Shoppers who are looking for something sparkly to put under the Christmas tree can skip the jewelry and go straight to the source: an ATM that dispenses shiny 24-carat gold bars and coins.
A German company installed the machine Friday at an upscale mall in Boca Raton, a South Florida paradise of palm trees, pink buildings and wealthy retirees.
Thomas Geissler, CEO of Ex Oriente Lux and inventor of the Gold To Go machines, says the majority of buyers will be walk-ups enamored by the novelty. But he says they're also convenient for more serious investors looking to bypass the hassle of buying gold at pawn shops and over the Internet.
"Instead of buying flowers or chocolates, which is gone after two or three minutes, this will stay for the next few hundreds years," Geissler told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
The company installed its first machine at Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace hotel in May and followed up with gold ATMs in Germany, Spain and Italy. Geissler said they plan to unroll a few hundred machines worldwide in 2011. He said the Abu Dhabi machine has been so popular it has to be restocked every two days.
A bank in Vietnam installed its own brand of the machines in a country with a much poorer population but one that values gold more than paper money.
The gold-leaf-covered machine at Boca Raton's Town Center Mall sits outside a gourmet chocolate store and works much like the cash ATM beside it. Shoppers insert cash or credit cards and use a computer touch-screen to choose the weight and style they want. The machine spits out the gold in a classy black box with a tamperproof seal.
Each machine, manufactured in Germany, carries about 320 pieces of different-sized bars and coins. Prices are refigured automatically every 10 minutes to reflect market fluctuations. On Friday, a two-gram piece cost about $122, including packaging, certification and a 5 percent markup. An ounce cost about $1,442.
Buyer beware: A gram of the heavy metal is much smaller than you think, about the size of a fingernail. An ounce is a little larger than a quarter.
Florence Schneider, who checked out the machine Friday, said she might use it, but only if she needed a unique gift.
"I can't see it being successful. Maybe for Christmas as a gimmick," said the 78-year-old Boca Raton resident. "If I knew someone was having a big birthday coming up I'd buy it for something different."
Owners said the machine, which will hold around $150,000 in cash and gold, will be flanked by an armed bodyguard for now. Several live security cameras are fixed inside and outside the machine.
The popularity of gold is cyclical, but it's riding high these days in part because of fears stoked by financial troubles.
Geissler, who plans to open a machine in Las Vegas by the year's end, said the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment firm was the impetus for the flashy ATMs. His customers refused to buy bonds, stocks and other funds from the financial industry, so they focused on precious metals.
As some investors continued to lose faith in global finance markets, the company worked on the gold-leaf finished ATM, banking that the protection of purchasing power found in gold would lure market leery customers.
"Gold always comes back to its real value," Geissler said. "It's not diamonds, it's not silver, it's not real estate. It's just gold."
Dave Jones, who brokered the deal to bring the machines to the U.S., predicts gold will become a parallel currency in the next five years. He said they plan to install about 40 more machines at upscale malls and hotels around the U.S.
"Gold has a place in everyone's portfolio," said Jones, of Boca Raton-based PMX Gold. "It's a good hedge against inflation and it's a good comfort level."
Associated Press writer Suzette Laboy contributed to this report.
Gold To Go: http://www.gold-to-go.com/en/
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