Wars have been fought over it, civilizations for centuries have coveted it and governments depend on it and hoard it. No wonder the fascination for the most noble of all metals continues! The demand for gold permeates all levels of society—the hard money people hoard it in bullion form, the consumer can hardly get enough of it to fill his fingers, and the less obvious, but probably most intense, gold collectors who revel in the beauty of gold in its natural state. What is it about this metallic yellow metal that holds civilized societies of the world in its grip?
Historically, gold, and to a lesser ex-lent silver, have been accepted indicators of wealth and power. Many of the most stable monetary systems of the world use a fixed weight of gold to back their currency. The arguments for and against the so-called gold standard will continue as long as man continues to desire the yellow metal and it remains reasonably scarce. Surprisingly, all the gold mined to date would only fill a cube 50 feet on a side! This is indeed a small volume to have influenced the toil and destiny of so many people.
In the past few decades the supremacy of gold has been challenged by energy producing products such as oil and uranium. At present, oil, or black yellow lumps picked up in a nearby gold if you will, seems to be in favor; but perhaps by the end of this century the new measure of power may be uranium, or a country’s ability to harness the sun’s radiation to produce use- mining is to be found in murals of the able energy. Ironically, in the midst of today’s progressive and presumably enlightened society the demand for gold has never been higher. The sheikdoms of the oil rich Middle East are obsessed with the ownership of gold. The jewelry shops of Cairo and Kuwait abound with almost anything imaginable made from gold—ranging from a 24kt gold toothpick to a solid gold and ebony inlayed toilet seat for a modest $47,000!
Putting the intrinsic value of gold aside, man has always been intrigued with gold because of its physical characteristics. Its color, a metallic yellow, is a warm earthtone very pleasing to the eye. One can hardly find anyone who dislikes the color of gold. It is soft and ductile, which is undesirable perhaps for constructing an automobile engine, but for objects of adornment the caress smooth-feeling of gold cannot be better. The most remarkable characteristic of gold is its ability to resist tarnish or corrosion. Chemically, it is all but inert in contact with most common reagents. It won’t rust, as iron does, when it comes into contact with moisture and the sulfur in the air does not tarnish it as it does silver. It is not surprising that early man found those yellow lumps picked up in a nearby stream fascinating and began fashioning them into simple objects of worship and adornment.
The earliest record of organized gold mining is to be found in murals of the 4th Dynasty (2900 BC) in Egypt. The Egyptians learned that gold could be pounded into a sheet so thin that a large object could be covered with are relatively small amount of the scarce metal. Other uses of gold were found until, by 2000 BC, goldsmithing was one of the more advanced trades in many civilizations.
Man has always been preoccupied with attempts to change the shape of practically everything around him, only to find that the natural beauty of the original object may have been destroyed in the process. How often we see the products of our creativity consume too much of our natural resources or destroy the beauty of nature’s handiwork.
Gold, in its natural form, is one of the most beautiful creations of nature. The smooth flowing lines of a gold nugget are as aesthetically pleasing as any manmade free-form sculpture. When most people think of gold in its natural state they think of gold nuggets—naturally worn lumps of the yellow metal usually found in stream gravels. Indeed most of the gold found in the early part of the California gold rush and almost all the gold found in Alaska is in this form. Gold is, however, found in several different forms other than nuggets, which will be discussed shortly in this article.
Jewelry fashioned from natural stream-worn lumps of gold is so popular today that the once rich placers of California and Alaska can hardly keep pace with the demands. Nuggets over one ounce sell for at least two or three times their intrinsic value with larger nuggets going for as much as $1,000 per ounce! To keep up with the demand suppliers of nuggets are importing them from South America, Canada and Siberia. The Siberian nuggets | are some of the most attractive I have seen and are reminiscent of early California gold from the placers of Columbia and Volcanoville. And although few placer deposits are being worked in California today, occasionally someone finds a large nugget such as the one found in the Mojave Desert two years ago. It weighs 156 troy ounces or 13 troy pounds! This is more than likely the largest American nugget still in existence.
As rare as large nuggets are there is still an even rarer form of naturally occurring gold—crystallized gold. That meaning, gold which shows external crystal form. Most naturally occurring gold, even nuggets, is more or less crystallized but the smooth sharp crystallized faces may be worn smooth by millions of years of abrasion in the stream gravels. When this piece originally formed in the hard rock it undoubtedly had well developed crystal faces. It weathered out, found its way into al nearby stream, and was worn into its’ present form. The outline of the original crystals is clearly visible.
Gold crystallizes in what mineralogists refer to as the “cubic” habit. That does not mean that all gold crystals are found in the form of a cube. It means that the individual atoms of gold are arranged in a three dimensional cubic lattice-work. And although gold does crystallize in a cubic system, cubic crystals of gold are relatively rare. More often crystallized gold is found in the form of octahedrons and more rarely in dodecahedrons. To make matters even more complicated the crystals are often highly modified or are combinations of the octahedron, cube and dodecahedron. So-called textbook crystals of gold of any size are exceedingly rare.
