AskDefine | Define electrum

Dictionary Definition

electrum n : an alloy of gold and silver

User Contributed Dictionary



From electrum, from .




  1. Amber.
  2. An alloy of gold and silver, used by the ancients; now specifically a natural alloy with between 20 and 50 per cent silver.
    • 1995, Paul T. Craddock, Early Metal Mining and Production, page 111:
      Native gold almost always contains silver in amounts varying widely between 5 and 50 per cent. This natural alloy is known as electrum although in classical antiquity where the word originated it seems to have been used for an artificial alloy of the two metals.
    • 2002, Philip Ball, The Elements: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford 2004, p. 45:
      A natural alloy containing more than 20 per cent silver is called electrum, and was regarded by the ancients as a different metal from gold.
  3. German silver plate.

Extensive Definition

Electrum is a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, with trace amounts of copper and other metals. Colour ranges from pale to bright yellow, depending on the proportions of gold and silver. Gold content of naturally occurring electrum in modern Western Anatolia ranges from 70% to 90% in contrast to the 45-55% of electrum used in ancient Lydian coinage of the same geographical area.
Electrum was used as early as the third millennium BC in Old Kingdom Egypt, sometimes as an exterior coating to the pyramidions atop ancient Egyptian pyramids and obelisks.
Electrum was also used in the making of ancient drinking vessels and coins.


Electrum consists primarily of gold and silver but is sometimes found with traces of copper and other metals. As a result, electrum is usually a good conductor of electricity.
Analysis of the electrum composition in ancient Greek coinage dating from 600 BC showed that the gold composition was 55.5% in archaic Phocaea. In the early classical period, the gold composition of electrum ranged from 46% in Phokaia to 43% in Mytilene. In later coinage from these areas, dating to 326 BC, the gold composition averaged 40% to 41%.


The color of electrum is pale yellow or yellowish-white and the name is a Latinized form of the Greek word ηλεκτρον (elektron) mentioned in the Odyssey meaning a metallic substance consisting of gold alloyed with silver. The same word was also used for the substance amber, probably because of the pale yellow color of certain varieties, and it is from the electrostatic properties of amber that the modern English words "electron" and "electricity" derive.
Electrum was often referred to as white gold in ancient times but could be more accurately described as "pale gold". The modern use of the term white gold usually concerns gold, silver and palladium alloys.


Electrum is mentioned in an expedition sent by Pharaoh Sahure of the Fifth dynasty of Egypt (see Sahure). It is also discussed by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia.
Electrum is referred to three times in the Bible. In all three instances it is used to describe a type of glow seen by the prophet Ezekiel in visions (Ezekiel Ch.1 Vs.4 and 27;Ch. 8 Vs. 2)
Electrum is believed to have been used in coins circa 600 BC in Lydia under the reign of Alyattes II.
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.
In Lydia, electrum was minted into 4.76-gram coins, each valued at 1/3 stater (meaning "standard"). Three of these coins (with a weight of about 14.1 grams) 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 1/24 of a stater, and even down to 1/48th and 1/96th of a stater. The 1/96 stater was only about 0.14 to 0.15 grams. Larger denominations, such as a one stater coin, were minted as well.
Because of the variety of electrum's composition, it was rather difficult to determine the exact worth of each coin. Widespread trading was somewhat hampered by this, as a foreign merchant would offer rather poor rates on local electrum coin.
These difficulties were eliminated in 570 BC when pure silver coins were introduced. However, electrum currency remained fairly popular until approximately 350 BC. The simplest reasoning for this would be that, because of the gold content, one 14.1 gram stater would be worth as much as ten 14.1 gram silver pieces.
electrum in Bengali: ইলেকট্রাম
electrum in Catalan: Electre
electrum in German: Elektron (Legierung)
electrum in French: Électrum
electrum in Italian: Elettro
electrum in Hungarian: Elektrum
electrum in Dutch: Elektrum
electrum in Japanese: エレクトロン貨
electrum in Polish: Elektron (stop)
electrum in Portuguese: Electrum
electrum in Romanian: Electrum
electrum in Russian: Электрум
electrum in Swedish: Elektrum
electrum in Vietnamese: Electrum
electrum in Turkish: Elektrum
electrum in Ukrainian: Електрум
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