A Short History of Gold

The Color of Money


The first gold coins were minted from a naturally-occurring alloy of silver and gold called electrum in the Kingdom of Lydia during ancient days. Since then, gold has been both a fetish and a curse.

Have you heard Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the man that killed goose that laid the golden eggs, a fable on the importance of patience or Aesop’s tale of the Midas touch, today lauded as the sign of a lucky person?

This story too, had its origins as a warning, Midas turned his daughter into a lifeless golden statue and almost starved because his touch deprived him of everything except the gold he yearned for. The Gods took pity and removed this terrible touch.

So gold is both a blessing and a curse, and in the words of one cynical acquaintance, “If money is the root of all evil, give me more of this evil root.” Gold is in the news, and as the economy becomes ever more perilous, the price has soared to upwards of $1,400 an ounce with no sign of let-up.

But what do you know about this metal? Naturally-occurring gold is often a by-product of silver mining. Rare, even at the best of times, the gold is not terribly impressive until refined and smelted. In fact, iron pyrite, or fool’s gold, which often occurs in the same area is far more impressive and golden in appearance. The real deal is not shiny at all, but black.

Gold purity is measured in karats, and 24 karat gold is the purest gold, it may also be expressed in units of fineness or parts per thousand so that pure gold is 1000 parts per thousand pure.

Unique among metals for its ability to be drawn into thin wire, known as ductility or hammered into thin sheets, malleability, gold is also an excellent electrical conductor of both heat and electricity and is often used to coat electrical contacts in applications where performance, not cost is the main criteria. Gold traveled to space in the electrical components of the space craft.

Gold is rarely used by itself. Unless you are a medieval monk hammering gold into fine leaf to create an illuminated manuscript for royalty or an perhaps a seamstress at the same court drawing gold into fine thread to embroider the king’s robes, the very softness of the metal creates challenges.

Fortunately, gold can be easily alloyed with a variety of other metals to provide necessary durability and pleasing colors.

Most of us are certain that we can recognize gold. It is that shiny yellow stuff. But gold alloyed with silver, bismuth, copper, iron or aluminum creates golds that are white, green, black and pink, anything but “gold.”

Many Depression-era pieces of jewelry are made from pink gold that looks identical to copper to the untrained eye. Iron added to gold creates a black finish that is far from golden, and in fact, this iron-gold ore was the origin of the name, “Black Hills” of South Dakota. The black was pure gold, or at least as pure as gold gets before being painstakingly mined and refined.

Before you toss out that old piece of jewelry from grandma’s treasure trove, turn it over. That piece of copper or that oxidized black charm, may actually be pure gold. Take the time to learn the markings so that you don’t reap regret.

In addition to the well-known, 10K, 14K, 18K markings we all know, there are a variety of systems used throughout history to identify where a piece was made and what the metal content is.

Instead of an 18K marking for example, a British antique piece may be marked “750” and be followed by symbols that closely identify where it was made. The source at the end of this article gives a complete list of these markings.

Gold is in style, but then it has never really been out of style. From patient prospectors in cold rivers panning out flakes piece by piece, through the pick-wielding 49ers, through today’s pundits shilling proof gold coins as surefire investments, the romance, and the curse of gold, continues undiluted to this day.