Precious metals are defined as rare, naturally occurring metals that are highly sought after for economic reasons, but that is a very unimaginative way to describe them. Precious metals have had a powerful effect on human history and gave rise to the very concept of ‘money’ as well as so many of the traditions that continue to define international culture.
It might be better to say that a precious metal is one that is considered valuable and desirable not only because it serves as a universally recognised unit of wealth, but also as a material whose value can be increased further by being made into art, jewellery or even coins, such as gold bullion.
Precious metals in different cultures
Every culture has its own unique relationships with metals such as gold, silver, platinum, palladium and even bronze & copper. Some prize certain metals for their rarity, some for their inherent beauty and some for their utility (whether for making tools, modern electronics or art).
China has one of the longest and most detailed written histories in the modern world, and the stories it tells all include gold, silver, and copper. Gold is symbolic of wealth and luck in China, and the giving of golden (and more recently golden-coloured) gifts has always been the hallmark of high-status people.
Oddly enough, China first issued precious metal coinage in 1890. Prior to that, gold, silver and other metals were used as portable wealth, but in the form of silver and gold bars or ingots. Coins for everyday use were more commonly made of base metals.
Precious metals also have a long and hallowed history in India, but gold, in particular, is revered. It is symbolic of both beauty and purity and has deep associations with the Hindu pantheon. In fact, the name of one Hindu creator deity, Brahma, can be translated as ‘imperishable gold’ or ‘the one born of gold’.
Gold was also the chief means of exchange between the many different kings, emperors and governments that have shared the sub-continent. It was at times considered, along land, the only asset of enduring value. The gift of a gold dowry is an essential part of most traditional Indian weddings to this day.
European and Western cultures have always loved, fought over, built from, and at times even deified gold, silver and other precious metals. Western culture has its roots in Hellenism and the Roman Empire, but a love for gold, silver, bronze and copper long predated both cultures throughout the region. Until very recently it was a poor king indeed who did not take his place with a crown of gold. Precious metal coins ushered in the beginnings of a cash economy here, as they did in almost all parts of the world.
The Universal Appeal of Gold
Gold has fascinated people all over the world as far back as history takes us. Our earliest records refer to gold being desired both as an art form and as a kind of international currency. The yellow of the metal was always more important than the face of the king that was stamped upon it.
Today, gold is just as sought-after as ever, and it is just as valuable as an international (and inflation-proof) expression of wealth. Gold bars and gold bullion are collected by many as a way of investing and protecting their wealth. Even if physical ownership of gold is avoided, gold-backed ETFs CEFs and similar commodity products maintain their value by their connection to gold stored in vaults. However, the ownership of physical gold – the ability to touch it, to hold it, and even the freedom to protect it or move it from place to place – never seems to lose its appeal.