Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and an atomic number of 79. It has been a highly sought-after precious metal in jewelry, in sculpture, and for ornamentation since the beginning of recorded history. The metal occurs as nuggets or grains in rocks, in veins and in alluvial deposits. Gold is dense, soft, shiny and the most malleable and ductile pure metal known. Pure gold has a bright yellow color and luster traditionally considered attractive, which it maintains without oxidizing in air or water. It is one of the coinage metals and formed the basis for the gold standard used before the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971.
At the end of 2006, it was estimated that all the gold ever mined totaled 158,000 tonnes. This can be represented by a cube with an edge length of just 20.2 meters. Modern industrial uses include dentistry and electronics, where gold has traditionally found use because of its good resistance to oxidative corrosion and excellent quality as a conductor of electricity. Chemically, gold is a transition metal and can form trivalent and univalent cations upon solvation. Nitric acid has long been used to confirm the presence of gold in items, and this is the origin of the colloquial term “acid test”, referring to a gold standard test for genuine value.
Gold is the most malleable and ductile of all metals; a single gram can be beaten into a sheet of one square meter, or an ounce into 300 square feet. Gold leaf can be beaten thin enough to become translucent. The transmitted light appears greenish blue, because gold strongly reflects yellow and red.
In various countries, gold was used as a standard for monetary exchange, but this practice has been abandoned with the rise of fiat currency. The last country to back their money with gold was Switzerland, which backed 40% of its value until it joined the International Monetary Fund in 1999. Pure gold is too soft for ordinary use and is typically hardened by alloying with copper or other base metals. The gold content of gold alloys is measured in carats (k), pure gold being designated as 24k.
Gold coins intended for circulation from 1526 into the 1930s were typically a standard 22k alloy called crown gold, for hardness. Modern collector/investment bullion coins (which do not require good mechanical wear properties) are typically 24k, although the American Gold Eagle, the British gold sovereign and the South African Krugerrand continue to be made at 22k, on historical tradition. The special issue Canadian Gold Maple Leaf coin contains the highest purity gold of any bullion coin, at 99.999% (.99999 fine). The popular issue Canadian Gold Maple Leaf coin has a purity of 99.99%. Several other 99.99% pure gold coins are currently available, including Australia’s Gold Kangaroos (first appearing in 1986 as the Australian Gold Nugget, with the kangaroo theme appearing in 1989), the several coins of the Australian Lunar Calendar series, and the Austrian Philharmonic. In 2006, the U.S. Mint began production of the American Buffalo gold bullion coin also at 99.99% purity.
Gold was used as a medium of monetary exchange throughout history together with or instead of other minerals, like silver, salt, and copper. At the beginning of World War I the warring nations went onto a fractional gold standard, inflating their currencies to finance the war effort. After World War II gold was replaced by a system of convertible currency following the Bretton Woods system. Many holders of gold in storage (as bullion coin or bullion) hold it as a hedge against inflation or other economic disruptions. The ISO currency code of gold bullion is XAU.
Like other precious metals, gold is measured by troy weight and by grams. When it is alloyed with other metals the term carat or karat is used to indicate the amount of gold present, with 24 carats being pure gold and lower ratings proportionally less. The purity of a gold bar can also be expressed as a decimal figure ranging from 0 to 1, known as the millesimal fineness, such as 0.995 being very pure.
The price of gold is determined on the open market, but a procedure known as the Gold Fixing in London, originating in September 1919, provides a daily benchmark figure to the industry. The afternoon fixing appeared in 1968 to fix a price when US markets are open.
Historically gold coinage was widely used as currency; When paper money was introduced, it typically was a receipt redeemable for gold coin or bullion. In an economic system known as the gold standard, a certain weight of gold was given the name of a unit of currency. For a long period, the United States government set the value of the US dollar so that one troy ounce was equal to $20.67 ($664.56/kg), but in 1934 the dollar was devalued to $35.00 per troy ounce ($1125.27/kg). By 1961 it was becoming hard to maintain this price, and a pool of US and European banks agreed to manipulate the market to prevent further currency devaluation against increased gold demand.
On March 17, 1968, economic circumstances caused the collapse of the gold pool, and a two-tiered pricing scheme was established whereby gold was still used to settle international accounts at the old $35.00 per troy ounce ($1.13/g) but the price of gold on the private market was allowed to fluctuate; this two-tiered pricing system was abandoned in 1975 when the price of gold was left to find its free-market level. Central banks still hold historical gold reserves as a store of value although the level has generally been declining. The largest gold depository in the world is that of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank in New York, which holds about 3% of the gold ever mined, as does the similarly-laden U.S. Bullion Depository at Fort Knox.
In 2005 the World Gold Council estimated total global gold supply to be 3,859 tonnes and demand to be 3,754 tonnes, giving a surplus of 105 tonnes.
Since 1968 the price of gold on the open market has ranged widely, from a high of $850/oz ($27,300/kg) on January 21, 1980, to a low of $252.90/oz ($8,131/kg) on June 21, 1999 (London Gold Fixing). The 1980 high was not overtaken until January 3, 2008 when a new maximum of $865.35 per troy ounce was set (a.m. London Gold Fixing).The current record price was set on March 17, 2008 at $1023.50/oz ($32,900/kg)(am. London Gold Fixing).
Long term price trends
Since April 2001 the gold price has more than tripled in value against the US dollar, prompting speculation that this long secular bear market (or the Great Commodities Depression) has ended and a bull market has returned.In March 2008, the gold price increased above $1000, which in real terms is still well below the $850/oz. peak on January 21, 1980. Indexed for inflation, the 1980 high would equate to a price of around $2400 in 2007 US dollars.
In the last century, major economic crises (such as the Great Depression, World War II, the first and second oil crisis) lowered the Dow/Gold ratio (which is inherently inflation adjusted) substantially, in most cases to a value well below 4. During these difficult times, investors tried to preserve their assets by investing in precious metals, most notably gold and silver.