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Going Native

Minerals That Are Native Elements

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gold nugget

Gold nugget from an Alaska placer mine, about 4 times life size. See more in the Elemental Minerals Gallery.

Photo (c) Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)
Civilization was built with metal. But if you go out in the field and look for metal, there isn't any around. Metal in nature is as rare as gems, and today native metals are gems.

Native Precious Metals

Take gold, for example: In ancient times gold was found only in nuggets, which were promptly melted down or worked into suitable objects. Gold is as indestructible as chewing gum and almost as easy to shape, and its profound density and unique color add to its impressiveness.

The thrill of finding gold never diminishes (although I got gold fever, as a child, not in a wild river but at Knott's Berry Farm). And now that almost all the world's gold comes from dull gray ore, decent nuggets cost far more than the worth of the gold they contain. Native silver has become the same sort of collectible, as has native platinum.

Native Base Metals

The first great workhorse metal was copper. The ancient copper miners found it gleaming in native form in a few special places. These sites yielded enough metal to make copper a commodity, and early experimenters learned to alloy it with tin into bronze and brass. They also learned to smelt it from ore, and today there's no romance at all to copper mines.

Today native copper is important only as—you guessed it—pretty mineral specimens, as precious in its way as it was in the long-ago times.

So what other metals come in the nude? Iron is one, but only because it falls from outer space in iron meteorites. You can buy it from mineral dealers, too—I acquired a chunk of the Sikhote-Alin meteorite that was priced at about a dollar a gram.

The Romance of Bare Metal

These are romantic metals, and you can hold them and gaze upon them and feel some of the power of the ancient ideas about the elements—not the 92 natural elements of modern chemistry, but the four basic forms postulated by the earliest thinkers—earth, air, water, and fire.

Gleaming, incorruptible nuggets seem to be strong clues to an underlying truth. The human urge to personify what we behold led to widespread beliefs in elemental earth spirits, called gnomes in English. The belief runs strong still today, as my colleague the Paranormal Phenomena Guide knows.

But back to native metals. If you find you're drawn to this category of collectible, there are a surprising number of them to shop for. Mercury and platinum and lead are true metals; the metalloids antimony, arsenic, and bismuth also occur naturally in pure form. The mineral.galleries.com site has a whole section devoted to elements.

One of these metals, tellurium, is mighty obscure on Earth except as a contaminant of gold (Telluride, Colorado is named for it), but it seems to have a peculiar importance on another planet. The highest mountains on Venus, examined by radar from the Magellan spacecraft, are strangely reflective. The principles behind radar reflectivity suggest that this must be due to some sort of metal. At a 1996 scientific meeting, Gordon Pettengill told his audience that given the conditions on Venus, the only serious possibility for that metal is a thin film of tellurium, slowly deposited from its scant vapor in the furnace-like atmosphere. Since then lead has been proposed as an alternative.

Other Elementals

There are also nonmetals that come in native form. There's carbon, for instance . . . diamonds, in their uncut natural crystal form. The other form of native carbon, graphite, is a bit cheaper though. Sulfur is another, but you need to keep all traces of moisture away or it will stink up the house.

PS: Ancient gold coins were struck from metal that was nearly in its raw state, so you could think of them as artificial nuggets. Of course, since those days we've used dozens of different metals in coinage. This online article tells about them all, including some you never thought of, maybe never even heard of.

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