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Natural electrum "wires" on quartz, historic specimen from the old Smuggler-Union Mine, Telluride, Colorado, USA Electrum on quartz Telluride (cropped).jpg
Natural electrum "wires" on quartz, historic specimen from the old Smuggler-Union Mine, Telluride, Colorado, USA
The Pactolus river, from which Lydia obtained electrum for its early coinage Paktolos.jpg
The Pactolus river, from which Lydia obtained electrum for its early coinage
Electrum cup with mythological scenes, a sphinx frieze and the representation of a king vanquishing his enemies, Cypro-Archaic I, from Idalion, 8th-7th centuries BC (Louvre, Paris) Cup Idalion Louvre N3455.jpg
Electrum cup with mythological scenes, a sphinx frieze and the repre­sentation of a king vanquishing his enemies, Cypro-Archaic I, from Idalion, 8th–7th centuries BC (Louvre, Paris)
Brooch with a griffin protome, from the necropolis of Kameiros, Rhodes, c.  625-600 BC (Louvre) Griffin protome Louvre Bj39.jpg
Brooch with a griffin protome, from the necropolis of Kameiros, Rhodes, c. 625–600 BC (Louvre)

Electrum is a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, [1] [2] with trace amounts of copper and other metals. Its color ranges from pale to bright yellow, depending on the proportions of gold and silver. It has been produced artificially, and is also known as "green gold". [3]


Electrum was used as early as the third millennium BC in Old Kingdom of Egypt, sometimes as an exterior coating to the pyramidions atop ancient Egyptian pyramids and obelisks. It was also used in the making of ancient drinking vessels. The first known metal coins made were of electrum, dating back to the end of the 7th century or the beginning of the 6th century BC. For several decades, the medals awarded with the Nobel Prize have been made of gold-plated green gold.


The name "electrum" is the Latinized form of the Greek word ἤλεκτρον (ḗlektron), mentioned in the Odyssey referring to a metallic substance consisting of gold alloyed with silver. The same word was also used for the substance amber, likely because of the pale yellow color of certain varieties. [1] It is from amber’s electrostatic properties that the modern English words "electron" and "electricity" are derived. Electrum was often referred to as "white gold" in ancient times, but could be more accurately described as "pale gold", as it is usually pale yellow or yellowish-white in color. The modern use of the term white gold usually concerns gold alloyed with any one or a combination of nickel, silver, platinum and palladium to produce a silver-colored gold.


Electrum consists primarily of gold and silver but is sometimes found with traces of platinum, copper, and other metals. The name is mostly applied informally to compositions between about 20–80% gold and 20–80% silver, but these are strictly called gold or silver depending on the dominant element. Analysis of the composition of electrum in ancient Greek coinage dating from about 600 BC shows that the gold content was about 55.5% in the coinage issued by Phocaea. In the early classical period, the gold content of electrum ranged from 46% in Phokaia to 43% in Mytilene. In later coinage from these areas, dating to 326 BC, the gold content averaged 40% to 41%. In the Hellenistic period, electrum coins with a regularly decreasing proportion of gold were issued by the Carthaginians. In the later Eastern Roman Empire controlled from Constantinople, the purity of the gold coinage was reduced, and an alloy that can be called electrum began to be used.


Lydian electrum coin (one-third stater), one of the oldest known coins, early 6th century BC BMC 06.jpg
Lydian electrum coin (one-third stater), one of the oldest known coins, early 6th century BC
Electrum coin of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, c. 1080 Histamenon nomisma-Alexius I-sb1776.jpg
Electrum coin of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, c.1080
A mummified male head covered in electrum, from Ancient Egypt, Roman period, 2nd century AD (Musee des beaux-arts de Lyon) Mumified head IMG 0515.jpg
A mummified male head covered in electrum, from Ancient Egypt, Roman period, 2nd century AD (Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon)

Electrum is mentioned in an account of an expedition sent by Pharaoh Sahure of the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt. It is also discussed by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia . Electrum is also mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, whose prophet Ezekiel is said to have had a vision of Jehovah on a celestial chariot (Ezekiel 1:4).

Early coinage

The earliest known electrum coins, Lydian and East Greek coins found under the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, are currently dated to the last quarter of the 7th century BC (625–600 BC). [4] Electrum is believed to have been used in coins c. 600 BC in Lydia during the reign of Alyattes. [5]

Electrum was much better for coinage than gold, mostly because it was harder and more durable, but also because techniques for refining gold were not widespread at the time. The discrepancy between gold content of electrum from modern Western Anatolia (70–90%) and ancient Lydian coinage (45–55%) suggests that the Lydians had already solved the refining technology for silver and were adding refined silver to the local native electrum some decades before introducing the pure silver coins cited below. [6]

In Lydia, electrum was minted into coins weighing 4.7 grams (0.17 oz), each valued at 13 stater (meaning "standard"). Three of these coins—with a weight of about 14.1 grams (0.50 oz)—totaled one stater, about one month's pay for a soldier. To complement the stater, fractions were made: the trite (third), the hekte (sixth), and so forth, including 124 of a stater, and even down to 148 and 196 of a stater. The 196 stater was only about 0.14 grams (0.0049 oz) to 0.15 grams (0.0053 oz). Larger denominations, such as a one stater coin, were minted as well.

Because of variation in the composition of electrum, it was difficult to determine the exact worth of each coin. Widespread trading was hampered by this problem, as the intrinsic value of each electrum coin could not be easily determined. [5] The gold content of naturally occurring electrum in modern Western Anatolia ranges from 70% to 90%, in contrast to the 45–55% of gold in electrum used in ancient Lydian coinage of the same geographical area. This suggests that one reason for the invention of coinage in that area was to increase the profits from seigniorage by issuing currency with a lower gold content than the commonly circulating metal. (See also debasement).

These difficulties were eliminated circa 570 BC when the Croeseids, coins of pure gold and silver, were introduced. [5] However, electrum currency remained common until approximately 350 BC. The simplest reason for this was that, because of the gold content, one 14.1 gram stater was worth as much as ten 14.1 gram silver pieces.

See also

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Alyattes, sometimes described as Alyattes I, was the fourth king of the Mermnad dynasty in Lydia, the son of Sadyattes, grandson of Ardys, and great-grandson of Gyges. He died after a reign of 57 years and was succeeded by his son Croesus.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lydia</span> Ancient Anatolian kingdom

Lydia was an Iron Age kingdom of western Asia Minor located generally east of ancient Ionia in the modern western Turkish provinces of Uşak, Manisa and inland Izmir. The ethnic group inhabiting this kingdom are known as the Lydians, and their language, known as Lydian, was a member of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family. The capital of Lydia was Sardis.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Croesus</span> King of Lydia

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  1. 1 2 Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Electrum, Electron"  . Encyclopædia Britannica . Vol. 9 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 252.
  2. "Coinage". worldhistory.org.
  3. Emsley, John (2003) Nature's building blocks: an A–Z guide to the elements. Oxford University Press. ISBN   0198503407. p. 168
  4. Kurke, Leslie (1999). Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece. Princeton University Press. pp. 6–7. ISBN   0691007365.
  5. 1 2 3 Konuk, Koray (2012). Metcalf, William E. (ed.). Asia Minor to the Ionian Revolt. The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage. Oxford University Press. pp. 49–50. ISBN   9780199372188.
  6. Cahill, Nick; Kroll, John H. New archaic coin finds at Sardis, AJA 109 (2005). pp. 609–614.