Glowing Dawn - The World’s Favorite Metal
Its Latin name, aurum, means “glowing dawn.” Though extremely rare, it is found on nearly every continent. It is prized above all other metals. It is gold.
With its distinctive combination of qualities, gold (Autumn naturae), may well have been the first metal worked by humans. It was easily visible in stream and riverbeds; it was easily shaped because it is soft; its alluring luster never grew dull. Over thousands of years, the pursuit of gold launched explorers, built empires and inspired artists. Gold itself became a symbol of wealth, beauty, purity, spirituality and the afterlife.
Gold, by any standard, is unusual. It resists chemical corrosion and tarnish-attack by acids and oxygen. It is highly reflective and an excellent conductor of electricity. Gold is dense but soft; it can be readily stretched, beaten and molded. It is prized for its rich color, luster and rarity; it is the only yellow-colored native metal. But what makes gold truly unique is that it combines all of these properties.
Most crystalline gold (pictures 1&3) comes from hydrothermal fluid, extremely hot water rising from deep in the Earth. As the fluid moves through openings in Earth’s rocky crust, tiny amounts of gold dissolve into it. Then, as the fluid flows through cooler rocks near the surface, the gold precipitates, or is drawn out of the fluid, and settles in cracks to form veins or lodes.
Gold nuggets are solid lumps of gold. The term “nugget” was first used for gold in 1852 during Australia’s gold rush. Nuggets are often named for their appearance. The variety of names reflects the many possible shapes of native gold. Nuggets are rare, making up less than 2 percent of all native gold ever mined.
"The Boot of Cortez" nugget (picture 2) is the largest placer nugget found in the Western hemisphere. Discovered by a prospector with a metal detector (from Radio Shack!) in 1989, it weighs 12 kilograms (32.4 troy pounds).
Gold jewelry making using animal shapes became widely popular during this Hellenistic period (late 4th to 2nd century BC). Jewelry similar to this pair of gold earrings (picture 4) is frequently depicted in scenes of everyday life on Greek vases and sculptures. Gold has continued throughout history to make everything from dishware to statues. A Tiffany baby rattle (picture 7) with a mother-of-pearl handle, manufactured around 1890, features 18-karat “chased” gold, a technique that involves pushing and pulling the metal with chisels and hammers to create a high-relief decoration.
Today, gold is increasingly difficult to mine, but the demand for gold continues to grow. Gold’s high status and value are unsurpassed around the world, its pivotal role in human history unending.
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