Precious Metals – Gold, From Neutron Stars to Jewelry
A few months back, we began our deep dive into the world of precious metals with our article on silver, which set out to explain the origins of the metal, its history, and the properties that make it so desirable.
The obvious next step for our little series is to dive into the world of gold, that lustrous element around which so much of human history has revolved. So, join us, if you will, for our second precious metal: gold.
Interstellar Origins: Gold from Space
While it takes a star 10 times the size of our sun going supernova to make silver, the heavier elements, like gold, need an even larger astronomical event to be created! In August of 2017, astronomers witnessed the aftermath of a neutron star collision in another galaxy that had taken place 130 million years ago. Neutron stars are the cores of dead stars, the only remainder of them having gone supernova, and they’re the densest objects in the universe. According to The Atlantic, one teaspoon of a neutrons star weighs roughly 10 million tons.
When two of these insanely dense objects collide, they release an explosive plume of heavy elements which spew outwards across the universe. The experts who watched this ancient event occur through an infrared telescope estimated the sum total of the heavy metals ejected from the collision equaled 10,000 earth masses. Thus gold, or Au, as it appears on the periodic table, is born.
Experts are, for the most part, agreed on how gold is made; but the real questions is how did it get here?
When it comes to gold on earth, the big question is why is it so accessible to us? Gold may not seem especially prevalent, considering the great lengths we must go to dig it out of the earth, but in the grand scheme, there’s far more than would be expected. This is because, billions of years ago, the majority of the iron and heavy siderophile elements (elements attracted to iron), were drawn from the outer layers of the earth, down to the center, to form the core. There is an insane amount of gold in the earth’s core, but no clear explanation as for why some chose to stick around closer to the surface.
Many scientists agonize over how gold from space wound up in the mantle, not just deep in the earth’s core. One possible solution is the “Late Veneer Theory,” which believes that meteoritic collisions delivered gold to the earth’s mantle, long after the majority of the gold and other heavy elements had been drawn into the Earth’s core.
The meteorite showers believed to have been responsible would have taken place between 4.4 and 3.8 billion years ago, according to the BBC. Late Veneer Theory may be in the process of being overturned, but the reason for gold in the mantle, may be a sort of 50/50 solution. Some came from later meteorite showers, while some gold was simply not drawn down to the core, perhaps because the very high pressures and temperatures during the core’s formation didn’t attract all siderophile elements.
History of Gold on Earth
Unfortunately for most Americans, our gold awareness might not go back much further than the Gold Rush, that mid-1800s hoopla that drove thousands of pioneers and gold-seeking hopefuls into modern-day California. But of course, gold has been present in just about every civilization that valued shiny things—that is to say, all of them.
It’s hard to say which of the very ancient gold artifacts we’ve found is the most ancient, but we can deduce that people have been making gold into trinkets since the fourth millennium B.C.E. The first written mentions of gold come decidedly later, in Egyptian hieroglyphs from 2300 B.C.E.
In fact, the above map, the Turin Papyrus Map, is one of the earliest known gold maps, with plans for a gold mine in Nubia, one of the major gold-producing regions of the era. Gold, due to its softness, was never used for any tools, and it wasn’t until 610 B.C.E. that in Lydia, modern-day Turkey, that it was first used for coinage.
Gold became the standard in which people traded and paid one another. When Alexander the Great conquered much of the Mediterranean, he inherited some 22 metric tons of gold coins, which he emblazoned with his own visage and used to pay his troops. The practice of using gold as coinage continued under the Romans, who used their 22 karat gold coins only for important matters of state. A Roman legionnaire received one gold coin each month for his service, which might not sound like a lot, but one of these coins could buy you roughly 28 gallons of cheap wine, so more than enough to keep you good and drunk for a while.
The Roman Empire set the standard for gold’s use as currency in Europe and this tradition was furthered throughout the middle ages and into the age of exploration. The difference later on, was the actual origin of the gold. More and more frequently, gold was coming from West Africa and later still, from the Americas. African gold had been in circulation for some time, but the gold from the Americas was even more plentiful, although it was often won through violence and the melting-down of precious treasures and artifacts into ingots.
Gold production increased five-fold after the major gold rushes in the U.S. and Australia of the 1800s. During this era, almost all gold produced was used for coinage. In 1900, the U.S, switched to the gold standard and stopped using silver as currency. But after WWI, most major governments began recalling gold and simply stockpiled it.
There’s a right way to wear gold and a wrong way. Take the cautionary tale of Indian millionaire, Datta Phuge, to heart. In 2013, he had a gold shirt made that cost him a cool $250,000, but only three years later, he was brutally murdered by a large group, presumably something to do with the gold he wore over every part of his body.
Gold is an attention-grabber and a conspicuous display of wealth. It doesn’t tarnish or change in quite the same way that silver does, it just stays sparkly and fabulous. And roughly 15 times the price of silver, it doesn’t come cheap either.
There are also varying kinds of gold; white gold is usually a mix with a whiter metal like palladium or nickel, while rose gold is blended with copper. Because these are alloys, they’ll never be 24k purity, but the alloy factor gives them a unique look. But you’ll rarely see any kind of 24k gold used for anything because, like pure silver, it bends and scratches too easily at that level of purity.
A karat is, therefore, 1/24th a unit of gold and because pure gold, though desirable, isn’t hard enough to be used for anything, you’re far more likely to see other units. The purest gold you’ll see in jewelry will be 22k gold, which is 22 parts gold and 2 parts some other metal. The alloy that makes up 22k gold is 91.7% pure. That’s about the softest you’d like to use in a piece of jewelry. 18k and 14k gold are obviously less pure, but they’re harder and more practical, without the softness that comes with the purer gold. And as they still exhibit the main aesthetic characteristics of gold, they’re still great to show off and shine.
Because of gold’s sheer value and visibility, it works very well as an accent piece that complements a different metal, but you can always go the “balls to the wall” route with gold. I mean, don’t get a gold shirt made and walk around without security, but feel free to embrace the element that people have gone crazy for since the beginning of time.