Why is it that gold has fascinated mankind ever since the first nuggets were discovered in a stream bed many millennia ago? It was undoubtedly such finds that led to gold being the first metal to be used by early Man. The first Wonder of gold is how atoms of gold, created in giant supernovae billions of years ago, eventually came together to form these nuggets on our own little planet.
Although rare, gold has been found in payable amounts all around the world - and in many geological settings. But with very few exceptions (which have resulted in some famous, or infamous, gold rushes in relatively recent times), these occurrences have mostly consisted of large, low-grade ore bodies that could only be exploited by sophisticated mining and metallurgical technology.
The use of gold predates the start of the Bronze Age around 3,000 BCE. But in contrast to bronze, which could be turned into tools and weapons, it was not gold’s physical properties or strength that led to it becoming a source of fascination for artists and kings – and in more recent times, for economists. It was the ease with which it could be worked, combined with its legendary 'incorruptibility' – its freedom from tarnishing – that allowed it to be transformed into beautiful creations.
The skill with which goldsmiths, architects and sculptors have used many different techniques to transform gold into amazing objects – since ancient times and in every civilization – truly is a Wonder.
But another aspect of gold resulted in a very different kind of Wonder: gold’s suitability as a form of money and later its role as a store of value. Ever since the kings of ancient Lydia began to produce gold coins in the sixth century BCE, gold has had a monetary role. Gold is rare but not too rare. It is also “incorruptible” and dense. The combination of gold’s optimum rarity and the ease with which it can be refined, alloyed and turned into coins and bars with reliable purity and weight is what has produced our final Wonder, which we now call the 'gold market.'
Gold’s unique mix of characteristics is reflected in the subdivision of the bulk of its demand into two broad categories: investment and adornment, some examples of which are included in this online exhibition. But the exhibition includes other items that are significant in the metal’s long history – the people, places, companies and events that have contributed to the wonderful story of gold.
The curator, Stewart Murray, would like to thank the people and organizations who have contributed to the exhibition. If you have any feedback on the exhibition, or items you'd like to suggest for inclusion, you can get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before 3,000 BCE
The only elements created in the "immediate" aftermath of the Big Bang were hydrogen and helium. The story of how, much later, gold was created in exploding stars and how some of these atoms eventually coalesced into the nuggets that could be found among river gravels is an awesome one.
The creation of heavier elements from hydrogen and helium began only after the formation of stars, in the cores of which atomic nuclei could combine to produce these heavier elements. But the heaviest elements, including gold, could not form in the first stars. Instead, they were created in supernovae – when giant stars reached the end of their lives and exploded with the release of unimaginable energy. The resulting clouds of dust eventually led to the formation of new stars and planets, including our own, where geological processes allowed some of the gold to be concentrated into minerals which were rich enough to be exploited by Man.
For the purposes of this online exhibition, Ancient History is considered to begin with the invention of writing – the cuneiform script of the Sumer civilization in the Fertile Crescent of modern-day Iraq – and to end with the fall of Rome, which is conventionally agreed as the year 476.
Throughout most of the period of Ancient History gold was used in increasingly sophisticated ways for embellishment and the production of objects, whether for utilitarian, decorative or religious purposes. Towards the end of this long period, the kings of Lydia (in modern-day Western Anatolia) discovered that the gold-silver alloy (which we now call electrum) found in the legendary river Pactolus could be refined and turned into a very useful commodity – money. Later, gold coinage was a fundamental component of the Roman Empire and the coins of the various emperors that have been discovered as part of the hoards of precious objects that have been unearthed ever since the fall of Rome have been very helpful to archaeologists in dating these finds.
There is no generally accepted definition of the start and end points of the Middle Ages. We have taken as the start the fall of Rome, as defined by the deposing of the last emperor in Rome and the transfer of the imperial insignia to the Eastern Empire in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).
Contantinople was the hub of the Mediterranean gold market in the second half of the first millennium due to its dominant trade and its trusted gold coins. However, the Middle Ages were also notable for the rise in Asia and North Africa of Islam, whose scholars kept alive some of the knowledge of the Greco-Roman period and made progress in mathematics and alchemy. Islam also relied on gold coinage as did the rising European powers, but it was later in the period that gold began to play a central role in art with the flowering of the Italian Renaissance.
For the end point of the Middle Ages, we have taken the start of the Enlightenment. As with the fall of Rome, it is not easy to define this by a single year. But given his role in establishing the Gold Standard in the early 1700s, we are taking the birth of Sir Isaac Newton in 1642 as the start of the modern age.
From 1642 onwards
For gold, the most significant development in the Modern Period was Sir Isaac Newton’s de facto Gold Standard, which began when, as Master of the Royal Mint in 1717, he set the price of a Guinea at 21 shillings (£1.05) and thus established a price for one troy ounce of pure gold of £4.4s.11½d (£4.25), which remained for most of the next two centuries until the demise of the Gold Standard in the 20th century.
As far as coinage was concerned, the first major development in the Modern Period was a result of the French Revolution: the introduction of gold coins with a fineness of 900 rather than the traditional 916. These were monetary coins. The second development for coinage came much later: the invention of the bullion coin concept, with the launch of the one troy ounce proof Krugerrand in 1967.
The 19th century saw a massive rise in gold mining due to discoveries in Russia, California and various parts of the British Empire, the latter consolidating London’s role as the hub of the global gold market. The increase in mine supply continued in the 20th century. At first the resulting gold was absorbed into central bank reserves but more recently (with the final demise of the Gold Standard), it has been the private sector that has absorbed the major part of new gold production, whether as jewellery, investment bars or bullion coins.