
  • Assess the size, orientation and composition of mineral ore bodies and hydrocarbon deposits
  • Perform wet and dry determining methods
  • Consult with scientists and engineers about mineral and rock projects
  • Write reports and result findings in a log book
  • Melt gold into bars and stamp bars with a serial number
  • Assayers work in offices, laboratories and in the field, collecting data, and analyzing ore samples. Some may even travel quite extensively to foreign countries in search of new minerals. Office work is quite standard -- 40-hour weeks, whereas field work hours can be much longer and rather strenuous.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Assayers work in both the public and private sectors. They are employed by precious gem companies, including jewelry stores, mineral and mining companies, geochemical companies, petroleum and oil companies, and geology, geophysics and engineering consulting firms. Some assayers are self-employed and own their own research and consulting businesses. In the public sector they work for all levels of the government and also teach at postsecondary institutions.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Experienced assayers may decide to set up their own consulting businesses or team up with geological and metallurgical engineers and open up a larger consulting firm that specializes in minerals, mining, metals and other gems. They can also become business mineral analysts, technologists, engineers, move into a new specialty area related to assaying or become teachers at a postsecondary institution with further education.

  Educational Paths  
Assayers can either take a two to three year technology program at a community college or vocational school or a Bachelor of Science degree at university. Either of these educational paths will lead you to becoming an assayer. A good idea is to do some related volunteer work or see if you can find yourself an internship so that you can test out the career and see if it is right for you.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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