Gold is one of the most valuable metals, which was used for many centuries as currency, as valuable, but mostly for jewelry. It appears in form of a nugget, or as small crumbs in cliffs or in rocky sediment. Gold is a soft, shiny, yellow, dense and very flexible metal. On the table of chemical compounds, Gold is marked “Au”, from the Latin aurum. Because of its chemical inactivity, Gold is often called a pure metal, but can also be found in alloying. Although sometimes greater accumulations of gold appear (called nuggets) it is usually found in small grains. Those can be found enclosed in compounds of minerals and crystals or within minerals, such as quartz.
During the 19th century there were the so called gold rushes. Those manifested whenever larger quantities of gold were found. Famous gold rushes are those of California, Colorado, Otago, Australia, Witwatersrand, Black Hills and Klondike. Since 1880 South Africa is the main source of the world’s gold production. In 1970 the South African share of global production was 79%. Other main contributors to the market are Canada, the USA and west Australia. Also Siberian regions of Russia are important sources for gold. Kolar in India is an example of a city that was erected purely on the bases of one of the largest gold sources in India. In South America, the controversial project Pascua Lama, is aiming for the extensive sourcing of the vast gold fields in the mountains of Atacama, near the border of Chile and Argentina. It is assumed that approximately one fourth of the gold production today is mined in small mines.
The Ngwenya gold mine in Swaziland, South Africa
Gold vein within crystallized quartz
Pure gold is too soft for normal usage, and is thus alloyed with copper, silver and other material in order to harden it. If gold is used for jewelry is it measured in carat (K), whereas pure gold is 24K. However it is mostly used in 18K, 14K and 9K. A low K index shows a low amount of fine gold within the compound, and thus a higher amount of foreign material, such as silver and copper, whereas copper is the most frequent alloy. The carat system is slowly being replaced, or supplemented, with the millesimale system of fineness. Here the purity is measured in pieces per thousand of the pure metal within the alloying.
The most frequently used carat units within the trade of jewelry and goldsmiths are:
18 Karat (Purity 750 / 000)
14 Karat (Purity 585 / 000)
9 Karat (Purity 375 / 000)
8 Karat (Purity 333 / 000)
The earliest mentions of platinum vary from 500 BC to 3rd century AD. Platinum was first known to the western world through Columbus’ conquest of America. The Spanish found sculptures made from the metal with the South American Maya. It is unclear however, if the Maya though of platinum as silver, or is they knew it to be an independent metal. The Spaniards, in fact, did not know what to do with this new metal. Because platinum is similar in weight to gold, small grayish pieces form when gold washing it. They called them “platina”, which is a derogative Spanish term for “small silver”, and paid no more attention to the precious metal.
In 1557, the metal was first described as an independent metal by the Italian scholar Giulio Cesare Scaliger. 200 years, however, passed until the French researcher Guyton de Morveau developed an industrial useful method for melting. After that the events came thick and fast. In the following years the name “white gold” established itself, and platinum became ever so popular in Europe. This was due to its low price and the similar weight to gold. In 1758 the Spanish Crown forbade the trade with platinum, as some fraudsters had made coins from platinum and covered it in gold. The fake currency was drowned in the sea without further ado.
Until the year 1825 the whole of platinum offer came from Columbia. In 1819 platinum was first found in Russia, and then in 1843 even a 12 kg nugget. For the first time then the demand was exceeding the production with 3,500 kg. In 1902 Russia was already sourcing 94% of the global production, and this monopoly lasted until the early 1920s. In 1925 large occurrences of platinum were found in South Africa, followed by Canada (1912), Alaska (1936) and other countries.
Silver, from the Anglo Saxon word Seolforadn the Old German Silabar, has been known since Antiquity. It is mentioned in Genesis, and clinker piles in Asia and the islands of the Aegean Sea point to the fact that silver was sourced there already 4 thousand years BC. Silver is a chemical element, which is marked by the letters “Ag” (from the Latin argentums) on the chemical table. It is a very ductile and formable metal, however a bit stronger then gold. The shiny, white and metallic colour can achieve a high degree of sheen.
Silver has a higher electric conductivity than other metals, even stronger than copper. However, its high price limits its use within the electrical industry – copper is mainly used there. For its beauty, silver is used for jewelry and valuable objects, which are traditionally made from an alloying called “sterling silver”. Sterling silver is made from 92,5% silver and is usually alloyed with copper. Europeans found great amounts of silver in the New World in Zacatecas and in Potosí, which resulted in a great silver inflation back home. Silver, which was also common in China, became a global commodity, and aided in the rise of the Spanish empire.
The rise and fall of the value of silver influenced consequently the global market. The “Rio de la Plata” has been named after the metal (plata is Spanish for silver), and in the course of history even gave Argentina her name (argentums is Latin for silver). The main sources of silver are copper, copper nickel, gold, lead and lead zinc ore, which can be found and sourced in Canada, Cobalt, Ontario, Mexico (historical Batopilas), Peru, Australia and the USA.