Precious Metals: The Most Valuable Heavy Metals

Gold and silver ring

Precious metals play a major role in the jewelry industry. Rings, necklaces, and bracelets made of gold, silver, or platinum-group metals are especially highly coveted and essential components of the international jewelry trade.

On a chemical level, precious metals are generally very stable and corrosion-resistant, making them perfect for jewelry production. Many people also turn to bullion bars and coins as a form of investment. Read on to learn more about the history, natural occurrence, and use of these rare metals!

 

Noble vs. Precious Metals: What’s the difference?

While most precious metals are also noble metals, the two terms are not synonymous. “Noble metal” is a scientific term that refers to metals that are resistant to oxidation and corrosion. On the other hand, the term “precious metal” applies to metals with high economic value.

In short, just because a metal is noble, doesn’t mean it is precious – and vice versa – so the two terms should not be used interchangeably.

Metals that can be found in both groups include gold, silver, the platinum-group metals (platinum, iridium, osmium, palladium, rhodium, and ruthenium), and rhenium. Other elements that are generally considered noble metals include bohrium, copernicium, darmstadtium, hassium, meitnerium, and roentgenium. However, these elements are all radioactive and have extremely short half-lives. Some scientists also list copper and mercury among the noble metals, even though the former is known to oxidize.

In addition to precious metals, there are also semiprecious and non-precious metals.

What are the other noble metals?

There is no definitive list of noble metals beyond gold, silver, and the platinum-group metals. In fact, scientists debate which, if any, of these other elements belong on the list. Some of them oxidize or react with hydrochloric or sulfuric acids. Potential noble metals include:

Highly Reactive Non-Noble Metals

Another class of metals are the non-noble metals. These elements readily react to oxygen in the air. In this category, you’ll find aluminum (formerly considered a precious metal), iron, and lead. While abundant, these metals don’t appear in their elementary form in nature and are instead extracted from metal ores.

Gold: The Coveted Metal

Gold is a very soft and pliable metal. This bright yellow element gets its name from the Proto-Indo-European word ghel, meaning “to shine; to be yellow.”

Gold stone

History: Gold as a Symbol of Wealth and Power

Egyptians discovered gold in the fourth millennium BC and immediately recognized its value. To ancient Egyptian high society, this precious metal represented prosperity and power and was reserved solely for the pharaoh and high priests. Gold also plays a central role in the Bible, where it’s mentioned 389 times in association with the construction of holy temples.

The ancient Greeks used gold to embellish their swords, jewelry, and other treasures like crowns and vases. After the “discovery” of the New World, conquistadors helped turn Spain into the world’s richest country by hauling boatloads of gold back to Europe.

Today, gold remains a highly-coveted metal and continues to fascinate us with its beautiful shine.

Gold jewellery

Where is gold found in nature?

The kingdoms of West Africa used to be a major source of gold. Many explorers went to Africa in search of this precious metal. Among them was Christopher Columbus, who made it as far south as modern-day Ghana. European interest in West African gold diminished with the discovery of this lustrous metal in Brazil in the 1600s.

Perhaps the most famous gold-related event in North America was the California Gold Rush, which took place between 1848 and 1855. The prospect of hitting a literal gold mine attracted some 300,000 individuals to the state of California. A second gold rush, the Klondike Gold Rush, occurred in the Yukon between 1896 and 1899, bringing around 100,000 prospectors to northwestern Canada.

Modern miners use machines to extract gold from the earth. Around 2,600 metric tons of pure gold are mined every year. However, it can also be found as a byproduct when refining other metals.

A truck mines gold

Today, the largest gold deposits are found in China, Australia, Russia, Canada, and the USA. There are also small amounts of gold in the Earth’s crust and mantle. However, gold only accounts for four grams of every 1,000 metric tons of material in these layers.

What is gold used for?

Throughout history, many cultures have used gold to craft objects for rituals and other pieces of art. This rare element is also important for modern technology. For example, it’s used in dentistry to make crowns or fill in cavities. What’s more, the electronics industry relies on gold in circuit boards, electrical connectors, and electrical contacts. Even so, the vast majority of gold goes into the production of jewelry and coins.

Gold Jewelry: Elegant and Refined

Thanks to its sophisticated elegance, gold is one of the most popular metals in the jewelry industry. However, pure gold is too soft on its own. Instead, alloys are created using other metals – predominantly silver and copper – to help stabilize the material.

The purity of any alloy can be given either in karats or by parts per thousand. The most common variants are 8, 14, 18, and 20-karat gold (or 333, 585, 750, and 834 gold, respectively).

You can find more detailed information in our article about gold jewelry!

