THE headline-grabbing moves by legendary speculators George Soros and Sir James Goldsmith have publicised the rise in gold prices, which has been under way since the end of last month, analysts say. ''The dawn has been breaking for some time,'' said Mr Andrew Smith, a precious metals analyst with the Union Bank of Switzerland in London, who noted that commodity funds in New York had been buying since the end of last month. Yet it could be the ordinary factory worker in Guangdong province, rather than big names such as Mr Soros, that could hold the key to this new gold rush - if it ever arrives. Mr Soros is thought to have made about US$1 billion speculating in the currency markets earlier this year. Gold was fixed at US$349.70 an ounce in London yesterday morning, slightly down from Tuesday's close of $351.40 but well above the low of $328 on March 10. Mr Smith said if the price pushed past the resistance level of $360 ''anything could happen''. In Hongkong, investors more used to following Mr Li Ka-shing have latched onto the reputation of these two billionaires and jumped into the gold market, tripling daily trading volume at the Chinese Gold and Silver Exchange Society. The impact has been worldwide. Last week, Mr Soros' purchase of $395 million of shares in Newmont Mining, the largest gold miner in the United States, sparked a gold frenzy. Sir James, who sold Mr Soros the shares and describes himself as ''a colossal bull of gold'', ploughed the money straight into gold options in London. Gold prices have been tipped to rise so many times before that there is no shortage of cynics who note that the price of the shiny metal itself, as opposed to futures or other related instruments, is still no higher than it was in autumn last year. Every world crisis sparks hopes of a new dawn for gold - the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Gorbachev coup, the Gulf War - and each disappoints the metal's hard core of fans, usually known as gold bugs or gold bulls, who yearn for the days of a decade ago when the price touched $850 an ounce. ''This is a bit different,'' said Mr Smith. ''The basis for this is very much speculative.'' With low interest rates in the US, and nervousness about equity prices, ''people are looking for ways to maximise their returns. If you don't like shares and bonds, where would you put your money?'' ''It's not that gold is more attractive, rather that everything else is less attractive. To this extent it is more solid [than previous political rises].'' One hope is that rising demand from Asia, notably China, will tilt the market in favour of sellers rather than buyers. Over the past few years, gold's price has slid as some central banks have offloaded the gold they once regarded as the cornerstone of their financial system. Central banks hold 34 per cent of the 106,000 tonnes of gold above ground, according to the World Gold Council (WGC). But now, said Ms Jonie Lai Po-kai, North Asia manager for the council, ''Russia has got a very low reserve and they can't sell much more''. She also said the US and France, two major gold holders, were unwilling to sell their gold, and Portugal and South Africa had increased their holdings last year. Gold bugs hope that the ending of government sales will combine with rising demand to reverse the big slide. This demand comes from just China, they hope. WGC figures show demand for gold, mostly in chuk kam (99.9 per cent pure) jewellery, rose 47 per cent in China last year. Although total demand only came to 250 tonnes, small compared to world supply including bank sales of 2,523 tonnes, the hope is that this can reverse the market. Hongkong jewellers have already latched onto the demand for gold, and some have even started accepting yuan in their shops. With a depreciating currency and inflation above 15 per cent, Ms Lai said gold was a natural choice for mainlanders seeing their incomes rise as China's boom continued. This, plus accelerating demand in the West if an economic recovery arrives, leads her to believe prices will sparkle. ''Gold bulls are more interested in China's spectacular economic success than Russia's spectacular economic failure,'' said Mr Jonathan Wilmot, a London analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston, who said in a strategy paper last week that the official figures on China's gold consumption might be only 50 per cent of the true figure. He said: ''My instinct is that we are heading for $375 in fairly short order, marking the start of a new bull run that will take it gradually back up around $500, perhaps even a lot higher in the long run.'' It is a tale that has been told many times before, and even if gold reached $500 an ounce next week the return over the past two years would be only half of that offered by the Hongkong stock market - and gold pays no dividends. Mr Smith said the usual rules for analysing the gold market would have to be suspended over the next few weeks because of the ''fickle money'' piling in. ''We're probably going to go higher . . . before we meet disappointment,'' he said. The Standard Chartered Bank said that over the past week the rising gold price had encouraged Hongkong holders of gold accounts into selling, rather than buying. Also, a quick rise in US interest rates would tempt cash back into bonds. With no gold miners on the Hongkong exchange, investors might be tempted to punt on shares of jewellers instead, but this could prove a mistake. Some jewellers have been hit by the recent price rises. Chow Tai Fook Jewellery, for instance, estimates daily gold sales to have dipped by an average of 20 per cent since the onset of the price uptrend about a week ago. ''By the lunar calendar, this is a leap month - believed to be a good time for marriage,'' said a manager. ''Sales should normally have been boosted. But business has been quieter than expected,'' he said. Other jewellers say that if the price continues to rise, then demand from mainlanders could be choked. With demand from China as the cornerstone of the case for rising prices, this could mean speculators are killing the goose that lays the golden egg.