Gold, silver, and platinum have historically been valued for their beauty and rarity. They are the precious metals . Platinum usually costs slightly more than gold, and both metals are about 80 times more costly than silver. Precious metal weights are given in Troy ounces (named for Troyes, France, known for its fairs during the Middle Ages) a unit approximately 10% larger than 1 oz (28.35 g).
The ancients considered gold and silver to be of noble birth compared to the more abundant metals. Chemists have retained the term noble to indicate the resistance these metals have to corrosion , and their natural reluctance to combine with other elements.
The legends of King Midas and Jason’s search for the golden fleece hint at prehistoric mankind’s early fascination with precious metals. The proof comes in the gold and silver treasure found in ancient Egyptian tombs and even older Mesopotamian burial sites.
The course of recorded history also shows twists and turns influenced to a large degree by precious metals. It was Greek silver that gave Athens its Golden Age, Spanish gold and silver that powered the Roman Empire‘s expansion, and the desire for gold that motivated Columbus to sail west across the Atlantic. The exploration of Latin America was driven in large part by the search for gold, and the Jamestown settlers in North America had barely gotten their “land legs” before they began searching for gold. Small amounts of gold found in North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama played a role in the 1838 decision to remove the Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma. The California gold rush of 1849 made California a state in 1850, and California gold fueled northern industry and backed up union currency, two major factors in the outcome of the Civil War.
Since ancient times, gold has been associated with the Sun . Its name is believed to be derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “to shine,” and its chemical symbol (Au) comes from aurum, Latin for “glowing dawn.” Pure gold has an attractive, deep yellow color and a specific gravity of 19.3. Gold is soft enough to scratch with a fingernail, and the most malleable of metals. A block of gold about the size of a sugar cube can be beaten into a translucent film some 27 ft (8 m) on a side. Gold’s purity is expressed either as fineness (parts per 1,000) or in karats (parts per 24). An alloy containing 50% gold is 500 fine or 12 karat gold. Gold resists corrosion by air and most chemicals but can be dissolved in a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids, a solution called aqua regia because it dissolves the “king of metals”.
Gold is so rare that one ton of average rock contains only about eight pennies worth of gold. Gold ore occurs where geologic processes have concentrated gold to at least 250 times the value found in average rock. At that concentration, there is still one million times more rock than gold and the gold is rarely seen. Ore with visible gold is fabulously rich.
Gold most commonly occurs as a pure metal called native gold or as a natural alloy with silver called electrum. Gold and silver combined with tellurium are of local importance. Gold and silver tellurides are found, for example, in the mountains around the old mining boom-town of Telluride, Colorado. Gold is found in a wide variety of geologic settings, but placer gold and gold veins are the most economically important.
Placer gold is derived from gold-bearing rock from which the metal has been freed by weathering . Gravity and running water then combine to separate the dense grains of gold from the much lighter rock fragments. Rich concentrations of gold can develop above deeply weathered gold veins as the lighter rock is washed away. The “Welcome Stranger” from the gold fields of Victoria, Australia , is a spectacular 158–16 (71.5-kg) example of this type of occurrence.
Gold washed into mountain streams also forms placer deposits where the stream’s velocity diminishes enough to deposit gold. Stream placers form behind boulders and other obstructions in the streambed, and where a tributary stream merges with a more slowly moving river. Placer gold is also found in gravel bars where it is deposited along with much larger rocky fragments.
The discovery of placer gold set off the California gold rush of 1849 and the rush to the Klondike in 1897. The largest river placers known are in Siberia, Russia. Gold-rich sands there are removed with jets of water, a process known as hydraulic mining. A fascinating byproduct of Russia’s hydraulic mining is the unearthing of thousands of woolly mammoths, many with flesh intact, locked since the Ice Age in frozen tundra gravel.
Stream placer deposits have their giant ancient counterparts in paleoplacers, and the Witwatersrand district in South Africa outproduces all others combined. Gold was reported from the Witwatersrand (White Waters Ridge) as early as 1834, but it was not until 1886 that the main deposit was discovered. From that time until today, it has occupied the paramount position in gold mining history. Witwatersrand gold was deposited between 2.9 and 2.6 billion years ago in six major fields, each produced by an ancient river system.
Placer and paleoplacers are actually secondary gold deposits, their gold having been derived from older deposits in the mountains above. The California 49ers looked upstream hoping to find the mother lode, and that’s exactly what they called the system of gold veins they discovered.
