Definitions

Precious metal

Precious metal

A precious metal is a rare metallic chemical element of high economic value. Chemically, the precious metals are less reactive than most elements, have high luster, are softer or more ductile, and have higher melting points than other metals. Historically, precious metals were important as currency, but are now regarded mainly as investment and industrial commodities. Gold, silver, platinum and palladium each have an ISO 4217 currency code.

The best-known precious metals are gold and silver. While both have industrial uses, they are better known for their uses in art, jewellery and coinage. Other precious metals include the platinum group metals: ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium and platinum, of which platinum is the most widely traded. Rhenium is a precious metal that is not part of the platinum group or one of the traditional precious metals.

The demand for precious metals is driven not only by their practical use, but also by their role as investments and a store of value. Palladium, as of January 29, 2008, is valued at $388 USD per troy ounce, which is less than half the price of gold, at $995 USD/ounce. Platinum's price of $2,032 USD/ounce is more than twice that of gold. Rhodium is usually the most expensive of the precious metals, over 4.5 times more expensive than platinum, with a current price of $7,150. However, the price of rhenium has been fluctuating wildly recently and at the moment it is selling at 342 USD per ounce ($11,000 per kilogram, 32.15 Troy ounces per kilogram, July 2008). Meanwhile, ruthenium is valued at $525 USD per ounce and silver has fluctuated as well lately, trading at $16.69 USD/ounce. Silver is substantially less expensive than all of the other precious metals, presently less than 1/50 the price of gold, but is often traditionally considered a precious metal for its role in coinage and jewellery.

With precious metal prices on the rise recycling precious metals has become more and more attractive.

Bullion

A metal is deemed to be precious if it is rare. The discovery of new sources of ore or improvements in mining or refining processes may cause the value of a precious metal to diminish, as in the example of aluminium, which was considered a precious metal before the development of the Hall-Héroult process made it possible to extract aluminium on a large scale. The status of a "precious" metal can also be determined by high demand or market value. Precious metals in bulk form are known as bullion, and are traded on commodity markets. Bullion metals may be cast into ingots, or minted into coins. The defining attribute of bullion is that it is valued by its mass and purity rather than by a face value as money.

Many nations mint bullion coins, of which the most famous is probably the gold South African Krugerrand. Although nominally issued as legal tender, these coins' face value as currency is far below that of their value as bullion. For instance, Canada mints a gold bullion coin (the Gold Maple Leaf) at a face value of $50 containing one troy ounce (31.1035 g) of gold — as of September 2007, this coin is worth about $737 as bullion. Bullion coins' minting by national governments gives them some numismatic value in addition to their bullion value, as well as certifying their purity.

The level of purity varies from issue to issue. 99.9% purity is common. The purest mass-produced bullion coins are in the Canadian Gold Maple Leaf series, which go up to 99.999% purity. Note that a 100% pure bullion is not possible, as absolute purity in extracted and refined metals can only be asymptotically approached. Many bullion coins contain a stated quantity (such as one troy ounce) of the marginally-impure alloy. In contrast, the Krugerrand is one of many historic and modern bullion coins of 22 Kt Crown gold, with a stated content (usually one troy ounce) of "fine gold", with the other component(s) of the alloy making the coin heavier than one ounce in total. Still more bullion coins (for example: British Sovereign) state neither the purity nor the fine-gold weight on the coin, but are recognized and consistent in their composition, and many historically stated a denomination in currency (example: American Double Eagle).

One of the largest bullion coins in the world is the 10,000 dollar Australian Gold Nugget coin minted in Australia which consists of a full kilogram of 99.9% pure gold. There have been a small number of larger bullion coins, but they are impractical to handle and not produced in mass quantities. China has produced coins in very limited quantities (less than 20 pieces minted) that exceed 260 troy ounces (8 kg) of gold. Austria has minted a coin containing 31 kg of gold (the Vienna Philharmonic Coin minted in 2004 with a face value of 100,000 euro). As a stunt to publicise the 99.999% pure one-ounce Canadian Gold Maple Leaf series, in 2007 the Royal Canadian Mint made a 100 kg 99.999% gold coin, with a face value of $ 1 million, and now manufactures them to order, but at a substantial premium over the market value of the gold.

Gold and silver are often seen as hedges against both inflation and economic downturn. Silver coins have become popular with collectors due to their relative affordability, and unlike most gold and platinum issues which are valued based upon the markets, silver issues are more often valued as collectables, far higher than their actual bullion value.

Precious metal status

An interesting case of a precious metal that is now common is that of aluminium. Although aluminium is one of the most commonly occurring elements on Earth, it was initially found to be exceedingly difficult to extract from its various ores. This made the little available pure aluminium which had been discovered (or refined at great expense) more valuable than gold. Bars of aluminium were exhibited alongside the French crown jewels at the Exposition Universelle of 1855, and Napoleon III was said to have reserved a set of aluminium dinner plates for his most honored guests. Additionally, the pyramidal top to the Washington Monument is made of pure aluminium. At the time of the monument's construction, aluminium was as expensive as silver. Over time, however, the price of the metal has dropped; the invention of the Hall-Héroult process in 1886 caused the high price of aluminium to permanently collapse.

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