A Lexicon of Metals
In general, a “metal” is a material that is usually hard, opaque, sometimes shiny, and possessing electrical and thermal conductivity capabilities.
Metals are generally malleable and ductile, which means that they can be bent or hammered out of their original shapes into different shapes (malleability) or extruded into wire or bars (ductility) , without breaking or cracking.
Most metals are also fusible, meaning able to be fused together via welding or soldering, or melted and reformed into new solid shapes. About 91 of the 118 elements in the periodic table are classed as metals, though some elements appear in both metallic and non-metallic forms.
Not all metals are “precious” or even particularly rare, but nearly all metals discovered on Earth throughout history have been important to mankind in some form or fashion. To help you tell the difference between say, silver and aluminum, or gold and copper which can sometimes look quite a bit alike but which are very different, we’ve put together this brief guide to some of the most well known, and most often utilized metals.
All of these metals have unique qualities and varying degrees of rarity. Some are considered precious, and are used for art, jewelry and currencies. Others are considered industrial metals and are most often used in manufacturing and technology applications.
Here’s a quick run down about each of the most common types of historic metals:
- Mercury & Cinnabar
Gold is a dense metal that traditionally has been associated with wealth and the sun. It’s abundant all over the planet, and is typically stored in bullions. Primary uses for gold include jewelry, ornaments, coins, and in furniture.
It grows in veins and deposits found in rock, and today around 1500 tons of gold get mined annually. We can also find nuggets of gold in streams. Previously, finding gold has led to high levels of human activity as people move to areas to mine gold and get rich.
It’s typically got a yellow color, although can be coated with other metals to appear like ‘white gold’. Gold is also a soft metal.
Silver is another valuable metal used in jewelry, pottery, and tableware all over the world. It can also be used to make mirrors as it has a reflective nature, and we have also used it in batteries, alloys, and soldering. Humans have been using silver as far back as the prehistoric era, and it was popular in both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.
Mining silver is a large industry, and approximately 20,000 tons of silver is mined from the ground every year.
It’s a soft metal with a silvery appearance, and quite shiny. Although it tarnishes in time and requires regular polishing.
Platinum is another metal commonly used in jewelry; however, it also goes into catalytic converters used in vehicles. Platinum is excellent at converting harmful emissions into a less damaging waste product, making it good for the environment. It’s also used as a catalyst for producing nitric acid, silicone, and benzene.
It’s primarily found in South Africa and has been found in Ancient Egyptian caskets dating the usage of platinum back over 2000 years.
Platinum looks shiny, and is a silvery white metal that has non-corrosive properties, making it an excellent choice for an engagement or wedding ring.
Palladium is a sturdy metal that gets used in catalytic converters for vehicles, jewelry, and in dental work like fillings and crowns. Often, palladium is used as an alloy to coat gold and create white gold.
It’s found in Brazil, and humans have mined it as far back as the 1700s.
It’s a shiny metal that looks silvery-white and doesn’t corrode.
An extremely rare metal, rhodium’s world production levels lie at around 30 tons every year. It was discovered in 1803, and is traditionally used in catalytic converters in vehicles, and for making nitric acid, acetic acid, and hydrogenation reactions. It also coats optic fibers and optical mirrors.
It occurs in river sands in North and South America, and can also be found in the copper-nickel ores in Canada.
Rhodium is a hard metal that looks shiny and silvery.
One metal of antiquity, people have been using copper for centuries. Historians consider it the first metal humans utilized. It was a major factor in the bronze age, as we can mix it with tin to create a bronze alloy. Traditionally, it was used for cutlery, coins, tools, bells, pots, and plumbing. As it’s a non-toxic metal, it’s commonly used in wiring and plumbing.
Copper is a reddish color that is malleable and can be worked easily.
Aluminum is one of the most widely used metals today because of its malleable appearance. It’s used in food canning, foils, kitchen utensils, window frames, as aircraft fuselage. The options are endless and it’s because of its low density and non-toxic properties. It’s also non-corrosive and can be easily formed, worked with, and recycled. It’s also often used in electrical wiring because it’s an excellent conductor of electricity.
The metal is also incredibly abundant and is found in other minerals like bauxite and cryolite. It takes a lot of work to make pure aluminum, but once the process is complete, the metal can be reused and recycled repeatedly.
Aluminum is a lightweight metal which is silvery-white, and incredible soft to work with. We can use it in foil, or as a solid metal.
Chromium is highly reflective when polished, which can give a mirror finish when it’s applied to steel. You also get chromium plated vehicle parts, and people once used it in bathroom fittings too. It’s found in chromite in South Africa, India, Kazakhstan and Turkey.
