Gold is a shiny, malleable metal that has long been sought after as a show of, and store of, wealth. Although the price of the commodity moves up and down with the moods of the market, it can add vital diversification to a portfolio since investors often flock to gold in times of crisis. And if you are looking for that safe haven, industry giants Barrick Gold (NYSE: ABX), Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM), and Gold Corp. (NYSE: GG) are three stocks to watch closely.

The number one
Barrick Gold is the world's largest gold producer. In 2014 it pulled nearly 6.25 million ounces of the metal out of the ground. However, the miner has put up a string of poor results due to what now appear to be overly aggressive investments made during gold's salad days in the early part of this decade.

For example, Barrick earned nearly $4.50 a share in 2011, but lost money in each of the three following years. Why? One-time charges because of low gold prices -- such costs totaled nearly $15 billion between 2013 and 2014 alone. But the real issue has been investments that didn't pay off, like the now stalled Pascua-Lama project that led to a $6 billion asset impairment charge in 2013. It also bought a copper business at what we now know was a price peak.

Gold nugget. Source: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Such bad news, however, may be fading into the past as Barrick gets its house back in order. The core of the business, for example, remains strong with all in sustaining costs (essentially what it costs to get gold out of the ground at an operating mine) of around $865 an ounce in 2014. That's leaves plenty of room for profits even if gold sits at the low end of the industry's cost curve. Better yet, its most important mines are located in stable countries like the United States and Canada. So, mistakes were made, but the company still has a solid foundation.

Higher costs, but still worth watching
Newmont Mining is another of the major gold producers whose name has been around for a long time. In 2014 it produced 5.2 million ounces of gold. That said, it's all in sustaining costs of around $1,000 aren't nearly as good as Barrick's, so there's less wiggle room in the face of adversity.

But Newmont was able to reduce costs roughly 10% last year. And it's still looking for ways to further improve its business. While it hasn't had as checkered a past on the investment front as Barrick, it has had its share of disappointments -- for example, the company's Conga project has been put on hold because of local opposition. It was expected to be a key mine for the company.

Such setbacks are an issue here because some of Newmont's older mines are getting more costly as they near the end of their useful lives. So, new development plays an important role in this miner's future, which is one reason why the company's recent purchase of a mine in Colorado from a competitor is interesting. While the price was right, since Newmont bought it at a low ebb in the gold market, the deal led to the issuance of new Newmont shares at depressed prices. Although it may work out to be a great purchase, perhaps one that the miner had no choice but to make, it looks like a costly one for shareholders over the near term.

Looking for gold the old way. Source: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Gold's in the name
Another giant miner to keep in your sites is Gold Corp. This miner has grown over the last decade or so from a bit player to an industry giant, producing 2.9 million ounces or so in 2014. Its all-in sustaining costs are around $950 an ounce and its mine portfolio is focused primarily in stable regions of the Americas.

The interesting thing to note here is that Gold Corp has slated to pull back on capital spending as major growth projects come to completion. That should lead to a 33% drop in capital spending in 2015, which will boost free cash flow and could help to move production costs lower. Of the three here, Gold Corp probably has the best story to tell.

The miner leagues
Barrick, Newmont, and Gold Corp are three of the largest gold miners. Anyone looking at the space should take notice of what each is doing and has done. That provides a foundation for making a decision about any gold miner, even the tiny ones.

And there's plenty to compare and contrast, including mining costs, successful and unsuccessful investments/development projects, acquisition activity, and the risks inherent in venturing into less stable political regions, among others. In other words, if you are looking at gold stocks, maybe you won't buy any of these three, but they are important stocks to watch just the same.

Reuben Brewer has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.