Gold jewelry

Gold as an Investment

The purest gold alloys are usually used to make bullion bars and coins. Since the material is so soft, gold bullion is extremely easy to stamp.

The first written record of gold coins dates back to the sixth century BC. While gold coins were still used as currency through the Middle Ages, today they usually serve as collector’s items or investments.

Since gold prices tend to rise, bullion bars make especially safe investments. They come in various sizes, ranging from 10 grams (~0.4 oz) to a kilogram (2.2 lbs).

Gold coins and gold bars

Krugerrands, a South African coin, are made of 99.9% pure gold and, thus, are incredibly highly coveted. They are stamped with the bust of former South African president and founder of Kruger National Park, Paul Kruger.

Our tip for collectors: As of 2017, Krugerrands are also available in silver or platinum.

Krugerrands gold coin

Silver: The white shining precious metal

Silver is a soft and pliable metal that catches the eye with its bright white shine. The modern word “silver” comes from old English seolfor, itself derived from Proto-Germanic silubrą. Other Germanic languages also use similar words today, such as German Silber and Dutch zilver.

On the periodic table of elements, you’ll find silver listed as “Ag.” This symbol comes from the Latin word argentum. Ancient Greek had a similar word, árgyros. Both terms share a Proto-Indo-European root that translates to “white” or “shining.”

Fun fact: Argentina got its name from this precious metal due to its bountiful silver deposits.

Natural silver mineral

Silver: A History of Ups and Downs

We know that humans have been using silver since at least the fifth millennium BC. Ancient Greeks, Goths, Romans, Egyptians, and Germanic tribes refined and traded this rare metal. In fact, there have been times when silver was more valuable than gold.

Beginning in 1870, silver prices sank while gold prices skyrocketed. The rise of stainless steel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries caused silver prices to plummet even further. After the First World War, many products that were once made of the precious metal transitioned to being made of cheaper stainless steel.

With the advent of photography, silver became more relevant again over the course of the 20th century. However, digital photography has since turned the tides against silver once more.

Where does silver occur in nature?

Silver occurs in nature in its pure elementary form as well as combined with other elements. Indeed, most silver is a byproduct of copper, gold, lead, or zinc refining.

In the Middle Ages, you could find large silver deposits in Slovakia, Bohemia, and the mountains of southeastern Germany. In fact, silver mining remained a major industry in Germany until the late 1970s. Today, most new silver comes from Mexico, Peru, and Australia. Those three countries produce several thousand metric tons of this gleaming white metal per year.

Did you know that silver is 20 times more common than gold in the Earth’s crust?

Silver’s Practical Uses

The demand for silver has been consistently on the rise for decades. Its special properties make it irreplaceable in certain industries, including electronics, lens making, and jewelry. Due to its antiseptic qualities, silver is also extremely important in medicine. Other products made of silver include coins and musical instruments.

Silver Treasures: Stylish and Luxurious

Silver jewelry will never go out of style and adds a special something to any outfit.

Silver purity is measured in parts per thousand. Sterling silver, or 925 silver, is the most common high-purity variant of silver used in jewelry making. Since it contains 7.5% copper, this alloy has a slight red tinge.

Other silver jewelry may be made of 800 silver or “nickel” silver, also known as “German” silver. Despite its name, the latter contains no silver and is actually a combination of copper, nickel, and zinc. It’s often used to create silverware.

Visit our encyclopedia to learn more about silver jewelry.

Silver rings with diamonds

Silver as an Investment

Silver coins made of at least 50% pure silver remained in regular circulation in the United States until 1971. Since then, no new coins contain silver. Instead, old silver coins are now seen as an investment. Governments sometimes also mint commemorative silver bullion coins to mark special occasions.

Due to their shape, silver bullion bars make a convenient investment. Unlike silver coins, bars don’t need to be stamped. Companies like APMEX, Argor-Heraeus, and Johnson Matthey produce bars that are 99.9% pure silver. Like gold, each bar weighs between 10 grams (~0.4 oz) and 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs), though larger bars are available upon request.

You can also invest in silver indirectly via an exchange-traded fund or ETF.

Silver coins and silver bars

The Medicinal Applications of Silver

Silver ions have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial qualities and, therefore, are used in products throughout the medical industry. Examples include wound dressings, breathing tubes, x-ray film, and eye drops.

Did you know that silver can be used to disinfect contaminated water?

Platinum-Group Metals: The Underappreciated Precious Metals

Platinum-group metals, or platinoids, are dense, naturally-occurring transition metals that can be further subdivided into two groups: the iridium group and the palladium group. The first group contains osmium, iridium, and ruthenium, while the second group is made up of rhodium, platinum, and palladium. When it comes to jewelry, the two most common platinum-group metals are platinum and palladium.

