A quick history of gold

A natural chemical element, gold has been around a lot longer than modern man.  It is assumed the first gold was discovered in nugget form, probably in rivers or streams. But wherever it was found – and it has a wide geological distribution around the world – gold appears to have always been a highly prized precious metal.

The first recorded evidence of man’s use of gold is from Egyptian times where it was used as jewellery, burial adornments and eventually currency.  Tutankhamen’s burial mask is perhaps the best known example of gold craftwork from this era.  Due to its purity and malleable qualities, gold is the easiest of precious metals to work with and the Egyptians became proficient at decorative techniques such as gold leaf and using alloys to create colourful effects.

The Ancient Greeks began wide-scale gold-mining throughout southern Europe and Asia Minor.  Gold became incorporated into their mythical stories.  The Golden Fleece for example is thought to be based on the practice of using sheep hides to sift out fine flakes of gold from sand and water.  Typically, the Romans developed Greek gold-mining practices further, using water to mine hydraulically and retrieving gold from underground.

Across the Atlantic, the Inca, Mayan and Aztec cultures were famed for their use of gold and silver, although more recent research suggests they only had relatively small quantities.  Certainly quests by the Spanish Conquistadors and other European adventurers never discovered the rumoured golden city or kingdom of El Dorado!

Throughout history, the lure of gold as a means of transforming an individual’s wealth and power has never abated and in more recent times was characterised by the great Gold Rushes of California and South Africa in the 19th century.  By this time hallmarking and gold standards had been introduced to establish a means of measuring purity, authenticity and fixed monetary value – and gold had become an inextricable part of the world economy with Governments stockpiling reserves, buying and selling gold to balance their national finances.

In the 20th Century, the First World War and Great Depression saw a raft of gold controls, particularly in America where private citizens were no longer allowed to hold gold coins, bullion or certificates and were forced to sell them to the Government.  As a result the US Federal Reserve’s gold holdings increased virtually overnight leading to the creation of the famous Fort Knox high security depository in Kentucky.  Up to 649.6 million ounces (worth around £852,535,000,000 in today’s money) has been stored in its vaults at any one time.

The gold standard, which fixed the price of gold to the US dollar, was abandoned in the 1970s and gold is today freely traded as a commodity, particularly on the futures market.  In the past decades, its many special properties have also been increasingly recognised by industry, particularly electronics. Gold has been used in the manufacture of transistors, lasers, microchips, instruments for astronomy and compact discs as well as in outer space on the visors of astronauts and the fuel pump of the space shuttle!  Elsewhere tiny flecks of gold are being used in the scientific research to combat disease and gold has even been used to treat the debilitating medical condition of rheumatoid arthritis.

Gold’s scarcity and desirability as a precious metal means it holds its value well and following the recent banking and economic downturn, the price of gold reached record highs as many people decided to buy gold as an investment instead of depositing their money in shares or savings accounts.   The attractiveness and durability of gold as a decorative medium, its useful conductive and chemical properties, plus the limited and relative expense of supply, means gold will continue to have a rich history as new markets and technologies emerge in the future.

Sources:

  • The History of Gold from the National Mining Association
  • A history of gold from telegraph.co.uk
  • A Brief History of Gold from onlygold.com