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Gold, the first metal used by humans, remains one of the most valued metals since prehistoric times. Egyptian hieroglyphs dating 2600 BCE describe gold as something king Tushratta of the Mitanni claimed was as "common as dust" in Egypt. Egypt and Nubia had the resources to make them major gold-producing areas for much of history. Gold is also mentioned several times in the Old Testament.
The south-east corner of the Black Sea was famed for its gold. Exploitation is said to date from the time of Midas, and this gold was important in the establishment of what is probably the world's earliest coinage in Lydia between 643 and 630 BCE.
The European exploration of the Americas was fueled in no small part by reports of the gold ornaments displayed in great profusion by Native American peoples, especially in Central America, Peru, and Colombia.
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Gold has long been considered one of the most precious metals, and its value has been used as the standard for many currencies (known as the gold standard) in history. Gold has been used as a symbol for purity, value, royalty, and particularly roles that combine these properties (see gold album). Gold as a sign of wealth and prestige was made fun of by Thomas More in his treatise ‘Utopia’.
On that imaginary island, gold is so abundant that it is used to make chains for slaves, tableware and lavatory-seats. When ambassadors from other countries arrive, dressed in ostentatious gold jewels and badges, the Utopians mistake them for menial servants, paying homage instead to the most modestly-dressed of their party.
There is an age-old tradition of biting gold in order to test its authenticity. Although this is certainly not a professional way of examining gold, the bite test should score the gold because gold is considered a soft metal according to the Mohs' scale of mineral hardness. The purer the gold the easier it should be to mark it. Painted lead can cheat this test because lead is softer than gold.
Gold in antiquity was relatively easy to obtain geologically; however, 75% of all gold ever produced has been extracted since 1910. It has been estimated that all the gold in the world that has ever been refined would form a single cube 20 m (66 ft) a side (8000 m³).
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During the 19th century, gold rushes occurred whenever large gold deposits were discovered, including the California, Colorado, Otago, Australian, Witwatersrand, Black Hills, and Klondike gold rushes. Because of its historically high value, much of the gold mined throughout history is still in circulation in one form or another.
Like other precious metals, gold is measured by troy weight and by grams. When it is alloyed with other metals the term carat or karat is used to indicate the amount of gold present, with 24 carats being pure gold and lower ratings proportionally less.
The purity of a gold bar can also be expressed as a decimal figure ranging from 0 to 1, known as the millesimal fineness, such as 0.995.
The price of gold is determined on the open market, but a procedure known as the Gold Fixing in London, originating in 1919, provides a twice-daily benchmark figure to the industry.
Historically gold was used to back currency; in an economic system known as the gold standard, a certain weight of gold was given the name of a unit of currency. For a long period, the United States government set the value of the US dollar so that one troy ounce was equal to $20.67 ($664.56/kg), but in 1934 the dollar was revalued to $35.00 per troy ounce ($1125.27/kg). By 1961 it was becoming hard to maintain this price, and a pool of US and European banks agreed to manipulate the market to prevent further currency devaluation against increased gold demand.
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On 17 March 1968, economic circumstances caused the collapse of the gold pool, and a two-tiered pricing scheme was established whereby gold was still used to settle international accounts at the old $35.00 per troy ounce ($1.13/g) but the price of gold on the private market was allowed to fluctuate; this two-tiered pricing system was abandoned in 1975 when the price of gold was left to find its free-market level. Central banks still hold historical gold reserves as a store of value although the level has generally been declining. The largest gold depository in the world is that of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank in New York.
Since 1968 the price of gold on the open market has ranged widely, with a record high of $850/oz ($27,300/kg) on 21 January 1980, to a low of $252.90/oz ($8,131/kg) on 21 June 1999 (London Fixing). On 11 May 2006 the London gold fixing was $715.50/oz.
According to World Gold Council, at US$21.2bn, global dollar demand for gold reached new heights in the second quarter of 2008, rising 9% on year earlier levels. Global investment demand for gold showed the strongest surge, reaching $3.5 billion in Q2 2008, 29% higher than Q2 2007, with particular strength in the US, China, Egypt and Vietnam.
However, with a decrease of 19% on Q2’07 to 735.6 tonnes, the continued high and volatile price of gold dampened total demand in tonnage terms during the quarter, according to Gold Demand Trends, which was released on August 13 by the World Gold Council (WGC). This particularly impinged on jewellery demand, which fell 24% to 504 tonnes and was also affected by tightened consumer spending due to the global credit squeeze and growing inflationary pressures. Markets which saw the largest decline in jewellery demand were India, which fell 47% to 118 tonnes, and the US, which fell 30% to 33 tonnes. However, positive news came from China and Egypt, which saw a 2% and 8% increase in jewellery demand respectively.
Despite a number of markets turning to gold due to its investment attributes as a safe haven in times of rising inflation and unstable equity markets, identifiable global investment demand in tonnage terms was down by 4% over Q2 2007 to 119.8, as some investors took profits. This decline represents a 9% decrease in net retail investment, which was partly offset by a move to positive net investment in Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and similar products.