For thousands of years, gold has served as a universal symbol of status, wealth and power for royals and people of means. The first decorative gold objects date back more than 6,000 years, and the Egyptians relied on gold as a source of currency as early as 1,500 B.C. By the 16th century, the search for gold led Spanish conquistadors and other European explorers to seek out and settle in new lands, including North and South America [source: National Mining Association].
Early man's fascination with gold was based on nothing more than its aesthetic properties. The shine, color and workability of this material made it simply irresistible. Even gold's chemical symbol, AU, comes from a Latin term that means "glowing dawn." Today, advancements in science have proved just how valuable gold really is and reinforced society's natural passion for this material. Beyond its obvious beauty and luster, the very properties of gold give it value that exceeds that of virtually all other metals.
The malleability of this material means that a single gram of gold, roughly the size of a grain of rice, can be flattened into a sheet that covers 10 square feet (0.92 square meters). It's also the most ductile of all metals, which means it can be drawn out into the finest, longest wire of any metallic element. Gold also conducts heat and electricity, and lasts longer than all conducting materials. It's highly reflective, incredibly dense and able to resist rust, corrosion and oxidation [source: American Museum of Natural History].
When considering the aesthetic and functional properties of gold, it's easy to see why it's so valuable. It's also relatively scarce and difficult to extract from the earth, so it's no surprise that the price of this metal has reached astronomic levels. Gone are the days of the California gold rush, or easy-to-mine veins. Today, miners devote enormous resources to locating and extracting even small deposits of this metal. For every 250 trucks containing 20 tons (18.14 metric tons) of rock and dirt extracted from the earth, miners can expect to find just about 0.7 ounces (20 grams) of gold [source: Bullivant].
By the 2010s, the oceans started becoming the biggest gold reserves remaining on Earth. Currently, the cost to mine this gold far exceeds its value, but as prices continue to climb, mining the oceans could become the only remaining way to obtain this rare and precious resource.
Gold has an interesting history. Its bright color, lustrous sheen and near indestructibility have all assisted in making it probably the most coveted metal since time immemorial. Also, because gold is malleable, ductile and so resistant to corrosion and tarnishing, it's been considered perfect for all sorts of ornamental uses throughout prehistoric, ancient, medieval and modern times.
Those same qualities, however, meant that gold use has largely been limited to jewelry and other decorative embellishments, although the metal has also played a pivotal role in the fiscal world. For example, lots of economies in the world's monetary exchange system once operated under the gold standard. And although that practice has largely faded now, a large portion of the world's gold is still held by governments and central banking systems.
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