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Precious Metals: Electrum



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Electrum jewellery & Coinage

Source: Turkey (Western Anatolia)


The naturally-occurring metal known as "electrum" is an alloy of gold, platinum and silver, with trace amounts of copper and other metals, giving electrum a warm, moonlight-tinged hue of pale to bright yellow. Electrum occurs naturally in the geographic region of ancient Lydia in Western Anatolia (present-day Turkey).



The name "electrum" is a Latinized form of the Greek word elektron which was mentioned in Homer's eighth-century BC epic, the "Odyssey." Elektron referred to a metallic substance that consisted of gold that was alloyed with silver, but was also used to describe the yellow color and electrostatic properties of the gem amber.


Achaemenid Pendant of Electrum

Achaemenid pendant of electrum (photo: Jastrow)

   Electrum Griffin Brooch

Electrum griffin brooch c.600 BC. (photo: Jastrow)


Electrum was used as early as the third millennium BC by the Lydians, or Ionian Greeks from Western Anatolia (Caria, Ionia, and Lydia), and its use spread throughout the ancient world from Assyria and Achaemenid Persia, to Old Kingdom Egypt, Rome, and Sumerian Mesopotamia. In ancient Egypt, electrum was used as an exterior coating to the pyramidions which capped some of the pyramids and obelisks. It is also discussed by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, and there are hieroglyphic records of an electrum expedition that was sent by the Fifth dynasty Pharaoh, Sahure.

The gold content of Western Anatolia's remaining present-day electrum ranges from 70 to 90 percent, in contrast to the 45 to 55 percent gold content of electrum used in ancient Lydian, Phocaean and Greek coinage or jewellery fron the 600s BC. Later coinage from the 300s BC had a lower gold content of aroud 40 percent.

This natural alloy was preferred for the making of gold coinage, as electrum was more durable and wear-resistant than pure gold, and the separating or refining of gold from this natural "free" alloy was not yet perfected. The refining of silver however, was already in use by the Iron Age Lydian culture, and silver was added to the natural electrum for color. Because of its lighter color, electrum was often referred to as white gold in the ancient world.


Byzantine Electrum Cion

Byzantine electrum coin - Emperor Alexius I Comnenus

   Electrum Stater from Ionia

Electrum Stater from Ionia (photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen)


For coingage, the electrum was minted into Lydian coins weighing 4.7-grams, with each being valued at 1/3 of a stater, or "standard." Three of these electrum coins totaled approximately one month's pay for a Lydian soldier. Due to fluctuations in the content of pure gold within these electrum coins it was difficult to determine their exact worth, but with the introduction of pure silver coins in 570 BC, this provided a stable, and therefor predictable currency.



The gold content of Western Anatolia's remaining present-day electrum ranges from 70 to 90 percent, in contrast to the 45 to 55 percent gold content of electrum used in ancient Lydian, Phocaean and Greek coinage or jewellery fron the 600s BC. Later coinage from the 300s BC had a lower gold content of aroud 40 percent





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