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Home>Learn and Explore!>Rocks, Minerals and Prospecting>Gold by Paul Hlava

Gold by Paul Hlava

(from Trivial Pursuits, Albuquerque Gem and Mineral Club)

Gold! Nothing else matches gold’s ability to enflame the passions and excite the imagination of human beings. Gold raises some people to noble heights and lowers others to ignoble depths; it lures them to strange and forbidding lands and enables them to endure the hardest of environmental extremes, physical deprivations, and brutal, mind-numbing, back-breaking labor. More people have searched for, fought for, stolen for, killed for, lied for, and died for this one material than any other. Gold is responsible for the settling and colonization of many remote corners of the earth.

In our own country, it was gold that lured the Spanish into the New World, that caused the mass migrations and explorations of California and Alaska. In fact, it was the golden carrot which lured prospectors to all the remote corners of our land. How many of you have been hiking in some New Mexico wilderness, day dreaming that perhaps you were the first person to pass this way, when you chanced across some prospect pit dug over a hundred years before by someone looking for gold? What is this stuff that it can control people so completely?

Mineral gold is a naturally-occurring, or native, metallic element with a rich yellow color. It is soft (2.5 to 3.) and very ductile (can be drawn into wire) and malleable (can be beaten into sheets). It is, in fact, the most malleable substance known: it can be hammered into sheets which are only one quarter of a millionth of one inch thick! That is so thin you can see through it. Because there is so little of the precious metal present in gold leaf, even modestly priced books and such can have embossed, gold-covered lettering on their bindings. Gold is extremely dense, being 15 to 19 times as dense as water (depending on the impurities in the gold) or 5 to 8 times as “heavy” as ordinary rock! And, of course, gold is rare. The gold content of average rock works out to about one ounce per 8,000+ tons. (In a gold mine with low-grade ore, there is an ounce per 20 tons; 400 times the average amount.)

Gold is chemically inert. It doesn’t form oxides or sulfides or lots of other things and it is unaffected by most acids. It does form an amalgam with mercury, which has proven to be useful to many miners. In nature, gold is usually found as the metal with variable, but usually minor, amounts of silver, copper, bismuth, and a few other unusual metals. Sometimes, like in some New Mexico deposits, the gold is over 99 percent pure. Rarely, gold can be found in the form of tellurides. But no one of these properties explains gold’s allure; perhaps several of them together do.

I think that the attraction people have to gold is found in a combination of perhaps nine reasons. Gold is attractive looking. Even if it were common, gold would be used ornamentally. And its workability makes it easy to fabricate into objects of great beauty. Because it is incorruptible, it does not rust, corrode, rot, decay, tarnish, or alter under most natural conditions, so the beautiful objects made from it will stay that way.

Gold has a relatively stable established value per unit of weight. Gemstones may be more valuable per unit of weight, but it takes an expert to distinguish the various grades and establish values. Gold is easily recognized by everyone, while other commodities, say niobium for instance, require extensive training or expertise. Gold deposits are relatively common for such a valuable material. The United States has had lots of rich gold mines but only one, less than profitable, diamond mine.

O.K. Those are all pretty good reasons, but the following reasons are the crux of the thing. Gold from veins is concentrated, at the surface of the Earth, into placer deposits which are easy to get to, easy to work and process, and sometimes incredibly rich. Gold is the one valuable commodity that the average guy can find, work with a pick, shovel and pan, and thus become fantastically wealthy. That’s the major lure of gold. Instant riches. That’s always been one of man’s fondest dreams. In days gone by, people searched for gold mines; nowadays they are more apt to enter sweepstakes or buy lottery tickets.

Oh, gold is still around, even if the great gold rushes are essentially over. (The current rush in Brazil is unfortunately limited to locals only.) A few placers in dry areas, like those near Golden, New Mexico, still have lots of gold left. And there are lots of less glamorous and less rich hard rock deposits yet to be developed. But one of the best places to find gold is a lot easier to get to than you’d suspect. You will find a bonanza of New Mexican gold specimens if you just get yourself down to the Albuquerque Gem and Mineral Club’s annual show... Tell ’em the Old Prospector sent ya!!

Republished by permission of Albuquerque Gem and Mineral Club
Paul Hlava, author