Gold has been among the world’s most desirable resources since its discovery in the Ancient Era. It’s gleaming scarcity and untarnishable glory have captivated the human ethos for millenia. In recent centuries, gold has gone so far as to influence geography, laying the theoretical groundwork for pioneers, who abandoned all other endeavors to seek the glistening metal. National currencies come and go, but gold has stood the test of time and has become universally recognized as the standard for monetary value. A deep dive into the numbers showcases the true impact of gold on human civilization throughout the ages.
It is estimated that around 200,000 tons of gold have been mined throughout all of human history. That’s the equivalent weight of about 33 African elephants. That seems… small, especially when one recalls that gold is a particularly heavy element. In fact, all 200,000 tons of gold that have been unearthed could fit into a 68x68x68-foot cube with a volume of 314,432 cubic feet. This volume would fit in the space underneath the Eiffel Tower. While seemingly unremarkable, perhaps contextual figures will help to add perspective.
Mansa Musa, king of Mali (1312 - 1337 C.E.), is thought to have been the richest person of all time with an incalculable wealth exceeding the equivalent of $5 trillion. A devout Muslim, the king sought to make a pilgrimige to Mecca, and embarked across northern Africa with a part of his massive fortune in tow. Along the route, his entourage stopped in Cairo, Egypt, and the king gave generous handouts to some of its citizens. It is projected that Mansa Musa bestowed some 35 tons of gold upon the citizens of Cairo, which was so much that it actually debilitated the local economy for 12 years, as the value of gold plummeted in the region.
During the gold rush in the United States, miners dug up a combined total of just over 375 tons of gold, which sold for $20.67 an ounce at the time. Despite the relatively lackluster haul, the prospect of riches to the west led to the largest mass migration in American history. Over 300,000 people moved west in 1849 and California’s population tripled in the span of just 20 months.
The Witwatersrand Basin in South Africa is the most potent location for gold in the world. In 1886, the Witwatersrand gold rush led to the establishment of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. It is estimated that close to 40% (80,000 tons) of all the gold that has ever been mined has come from this region. South Africa is still a world leader in mined gold, contributing 118 of the 2,500 tons mined worldwide each year.
With a bit of context into the long-term effects that a small amount of gold can catalyze, it may be productive to gain insight into gold’s historic worth.
It has become the standard for gold and other precious metals to be measured in troy ounces. Originally conceived by merchants in Troyes, France, the troy ounce is a bourgeois metric for pricing and portioning valuables. Officially, one troy ounce is equal to about 1.1 ounces. Gold’s “spot price” is a representation of its worth per troy ounce. At present, the spot price for gold is at an all time high, fluctuating between $1850 and $2050 per troy ounce. If we call that a nice round $2000, we can use it to make some calculations.
If one troy ounce is equal to 1.1 ounces, then there are 29,167 troy ounces in one ton. If gold is worth $2000 per troy ounce, then a ton of gold is worth $58.3 million. The 200,000 tons of gold that have been mined throughout history can be converted to roughly 5,833,400,000 = 5.8 billion troy ounces. At $2000 per troy ounce, the total value is about $11,666,800,000,000 = $11.67 Trillion.
Perhaps one may wonder where such a massive quantity of wealth is stored. About 50.5% of the world’s gold is privately owned as jewelry and other trinkets. An additional 18.7% exists as private investments in the form of gold bars and gold coins. 13.4% is reserved for industrial use, where it has become an instrumental component in electronics.
The remaining 17.4% of the world’s gold exists stashed away in government reserves. The United States possesses the most gold among world governments with approximately 8,134 tons in reserves. In the United States, Fort Knox itself currently holds around 4600 tons of gold.
The top ten countries by federal gold reserve in tons:
Of course, when considering all of these figures, one must also account for the gold that has not yet been mined. Prospectors have been incredibly thorough in their efforts and geologists predict that only about 20% (about 50,000 tons) of the world’s gold deposits remain undiscovered beneath the Earth’s surface. With only 50,000 tons of gold left to be mined, the gold industry is likely to come to a full stop in the next 20 years, unless new gold is formed in the Earth’s crust. New research finds that gold may be materialized in an instant by earthquakes through the process of flash vaporization. It makes one wonder what sort of innovations mining companies will develop in order to keep their industry chugging on.