Electrum is a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver. Typically it may contain between 50% to 80% of gold, with a complementary amount of silver. In most electrum deposits there will also be some amounts of copper, this can vary up to as much as about 20% in some places. Other metallic elements may also be present in small amounts.
The word electrum comes from the Greek word elektron, referring to the gold silver alloy, although the same word is also used for amber, in both cases this is because of its pale yellow colour. The word itself appears to have come from the Greek word for brilliant or the sun, and used to describe a yellow colour. Incidentally the English word electron is so called because of the strongly electrostatic properties of amber when rubbed.
We may try to reproduce the Greek word for electrum here when we can figure out how to reproduce it in HTML codes.
Some of the earliest known coins were made of electrum, probably in Lydia around 643 BC.
In about 643 to 630 B.C., the Lydians had started to produce the first coins. They were quite crude, and were made of electrum, a naturally occurring pale yellow mixture of gold and silver. These first coins were similar in composition to alluvial deposits found in the silt of the River Pactolus, which ran through the Lydian capital, Sardis.
Its use seems to have continued until at least 350 BC.
See our Brief History of Gold Coins page.
According to our copy of The Oxford English Dictionary, the word electrum has also been used for a modern (circa 1875) base metal alloy containing copper and zinc with tin, nickel or both. Presumably this also had a pale yellow colour and was made in imitation of natural or native electrum, and probably used for costume jewellery.