Vein gold is deposited by hot subterranean water known as a hydrothermal fluid. Hydrothermal fluids circulate through rock to leach small amounts of gold from large volumes of rock and then deposit it in fractures to form veins. Major U.S. gold vein deposits have been discovered at Lead in the Black Hills of South Dakota and at Cripple Creek on the slopes of Pike’s Peak, Colorado. Important vein deposits are also found in Canada and Australia. All these important deposits were located following the discovery of placer gold in nearby streams.
Gold’s virtual indestructibility means that almost all gold ever mined could still be in use today. Today, gold is being mined in ever-increasing amounts from increasingly lower-grade deposits. It is estimated that 70% of all gold recovered has been mined in this century. Each year nearly 2,000 tons are added to the total. Nevada currently leads the nation in gold production, and the Republic of South Africa is the world’s leading gold-producing nation.
Gold has traditionally been used for coinage, bullion, jewelry, and other decorative uses. Gold’s chemical inertness means that gold jewelry is hypoallergenic and remains tarnish-free indefinitely.
Silver is a brilliant white metal and the best metal in terms of thermal and electrical conductivity. Its chemical symbol, Ag, is derived from its Latin name, argentum, meaning “shining white.” Silver is not nearly as precious, dense, or noble as gold or platinum. The ease with which silverware tarnishes is an example of its chemical reactivity. Although native silver is found in nature, it most commonly occurs as compounds with other elements, especially sulfur.
Hydrothermal veins constitute the most important source of silver. The Comstock Lode, a silver bonanza 15 mi (24 km) southeast of Reno, Nevada, is a well-known example. Hydrothermal silver veins are formed in the same manner as gold veins, and the two metals commonly occur together. Silver, however, being more reactive than gold, can be leached from surface rocks and carried downward in solution. This process, called supergene enrichment, can concentrate silver into exceedingly rich deposits at depth.
Mexico has traditionally been the world’s leading silver producing country, but the United States, Canada, and Peru each contribute significant amounts. Although silver has historically been considered a precious metal, industrial uses now predominate. Significant quantities are still used in jewelry, silver ware, and coinage; but even larger amounts are consumed by the photographic and electronics industries.
Platinum, like silver, is a silver-white metal. Its chemical symbol is Pt and its name comes from the Spanish world for silver (plata ), with which it was originally confused. Its specific gravity of 21.45 exceeds that of gold, and, like gold, it is found in pure metallic chunks in stream placers. The average crustal abundance of platinum is comparable to that of gold. The melting point of platinum is 3,219°F (1,769°C), unusually high for a metal, and platinum is chemically inert even at high temperature . In addition, platinum is a catalyst for chemical reactions that produce a wide range of important commodities.
Platinum commonly occurs with five similar metals known as the platinum group metals. The group includes osmium, iridium, rhodium, palladium, and ruthenium. All were discovered in the residue left when platinum ore was dissolved in aqua regia. All are rare, expensive, and classified chemically as noble metals.
Platinum is found as native metal, in natural alloys, and in compounds with sulfur and arsenic. Platinum ore deposits are rare, highly scattered, and one deposit dominates all others much as South Africa’s Witwatersrand dominates world gold production. That platinum deposit is also in the Republic of South Africa.
Placer platinum was discovered in South Africa in 1924 and subsequently traced to a distinctively layered igneous rock known as the Bushveld Complex. Although the complex is enormous, the bulk of the platinum is found in a thin layer scarcely more than three feet thick. Nearly half of the world’s historic production of platinum has come from this remarkable layer.
The Stillwater complex in the Beartooth mountains of southwestern Montana also contains a layer rich in platinum group metals. Palladium is the layer’s dominant metal, but platinum is also found. The layer was discovered during the 1970s, and production commenced in 1987.
Platinum is used mostly in catalytic converters for vehicular pollution control. Low-voltage electrical contracts form the second most common use for platinum, followed closely by dental and medical applications, including dental crowns, and a variety of pins and plates used internally to secure human bones. Platinum is also used as a catalyst in the manufacture of explosives, fertilizer, gasoline, insecticides, paint, plastics, and pharmaceuticals. Platinum crucibles are used to melt high-quality optical glass and to grow crystals for computer chips and lasers. Hot glass fibers for insulation and nylon fibers for textiles are extruded through platinum sieves.
Because of their rarity and unique properties, the demand for gold and platinum are expected to continue to increase. Silver is more closely tied to industry, and the demand for silver is expected to rise and fall with economic conditions.