Platinum: “Little Silver”

Platinum is a heavy yet extremely soft and ductile precious metal that’s grayish-white in hue. Its name comes from the Spanish word platino, meaning “little silver.” While initially intended as a demeaning term, platinum is now more coveted than ever thanks to its corrosion-resistant and robust properties.

History: From the Bottom to the Top

Ancient Egyptians crafted fine jewelry out platinum in addition to their famous gold works. In South America, the Inka used this precious metal in their rituals. However, over time, it lost its status. Many saw it as an inferior form of gold, which is why it remained widely unknown and unused in Europe for centuries after first contact with pre-Columbian cultures.

In the 18th century, alchemists began working more closely with this then-unfamiliar metal. They were able to determine that platinum is, in fact, its own element. Later researchers would discover platinum’s unique qualities and extreme rarity. As a result, platinum is now highly coveted the world over, including at royal courts.

Platinum made its breakthrough in the early 20th century, establishing itself as the ultimate partner for diamonds. Today, this precious metal is immensely popular.

Where is platinum found in nature?

Platinum is 30 times rarer than gold in nature, making it especially valuable.

Over 80% of the world’s known platinum deposits are in South Africa. Other significant deposits are found in Ontario, Canada and in the northern Russian city of Norilsk. Platinum also occurs naturally in small quantities elsewhere around the globe.

How Platinum is Used

Platinum is an integral component in many electronic and medical devices. For example, it often functions as a catalyst in diesel engines, and most pacemakers have platinum electrodes. Of course, platinum is also a coveted material in the jewelry industry. It’s also available in the form of bullion bars and coins for those looking to invest in this rare metal.

Platinum Jewelry: High-End and Rare

Thanks to its unique properties, platinum is a fantastic material for making necklaces, rings, and other jewelry. It never tarnishes, maintains its shine, and is hypoallergenic. Scratches also have nothing on this metal. While they may disfigure it, they will never remove any of the material itself.

Platinum jewelry is usually made from alloys rather than pure platinum. Most of these alloys contain copper. Other common materials include aluminum, palladium, and iridium.

You can learn more information about platinum jewelry in our encyclopedia.

Platinum wedding rings

Is it worth investing in platinum?

Platinum is one of the world’s most valuable precious metals. Since it’s rarer and heavier than gold, it has high intrinsic value and makes a fantastic investment.

Platinum bullion bars first appeared in Japan in 1975 and arrived in the USA and Europe in the late 70s and early 80s. The spread of platinum around the globe has caused its prices to quickly increase. Some of the biggest names in the bullion bar industry are Johnson Matthey and BASF Catalysts (formerly the Engelhard Corporation), who make bars weighing between one and ten troy ounces.

In 1983, the Isle of Man minted a one-troy-ounce platinum coin. The popularity of this coin led other countries like Australia and Canada to create their own platinum bullion coins. Today, mintage figures depend on the availability of platinum, limiting the number of coins.

Platinum bullion bars

Palladium: The Up-and-Comer

Palladium is also a platinum-group metal. Of the group, it is the most reactive and has the lowest melting point. This rare, silvery-white element is extremely easy to work with, making it a popular material for alloys and coatings.

An Element of the Gods

In the summer of 1802, English chemist and physicist William Hyde Wollaston discovered palladium inside South American platinum ore. He would name this new element after one of the Solar System’s largest asteroids, Pallas, which had been discovered earlier that same year. The asteroid itself gets its name from an epithet of the Greek goddess Athena.

Where is palladium found in nature?

While it occurs more often in nature than gold or platinum, Palladium is still very rare. The largest known deposits are found in South Africa, the USA, Canada, northwestern Russia, and the central Philippines. However, pure palladium is becoming ever harder to find. Instead, most new palladium comes from nickel and copper refining.

What is palladium used for?

Palladium is frequently used to create jewelry and bullion bars and coins. It also has numerous applications in the electronics, engineering, and medical fields.

Palladium Jewelry

Pure palladium is too soft for jewelry making. Therefore, it’s necessary to use alloys that combine this metal with other elements like iridium, ruthenium, rhodium, copper, silver, or gold.

Palladium as an Investment: Is it worth it?

Palladium as an investment remains a relatively niche product. Due to its fluctuating prices, it’s less popular than gold or platinum.

However, palladium is generally a good investment since it’s in high demand in many industries. Our tip: If you want to invest in palladium, go for coins instead of bars. Palladium bullion coins are rarer and, therefore, tend to increase in value.

