Gold is the most useful mineral we’ve ever mined from the Earth. It conducts electricity, resists tarnish, is easily drawn into wires or hammered into sheets, can be melted, fused with other minerals, and can be manipulated into complex shapes. Its luster, and color, make it a prized possession throughout the world. Cultures all throughout history have long prized gold, which united them in the face of language and cultural barriers.
In this multi-part series, we’ll be counting the ways our favorite metal has been put to use over the years. We’ll start with the most obvious — jewelry!
The most commonly known use for gold has been to make, and adorn, jewelry. About 78% of the gold consumed by customers each year is to adorn the body with. If you yourself do not own gold jewelry, there is a high likelihood that you know somebody that does.
The intrinsic qualities of gold are what made it perfect for manufacturing jewelry for hundreds of years. Its high luster, its resistance to tarnish, its ability to conform to various shapes and molds, and its rarity, are all qualities that place gold above the rest. Its many thousands of years spent as humanity’s favorite metal have ingrained in us the expectation that important items — objects, adornments, and anything we otherwise covet — should be made out of gold.
Due to how soft and malleable gold is, it’s usually alloyed to other metals. The stress placed on pure gold under everyday usage conditions would cause it to break or degrade under normal wear, and normal usage conditions. Instead, craftsmen have learned to alloy gold to copper, silver, platinum, and other metals. This increases gold’s durability, and allows it to last longer.
However, gold alloys are worth less than pure gold. The standard of trade known as “karatage” was developed for the value per unit of gold. Pure gold is known as 24 karat gold, and is usually marked with a stamp that reads “24K.” 12 karat gold is gold that is 50% pure by weight, and marked with “12K.” The different karatage rates are derived the percentage out of 24 of a given weight. 75% gold would thus be 18 karat. High karat gold is softer, and more prone to tarnish and damage, while low-karat gold is stronger, and more likely to last. This makes 24 karat gold — ideal for bullion thanks to its purity — a bad choice for jewelry!
Gold alloys also change the color of the finished product, depending on the metal used for mixing. This all depends on the combination, with silver-copper alloys producing more yellow golds, and silver-copper-palladium mixtures produce a whiter gold. The mixture of your gold can be determined by a professional or by using equipment (or chemicals), but color-coding gives a good estimate, too.
Gold is important in jewelry not only for its value, but because of the luster it provides. Our long, storied history of using gold to adorn our bodies and fashion our most coveted items adds to the metal’s appeal. It’s tradition. The distinctive gold luster lets people know the worth, and value, of an object. Gold has value, because it’s intrinsically one of the most useful, rare metals in the universe.
Besides jewelry, gold is used for a great many things. We’ll be continuing this series and diving into some of the other great uses humanity has found for gold.
What do you think about gold jewelry? Share this story, and let us know in the comments!