Another form of crystallized gold is what is referred to as “leaf.” Leaf gold generally forms as a result of expanded growth along one or more of the octahedron faces. If a gold leaf is examined closely it will almost always show telltale triangular raised areas with faces parallel to the flattened direction. The specimens shown are fine large leaves of crystallized gold recently found in the mines of Sierra County, California.
There are still other habits and modifications found in gold—hopper growth (hollowing of crystal faces), dendritic growth (tree-like forms), spongy (resembling a sponge), wire, and many others. Some fine examples of crystallized gold are illustrated.
The diversity of forms combined with the physical characteristics that make gold popular in jewelry makes gold one of the most popular of all collectable minerals. No two specimens are exactly alike, although gold from a particular mine or mining area is often similar in appearance. For example, a good portion of gold mined from the famous Red Ledge Mine, near Washington, in Nevada County, California, shows lustrous plates of crystals with dominantly octahedron faces.
California has the distinction of producing probably the finest and most, beautiful crystallized gold in the work with Colorado second in its wealth of beautiful specimens. Alaska, Washing ton, Montana, Georgia, Oregon and Idaho have also produced some remarkable specimens of gold; and although South Dakota has the largest and most continuously operated gold mine in this country at Lead, the gold found there is so finely disseminated in the rock it is barely visible with the naked eye. Much of the crystallized gold from Colorado was found in the area around the now popular ski resort town of Breckenridge. It usually forms remarkably “large leafs which appear to have a satin finish on the surface. If it is examined microscopically one finds that the surface is almost entirely made up of small triangular raised faces.
The Denver Museum of Natural History has probably the finest collection of gold from the Breckenridge area It is interesting to mineralogists that gold from Colorado is often found associated with one of the few elements gold readily combines with—native tellurium Referred to as gold tellurides, minerals such as petzite, calaverite (named for its first discovery in California’s Calaveras County), krennerite and sylvanite are almost always associated with native gold in the ores of the famous mines of Cripple Creek and Telluride. Other areas of the world which have produced fine gold specimens include Australia (the famous 2,280 oz. “Welcome Stranger” nugget; only replicas of this remain today), Hungary, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, South West Africa and Russia.
Crystallized gold is usually found in what is called a “lode” mine. A lode mine is a hard rock mine often with underground workings. The gold is extracted combined with other rock, usually quartz, crushed and removed by a number of milling methods. In addition to quartz, gold in lode mines is often associated with pyrite (called “fool’s gold” for its metallic yellow color and often mistaken for the real thing), arsenopyrite (an arsenic rich iron sulfide), chalcopyrite (the copper rich iron sulfide) and galena (a lead sulfide).
Nuggets, on the other hand, come from either placer or drift mines and are usually separated by taking advantage of the extreme density of the gold relative to other gravel in which it is mixed. From placer deposits the gold can be separated with a device as simple as a gold pan or more sophisticated equipments such as separation tables. Drift mines are underground workings of ancient stream gravel, sometimes partially consolidated into a harder rock called .conglomerate. Hydraulic mining is a refinement of placer mining which utilizes enormous jets of water to wash the gravel from banks into long wooden troughs with ripples, called sluices or sluice boxes. Still another type of mining used later in the rivers of the Sierra foothills was the dredge. A dredge is a floating barge which picks up gravel from the bottom of the river, separates out the gold and dumps the excess either back into the river or into artificial banks
The development of the mining methods during the period of the California gold rush is very interesting. During the early part of the rush the miner used simple tools such as the gold pan, sluice box and sniping irons (iron rods for crevassing), and rockers ( a wooden contraption rocked by hand) At about the same time huge nosy dredge began to appear on the Sacramento River Valley when hydraulic mining was curtailed by the government due to its devastating effect on the environment, the hardy argonaut (a term used to describe early California gold miners. From Greek legend, argonauts were a band of heroes who went with Jason to fetch the golden fleece from the ship Argo) moved on to mining the gold in situ and a period of lode mining evolved, particularly the northern part of the mother lode country. It was from these mines in Sierra, Nevada and Placer Counties that many of the fine specimens now residing in the museums and private collections around the world were taken. Undoubtedly, many fine specimens woe crushed and melted down for gold bullion value. What few specimens did survive are traded among a handful of serious collectors.
Collectors of gold in nugget form are considerably more abundant. In nuggets, the size and hence the weight, are of paramount importance. Of secondary importance is the nugget shape, locality and associated minerals. The old Mint in San Francisco has an outstanding collection of large California nuggets on display to the public.
Collectors of crystallized gold usually look for crystal development, size and luster in their important pieces. Aesthetics and locality play an important role as well.
So, in whatever its myriad forms, gold’s fascination continues to endure— continues with seemingly mystical power to bring out the best and the worst in man’s nature. At its worst it makes man into an avaricious predator. At its best, it hopefully makes man reflect upon and appreciate the external and internal order of creation.