It was first discovered in 1798. However, it is a toxic metal and can irritate the respiratory system. When chromium is introduced into the bloodstream, it can cause kidney and liver damage.
A hard silver metal, with a slight blue tint.
Known universally as one of the strongest metals, we often use titanium as an alloy to strengthen soft metals like aluminium. They also don’t rust, so are useful in pipes, bikes, crutches, golf clubs, and jewelry. It’s even used in healthcare for bone replacements and tooth implants.
When crushed into pigment, they use titanium in house paint, plastics, and paper as it’s a bright white. It’s plentiful, found in many minerals and rocks around the Earth’s crust.
Titanium is a hard and shiny metal colored silver.
Nickel is often used to coat other metals to prevent rusting thanks to its non-corrosive nature. It also goes into alloys like bichrome and is used in toasters and electric ovens. It’s also commonly used in currency–the US five-cent piece is nicknamed a nickel as its 25% nickel.
Vast quantities of it have been brought to earth from meteorites, but it does naturally occur on the planet too.
Nickel is a silvery metal and has non-corrosive properties.
Zinc is a metal humanity uses every day. In fact, the body contains approximately 2.5 milligrams, and we ingest around 15mg per day in food and drink. It is often used in a dye that gets used across vehicles and electrical goods. Alloys of zinc mixed with other metals include brass, nickel silver, and aluminium solder.
It was used in India and China, being mined and refined from around 1100 onwards. Nowadays, we see zinc also used in lamp posts, cars, bridges, and safety barriers. It’s often galvanized with other non-corrosive metals to prevent rusting.
Zinc has a blue tint and is a silver/white metal. It corrodes easily and requires regular polishing or painting.
One of the oldest metals, iron, is still essential to humanity today, the same as it has been for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations in modern-day Turkey, Rome, and Egypt were using iron in around 1500 BC. Iron ore went into the renowned Damascus steel, a unique steel sword smithing technique that died out.
Iron is used in almost everything. It’s ubiquitous. We see it commonly in manufacturing, infrastructure, and civil engineering. Alloys of iron and other metals create steel, which is used in almost everything. We see cast iron cookware, pipes, valves, and pumps.
A gray metal that rusts easily.
It’s a sturdy metal with similar properties to titanium, and the same hardness as copper. It’s a common mineral found on the planet, more commonly found than copper, zinc, and lead. In powder form, it’s black and highly flammable.
We use zirconium in alloys like zircaloy and in jewelry. It’s also found in surgical tools, photographic flashbulbs, and the glass used in televisions.
Primary sources come from Australia, the USA, and Sri Lanka, and mines produce over 900,000 tons of zircon every year.
Zirconium is a silver-gray color, and very resistant to heat and corrosion.
Tin is another metal of antiquity and has been used for centuries. Tin mixed with copper creates bronze, causing an industrial revolution during the bronze age. It’s had a wide variety of uses across hum history, including tin cans for food cannery, in cutlery, utensils, and furniture.
We use tin to make plenty of alloys, which create bronze and pewter. It also doesn’t corrode easily, so we often apply tin coatings to other metals to keep them from rusting.
It’s a soft metal that’s easy to work with and can change to powder below 13 degrees Celsius.
Mercury & Cinnabar
Mercury has been used across ancient civilization for thousands of years. Mercury occurs in the earth with the mineral Cinnabar. Cinnabar has a trademark reddish tint, and was used in painting, dyes, and medicines for millennia. More recently, mercury’s toxic properties have been more commonly understood so its uses have reduced.
Cinnabar was used in painting 30,000 years ago to decorate caves, and they still use mercury in thermometers and in batteries, fluorescent lights and barometers. Chinese medicine continues to use cinnabar as part of its homeopathy, even with the toxic properties of mercury being well known.
Mercury is a liquid silver metal. Cinnabar, which is also called vermillion or mercury sulfide, is a red mineral that can be crushed up.
One of the original seven metals of antiquity, lead, has been used by humans for centuries. As it doesn’t corrode, lead has been used in plumbing, paint, and pottery dating back to Ancient Rome.
More recently, humanity realized lead poisoning and its harmful effects. So, it is no longer used in any form where it is likely humans will consume it. However, it’s still used in weights, radiation protection, in soldering, ammunition, in car batteries, and for cables. Because of its non-corrosive nature, it’s also used to store corrosive materials.
Its appearance is a dull silver metal that is malleable and easy to work with.
There is so much more we can say about each of these metals, but we had to start somewhere. It is our intention is to add more information to this lexicon in the future and to continue to expand on the information we provide about all historic metals, treasures and collectibles.