Palladium bullion bars

Iridium: Extremely Dense and Brittle

Iridium, another platinum-group metal, is very hard and brittle. These properties make this silvery-white element difficult to work with.

British chemist Smithson Tennant first discovered iridium in 1803. He decided to name the new element “iridium” after the Greek goddess of the rainbow, Iris, due to the colorful salts the element produces.

Pure iridium has a naturally grainy shape, though the metal also occurs as a byproduct when refining other platinum-group metals. The most expansive iridium deposits are in Tasmania, Borneo, South Africa, Japan, Russia’s Ural mountain range, and North and South America. It most commonly appears in igneous deposits and impact craters. However, iridium is among the least abundant elements in the Earth’s crust. It is 10 times rarer than platinum and 40 times rarer than gold.

Since iridium is so brittle, it’s commonly mixed with other metals to form alloys. Many older fountain pens have tips made of iridium alloys. While modern fountain pens are often marketed as having iridium tips, they actually contain other metals. Iridium is also used to craft medical instruments and spark plugs, among other applications.

Rhodium: Radiant and Rare

Rhodium, a fellow platinum-group metal, is hard, durable, and silvery-white in color. Its name comes from the Greek word rhodon, meaning “rose.” This is a reference to the gentle pink hue of its powdered salt form.

English chemist William Hyde Wollaston discovered rhodium in raw platinum ore in 1803. He had already discovered palladium the year prior. After separating out the already known platinum-group metals, he ended up with an ashy pink salt. From there, he was able to precipitate pure rhodium using an ethanol wash and zinc.

Rhodium is one of the rarest non-radioactive elements in the Earth’s crust. Its extraction is extremely time-consuming since rhodium only occurs in combination with other platinum-group metals. This is why only 25 metric tons are produced annually. Most rhodium comes from South Africa, the Ural mountains, and North America.

Rhodium doesn’t dissolve in most acids and is otherwise very durable. This makes it an ideal material for medical devices and electrical contacts. It is also highly reflective and, therefore, used in headlight reflectors. Less common applications include rhodium-plated watch elements and jewelry. For example, some white gold rings are coated with this rare metal.

Osmium: A Metal with a Distinct Smell

Osmium is a shiny, steely-blue element. However, instead of referring to its beautiful color, this platinum-group metal gets its name from the Greek word osme, meaning “a smell,” due to its unique smoky scent.

In 1804, English scientist Smithson Tennant discovered this brittle metal alongside iridium in a residue left behind after dissolving platinum in aqua regia.

While common in space, osmium is the least abundant stable element in the Earth’s crust. It also happens to be the densest non-radioactive element, just ahead of iridium. Osmium naturally occurs in its pure form; as sulfides in nickel and copper deposits; and in natural alloys combined with other metals like ruthenium, rhodium, iridium, palladium, or platinum. The most important sources of new osmium are the platinum-group-metal-rich nickel ore deposits of Canada, Russia, and South Africa. Other significant reserves are found in Colombia, Ethiopia, and on the island of Borneo.

Humans began using osmium in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of its most notable applications is in the creation of light bulb filaments. The German light bulb company, Osram, actually derives in name from this element and the German word for tungsten (Osmium and Wolfram).

Due to its high price, osmium is rarely used. Products that contain osmium include some fountain pen tips, the powder used to dust for fingerprints, and the mirrors used in UV spectrometers located in space.

Ruthenium: A Rare Transition Metal

The final platinum-group metal, ruthenium, is silvery-white, hard, and brittle. It was discovered by Baltic-German chemist Karl Ernst Claus in Kazan, Russia in 1844. Claus named the new element after the Latin word for East Slavic regions, Ruthenia.

Ruthenium is one of the Earth’s rarest elements. It only occurs in very small amounts in combination with other platinum-group metals. In total, global reserves of ruthenium are estimated to be 5,000 metric tons, with approximately 12 tons mined per year. South Africa, the USA, and the Ural mountains of Russia contain the greatest quantities of this precious metal.

Best known in its bright red powdered form, ruthenium is also a good catalyst and often mixed with other metals to form alloys. Ruthenium also has some medical applications, including in radiotherapy for ocular tumors.

Our Precious Metal Jewelry

Jewelry made from precious metals is extremely highly coveted. Humans have always been attracted to the lustrous shine of luxury goods. Engagement and weddings rings made from precious metals are especially popular due to their emotional and economic value.

Two silver rings

Ready to buy some gold or silver jewelry? Perhaps you’d prefer a piece in one of the platinum-group metals? On FineJewels24, you’ll find a large selection of sparkling treasures. Browse our listings and discover your next piece of jewelry!

 

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