The Metal That Was Once Worth More Than Gold

By J. Wisniewski on Thursday, February 27, 2014
“Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold! / Bright and yellow, hard and cold.” —Thomas Hood, Miss Kilmansegg

In A Nutshell

Aluminum is one of the three most common elements found within the Earth’s crust. However, until relatively recently, extracting aluminum from the bauxite ore in which it naturally occurs was a costly and difficult process. And prior to the advent of efficient chemical and electrical processes to separate aluminum from bauxite in the late 1800s, the shiny, flexible metal was more valuable than gold.

The Whole Bushel

Supposedly, aluminum’s discovery dates back to the ancient Roman Empire. One Roman history tells of an unusual goldsmith who gave the Roman emperor Tiberius a plate crafted from a silvery and lightweight new metal made from “clay.” When Tiberius saw what was most likely an aluminum plate, he ordered the execution of the goldsmith. Tiberius feared the goldsmith’s new metal might reduce the value of Rome’s vast stores of gold and silver. Tiberius’s beheading of the unfortunate goldsmith kept aluminum in the ground for the next two millennia.

Almost 2,000 years would pass before aluminum reemerged in Europe, and when it did so, it was in incredibly rare quantities. Pure aluminum was a far rarer find than gold or silver, and prices during the 19th century reflected this. Early attempts at extracting aluminum from bauxite proved too laborious or expensive and were mostly nonstarters. Until more efficient extraction procedures were developed, annual US production of aluminum did not exceed about 93 kilograms (3,000 troy ounces). By comparison, US goldmines produced 93,300 kilograms (3 million troy ounces) of gold in 1853.

Aluminum’s status as the world’s most precious metal attracted the interest of European royalty in search of the most conspicuous and costly modes of consumption. King Christian X of Denmark sported an aluminum crown. To impress dinner guests, Napoleon III’s tables were set with tableware made from aluminum. And as late as the 1880s, when the Washington Monument was being built and aluminum was chosen for the pyramid’s capstone, the metal’s worth was still roughly equivalent to silver.

Aluminum’s value took a nosedive in 1886, though, when a new method was devised to extract aluminum from bauxite. The electrolysis process devised in the US and France allowed for the affordable isolation of aluminum from bauxite. Shortly after, the cheap, flexible, non-toxic metal flooded the market in a variety of uses. By the early 20th century, aluminum could be found in the wrappers and bags of countless foods and commercial products. Just decades after only the wealthiest European elites could afford to dine off of aluminum, the hoi polloi was ripping open aluminum-wrapped Lifesavers rolls.

Show Me The Proof

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis, Steven Kotler
US Department of the Interior: Principal Gold-Producing Districts of the United States
Intellectual Capital: The new wealth of organization, by Thomas A. Stewart
HNAI Platinum US Coin Auction Catalog