The Value of Gold

As a simple level, my question is why gold is valuable - has always been valuable, universally. Of course, the answer is simple supply and demand. People want it, it is semi-rare. But why have civilizations across the world been obsessed with hording gold? Spices, salt, oils, coal, I can understand. These have practical uses. But gold is used only for trinkets and artwork - decoration and lavishment. Is the need for humans to display their wealth and power that strong and universal? There are times in history where controlling bronze (or copper and tin) was more important. Now, we have oil and the high metals. Yet until very recently, everything was pegged to gold and silver. How has all wealth been pegged to these minerals for so long?

I suppose the modern example can be diamonds. While always rare and valued, it was not until the modern era, thanks largely to aggressive marketing, that diamonds were considered so valuable and important. They have little practical use (though used industrially in saws and the like, these are smaller diamonds, and increasingly manmade). But they have become so incredibly valuable that entire nations have collapsed under the diamond industry. Were it not for artificial controls by companies like DeBeers, diamonds would lose their rarity, but still, we as a society seem to be under a spell. We could all decide, “the diamonds are worthless rocks, and the companies that sell them are international monopolies responsible for decades of civil wars and slaughters and hundreds of thousands of deaths” - yet we don’t.

What is it about mankind that is so dominated by shiny objects? Logically, wealth should be in what is most useful, most vital for survival (to a degree, this is true with oil today, and there has been talk about pegging money to oil). But why the domination of simple minerals? It would seem to me that, as far as history is concerned, mountains of gold are worthless compared to controlling the food supply, or rubber, or oil, or (historically) salt, or iron, or coal. So why the fascination?

If I were an ancient merchant or ruler, and some fool came to me offering rocks in exchange for food, I would have him thrown into the nearest lake! Is that unreasonable? Even without currencies, how did rocks become the measure of value? Is it similar to how a rare baseball card is worth so much?

Well, once you get past the barter level, you need some way to represent equivalent value. Also, you need some way to pay for a mere service, like the guy who cuts your hair or the dentist who pulls your tooth, etc.
Gold and silver were able to represent large amounts of value in small, portable, easily recognizable ways. Also copper.
Most of the residual value of gold as a monetary unit today is due to

  1. the fact that Western central banks still have large hoards they need to divest themselves of (the final vestige of the gold standard was only overthrown in 1971), and
  2. rural Indians who still hoard it for the historical reason that it was a store of value.
    As the central banks slowly disgorge their gold, and India advances, the demonetization of gold will finish its final chapter, and it will be valued strictly for its ornamental value and some value in its use as an excellent conductor of electricity (and a catalyst at nano levels, I’ve read). Silver’s demonetization has pretty much been completed, and these days it trades strictly on a demand/supply basis.

This question HAS been answered before, but I can’t find it in search.

Gold has been long and widely prized because it’s pretty much the perfect precious metal; if you NEED a metal to serve as the standard for treasure and monetary exchange, gold is it. Your OP, Zag, operates on the assumption that people value gold the same way they value oil or food, then wonders why that would be since you can’t eat gold. But people have NEVER valued gold that way; it has always been valued as a way to represent value… a currency. (Well, and jewelry, but that’s pretty close to being the same thing.)

In summary:

  1. It’s beautiful.
  2. For all practical concerns, it is an inert element and never tarnishes; silver tarnishes, as do most metals. But gold does not degrade. You can keep it around for millennia and it’ll be the same.
  3. It’s soft and easy for metalsmiths, coinmakers, etc. to work with.
  4. It’s rare, but not so rare or so hard to extract from the earth that you can’t get enough of it to serve its purpose.
  5. Assuming you know it’s soft, it’s easy to tell gold from almost any other common substance - making it tricky indeed to counterfeit.

If you need one metal to be The Medium of Exchange, gold is a perfect choice.

If I’m not mistaken, silver tarnishes, but when cleaned is the same item - no loss of the actual metal.

A book I’ve started and put down but going to pick up again soon is THE POWER OF GOLD. Which should answer all of your questions.

Basically, gold’s hard to get and it looks good. Production can be more or less controlled and relative values of coins can be altered by purity of the gold in them. As a medium of exchange, it’s wonderfully transparent for international transactions: i.e. x weight of gold is worth Y in this country, Z in this, in an age before the forex markets existed as they do today, there’s very little book keeping that needed to be done. RickJay’s list is a good one for other reasons.

As an aside, since silver is generally harder to mine than gold, there were times/areas that silver was more valuable than gold.*

  • That is, silver is essentially a byproduct of mining other metals. It wasn’t until metals got to be high demand items that silver started showing up in larger quantities and becoming less valuable than gold.

If that is true, why has the price of gold actually spiked since 1971?

Are you saying that the price of gold will eventually go back to pre-1971 level and below?

I’m very curious about this: why is gold currently 800% of what it was before 1971? Are the banks manipulating the markets so they can get rid of gold at the best prices?

The price of gold was kept artificially low by the U.S. government until 1971, in order to maintain the dollar pegged at $35/oz. Obviously, individual Americans other than dentists, jewelers, etc., were not allowed to own unfashioned gold, but in some shape or form the U.S. government was actually backing up that price by selling gold at that rate. I don’t know who was legally able to buy gold with dollars, unless it was foreign central banks.

When the dollar was floated in '71, then gold rose up to its natural rate at the time.

As far as I’m concerned, it seems like it would be so cool to have a gold standard again. Having the paper money say “will pay to the bearer in gold on demand”, and being able to walk into a bank and change your paper bills for gold coins would just be the bee’s knees. Yet, I’m not sure how well that sort of system would work in practice. If all the money is based on a concrete commodity of which the supply grows very slowly or not at all, then how can it keep up with an expanding economy?

With deflation.

Thanks Spectre for the justification of this… Althought looking at the last 25 years of historical prices, I find the price chart rather un-natural. :wink: It seems the price of gold is mostly bouncing around between 300$US and 400$US; I wonder if we’ll see a more linear progression on the long term?