The History of Precious Metals & Their Uses

There are many precious metals, and the five most important are gold, silver, platinum, palladium and titanium. These have been around for a long time now. And some of them are fulfilling the same function now as they have been for thousands of years. But each of them has also developed and found new uses over time. Read on to find out more.


Gold is one of the most rare and highly sought-after metallic elements on earth. Gold has been around for centuries, and the Incas even referred to it as the tears of the sun. And the precious metal even gets mentioned in ancient Greek texts and literature. That shows you just how far back the human interest in gold really goes. It’s thought that the first gold coins were used in around 700 BC though. It was mined for around the Mediterranean and Middle East regions. No matter how far back you go, gold has always held intrinsic value for humans.

Today, gold is still used by many large banks. They like to store their liquid reserves as gold. This can come in the form of gold bullion or coins. Although gold mining is actually declining right now. It is most commonly used in jewellery, as an investment and in some electronic products. The practical use of gold is much smaller than for other precious metals though. About half of all gold in existence is used in jewellery, 40% goes towards investments and about 10% is used in industry and electronics.


It’s believed that the mining of silver goes back about 5000 years to what is now Turkey, in the Anatolia region. Early civilisations in the Middle East and Greece used silver for exchange. And it helped these civilisations to flourish. The other major landmark in the use of silver came when the first Spanish conquests reached the Americas, then known as the New World. What is now North and South America was mined extensively, and silver played a huge part in this. Peru, Mexico and Bolivia became the global powerhouses for the production and trade of silver.

In more recent times, the introduction of new mining and drilling techniques have seen production rise even further. The increase really started during the second world war though. This is because copper shortages forced people to look for alternatives. And silver is the metal that they turned to. This was the first time that silver has been used extensively for a number of industrial tasks. It is now used in solar energy, air conditioning, dentistry, photography and medicine. It is much more widely used than gold is.


There have been traces of platinum that go back thousands of years. But it is still seen as a relatively new form of precious metal. This is because the first European reference to its use only goes back less than 500 years to the 16th century. The Spanish tended to see platinum as an impure version of gold, but they got this wrong. More research and testing wasn’t done until the 18th century when Charles Wood found samples of it in Jamaica. William Brownrigg then presented his findings to Royal Society.

In commercial terms, platinum is now obtained as a by-product from nickel and copper mining and processing. Today, platinum is most commonly used in the production of new cars. Vehicle emissions control devices rely heavily on platinum. These are known as catalytic converters. This is the single biggest use of platinum in the contemporary world though it took a slight hit after the VW emissions scandal. But it is also used for things like jewelry and as a form of investment. It is also often simply used as a symbol of wealth because of the rarity associated with platinum.


Palladium was named after the asteroid Pallas by William Hyde Wollaston in the early 19th century. The precious metal is mostly produced in three countries today: Russia, South Africa and Canada. It is generally used in cars and has been for a long time now. It works as a catalyst that speeds up hydrogenation reactions, as well as dehydrogenation reactions. That is the main use for the metal these days, but it’s certainly not the only way in which it can be used.

In the world of electronics, palladium is a big deal. They are used in the manufacture of multilayer ceramic capacitors. These are used to store electrical energy in electronic items. It is also used to store hydrogen because it can readily absorb it. One thing that it is not commonly used for, unlike other items here, is for the production of money. The only example is the commemorative Soviet coins that were produced. And this only really happened because of Russia’s position as the world’s biggest producer of palladium. Unlike other precious metals, this one is not really associated with wealth or exclusivity. But it is relatively scarce.


Titanium is a metal with a low density and a very high strength. This is one of the things that makes it so desirable still. It was discovered by an amateur geologist, William Gregor, in 1791. He found some black sand, and then realised that it was attracted by a magnet. This was the first recorded discovery of the metal that became titanium, after being named after Titans, from Greek mythology. There are many important things about titanium, but the most significant is how it is resistant to corrosion.

The strength benefits of titanium have made the metal essential in the aerospace and marine industries. They are not corroded by seawater, meaning that they are used for any metal that comes into contact with seawater. This is something that was first pioneered in the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s. They developed new techniques for building submarines that made use of titanium to protect the submarines in the water. Titanium is also used in the medical industry. Things like joint replacements often make use of titanium.

Elizabeth Goldman is the editor of She has written for, and many others.