Once viewers got past all the bullion, movie-star bangles and pirate booty in the American Museum of Natural History’s glittering 2006 “Gold” exhibit, they were invited to step on a scale that measured their weight in gold. Few people beyond prizefighters and “The Biggest Loser” contestants would submit to a public weigh-in. But the brave souls – including Yours Truly – who ventured forth were justly rewarded: Each was worth at least a million bucks. (Not surprising when you think that many of the people who got on the scale were adults weighing more than 100 pounds.)
Still, the experience set participants to beaming.
Gold has a way of doing that. Since the dawn of time, it has been the standard by which anything of value has been measured. Gold may be No. 79 on the periodic table of elements (symbol Au, for the Latin “aurum,” meaning “glowing dawn”), but it is No. 1 on the chart of metaphors.
That’s because nothing else crystallizes the human challenge so utterly – to be flexible with others while retaining your integrity. Gold is what it is, existing in a virtually pure state, unlike other metals that combine with nonmetallic elements to form complex minerals and are subject to corrosion. (We’re talking about you, copper, silver and iron.) Sure, you can mix gold with silver or copper to create a golden alloy, as the Museum of Natural History describes the Andean cultures of South America doing in a process known as surface depletion.
But gold always remains itself. It isn’t transformed in the body, which is why you can eat it, as you certainly will if you try the scrumptious chocolate hazelnut Klimt cake with the gold-leaf decoration at the Neue Galerie New York.
But despite its singular self-possession and density, gold is also malleable and versatile. It can be used in everything from wire conductors to glare-reducing, heat-deflecting astronaut visors.
Gold is beautiful in its natural state, let alone when it is hammered, molded into intricate reliefs or used as gilding, as in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s revelatory exhibit “British Silver: The Wealth of a Nation.” No wonder, then, that beginning with the Thracians in 4000 B.C., gold was made into sacred and decorative objects that the rich and powerful tried to take with them into the afterlife. The Persian Empire used a gold coin called the daric, after Darius the Great. In conquering the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great created coins that spurred his gains and the flow of gold into Europe. (The Macedonian king – who was known to clean up real good, so to speak – was said to sprinkle his blond hair with gold dust to make it more brilliant.)
Gold remained the coin of the realm in this country at least until the Great Depression when Franklin D. Roosevelt began to take us off the gold standard, a job that was finished by Richard Nixon in 1971. Today, money is fiat currency, which means it is whatever our government says it is. Nevertheless, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York holds the world’s largest accumulation of monetary gold – $147 billion worth of bullion – 80 feet below street level in Manhattan, just in case we wake up one day and realize the dollar is really backed by, oh say, air. (The bullion is stored in Manhattan, because only the bedrock there is deemed strong enough to support the weight of the gold, the vault and its doors.)
But this isn’t all our gold. It’s the world’s. Not surprisingly, emails to the Fed to visit the world’s gold were not received with alacrity.
Given the need for coins and objects sacred and profane, gold mining soon became a worldwide phenomenon, beginning in West Africa as early as 264 B.C., continuing with the European exploration (some might say exploitation) of Central and South America in the 17th century and reaching a fevered pitch with the great gold rushes of 1849 California, 1851 Australia and 1896 Klondike. The phrase “yellow fever,” associated with the rushes, conveys the tarnished behavior of those possessed by gold lust. Think conquistadors locked in a zero-sum game with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, or pirate plunder and the lives and treasures lost along America’s treacherous Atlantic coast.
Religion and literature have warned us about gold fever. In the Bible, the prophets admonish the Israelites for worshiping golden idols. In Greek mythology, Jason secures the Golden Fleece but betrays his wife with horrific consequences and so ends as he began – with nothing.
So, too, the three prospectors in the 1948 film classic “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” who risk rifts, danger, madness and death itself only to see their beloved gold blown away like dust in the wind.
Better, it seems, to be a “golden boy,” or girl, with “a heart of gold” that enables you to enjoy your “golden years.”
“That’s gold, Jerry, gold,” hack comedian Kenny Bania tells Jerry Seinfeld when he gives him a lame joke about Ovaltine on “Seinfeld.”
It may only be a lame joke. But it makes Kenny happy.