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History of Precious Metals

The History of Gold

From ancient to modern-day civilizations, gold has been revered and has led to the downfall and rise of many empires.

Early History & Impact of Gold

The Incan sun god Inti
The Incan sun god Inti.

The early history of gold is shrouded in myth. Because of its color, gold was linked to the sun and it became an important part of the ceremony and religion of early civilizations. Ancient sources provide intriguing legends including those of King Midas and the Golden Fleece. Even today, Spiritual or New Age traditions attribute special cleansing and healing powers to gold.

ancient gold object from Afghanistan
An ancient gold object from Afghanistan.

In ancient Egypt, only pharaohs were allowed to adorn themselves with gold. The Egyptian word for gold is nub; the primary source of Egyptian gold was Nubia, most of which was located within the boundaries of present day Sudan.

As early as 3000 B.C., Egyptians were casting gold bars and stamping them with the name of the pharaoh. Although the Egyptian gold bars were traded on the basis of their weight, they would not be considered “money” in the modern sense.

Lydian electrum coin
A Lydian electrum coin. Many early gold coins were made of electrum, a mixture of gold and silver.

In the 7th century B.C., the Lydians created the first “money” by establishing a state monopoly over the creation of currency, creating a uniform currency, and stamping it with marks to guarantee its weight and value. Around 550 B.C., the Lydian king, Croesus, became the first to introduce coins of pure gold. He stamped the coins as a guarantee of their weight and purity. Since that time, almost every government in the world has minted gold coins as a form of currency.

A Sarmatian diadem from the 1st century A.D
A Sarmatian diadem from the 1st century A.D.

By the 4th century B.C., gold was being mined from southeastern Europe, India, and Africa and was a well known commodity. Gold was used across the ancient world for coinage, jewelry, and ornamentation.

Byzantine wedding ring
A Byzantine wedding ring.

In the millennium after the fall of Rome, gold played a lesser role in Europe than it did in Byzantium or Islamic regions. At that time, Europeans simply did not have access to large supplies of gold. Perhaps this is one reason why, by the end of the thirteenth century, the “science” of alchemy took root.

Alchemist of precious metals
The ancient art and science of alchemy attempted to transform base metals into gold.

In an effort to economize, Edward III of England enacted a Sumptuary Law in 1363 decreeing that knights were forbidden to wear gold rings, gentlemen were forbidden from wearing cloth of gold, and grooms and servants were forbidden to wear gold in any form. In 1380, the King of Castile prohibited all Spaniards except queens and princesses from wearing gold cloth or jewelry.

The lure of gold brought the Spanish to the New World where rumors of great wealth and the legend of El Dorado abounded. King Ferdinand of Spain commanded his men to “get gold, humanely if possible, but at all hazards, get gold!” Although the Spanish conquistadors never found El Dorado, some 350 tons of gold were exported from the Americas between 1492 and 1600.

King Ferdinand II
King Ferdinand II of Aragon made Spain the most powerful country in Europe. His exploits, and those of his successors, were funded by spoils from the New World.

Spain dominated gold production until the early nineteenth century when it lost most of its American colonies. Russia took a leading role from 1823 to 1837. The second half of the 19th Century was the age of the gold rush.

Atocha coin
This gold coin from the Atocha shipwreck looks brand new even ever after spending several centuries on the bottom of the ocean.

In 1848, gold was discovered in California, and the great California Gold Rush began. Several other gold rushes took place in the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa.

The Witwatersrand Gold Rush, which began in 1886, was the last great gold rush and it enabled South Africa to emerge as the world’s top gold producer.

a California gold miner
A California gold miner.

The 19th century gold rushes stimulated commerce throughout the world. Immigrants representing multiple ethnicities settled new regions of the globe. The huge increase in the supply of gold inflated the world’s currencies and led to the adoption of the gold standard by leading nations (although it was later abandoned).

Gold is still accepted everywhere as a medium of exchange, and every year some 2,700 tons of gold are made into jewelry–over 30 times more than platinum.

Now that you have an overview of the historical importance of gold, learn about The History of Platinum | Early History and Impact of Platinum next.

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