I have to confess I just learned about electrum when this topic crawled up on my radar. We love the wide range of jewelry metals today that give consumers tremendous options for creating the exact piece of their dreams. Metal alloys are some of the more exciting variations for imaginative jewelry designers to work with. These options better reflect the tastes of a client and help them to personalize their jewelry, making it truly unique to them.
One topic catching my eye at the moment is a rare and naturally occurring metal alloy – electrum. This word, electrum may be uncommon to modern society, but it’s a Latin word derived from the Greek electron mentioned in the Odyssey referring to a metallic substance consisting of gold alloyed with silver. Electrum was usually called white gold in antiquity. But more accurately it was described as pale gold since it was more of a true pale yellow or yellowish-white metal.
Electrum’s Ancient Provenance
This fascinating naturally occurring metal alloy was first discovered thousands of years ago. Electrum is primarily a gold and silver mashup, but it can be found with trace elements of platinum, copper, or other metals. Its name is informally applied to metals with between 20 to 80% gold and 20 to 80% silver atoms. These are then called gold or silver depending on the dominant element.
Stronger than pure gold, electrum was perfect for ancient coins. But like any natural material, its percentage of gold to other metals varied in each nugget, making it difficult to establish a value. The earliest known incidence of electrum used in coins appears during the reign of Alyattes who ruled over an area known as Lydia in western Asia Minor during the Iron Age. Electrum currency remained in use until approximately 350 BC.
Coins, decorative utensils, and some jewelry were made from electrum throughout time. The ancient Egyptians thought pretty highly of this material. An Egyptian mummified head covered in electrum dating to the 2nd century AD (Roman period) is on display in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon, France.
In modern times, the Anatolian region (Turkey) is the primary source for naturally occurring electrum. Smaller pockets are located in Nevada.
Green Gold – a Modern Metal
Imaginative jewelry artisans use ‘green gold’ or electrum to make original designs today. Green gold can be naturally occurring as electrum, but it can also be made by intentionally creating gold and silver alloys. The slightly greenish tinge (nearly imperceptible to the untrained eye) comes from its silver content, and while alluring for artisanal jewelry, it should be noted that it’s a bit softer than karat gold. Modern smelters create a green gold version of electrum and add other metals (nickel or zinc) to strengthen it for greater durability as a jewelry metal.
Goes around comes around – sort of. For those familiar with the cryptocurrency world, (unlike the writer) the name Electrum Wallet means something, apparently in a nod to ancient electrum coins. For over a decade, Electrum Wallet has been an open source bitcoin wallet enabling investors to store their digital currency securely “providing privacy with a high level of anonymity” explains Investopedia, an online site offering cryptocurrency info to its readers.
Those of us in the jewelry niche may be intrigued with electrum – the natural kind or the created alloy version – as a modern day alternative metal for unique designs. It certainly has a story to tell, one that’s a thousand years in the making.