Gold coins come in a variety of different purities, even coins of similar weights. You may be surprised to find out just how pure some gold coins are.
We’ll explore the benefits in buying gold coins of different purities and some of the interesting physical and visual properties unique to gold coins of differing purities.
##Gold Coin Purity Standards Explained##
The purity of gold coins is measured in fineness. Fineness is a fraction or percentage that is usually expressed as a decimal. So a coin that is made of .999 fine gold means that 999 parts per 1,000 are gold, with 1/1,000 parts being another metal in the alloy. This is sometimes called millesimal fineness
because it is a fraction with 1,000 as the denominator.
Keep in mind that **a coin's purity doesn't tell us anything about the coin's weight!** These are two different things. And, importantly, the market value of a gold coin is based on its gold weight.
Historically, most legal tender coins containing precious metals (this includes silver coins) were 90% pure. They were meant to be circulating coins—i.e. used as money in circulation—and therefore needed to be durable. Until the advancement of refining technology in the second half of the 20th century, the purest gold coins you could find were 22 karats, such as the British Gold Sovereign
Let's quickly untangle the confusion about the karats system of purity, as well. It is mainly used for gold jewelry, but can also apply to today's gold bullion coins. Karats are similar to fineness: They are simply a fraction that expresses the percentage of a gold product that is pure gold. Instead of using 1,000 as the denominator of the fraction, the karats system uses 24 as the base. So a 22-karat gold coin is 91.67% pure gold (22 divided by 24).
##What’s the Purest Gold Coin Available?##
Most modern coins made of physical gold bullion are 24 karat gold coins. This means they are more than 99% pure gold.
Let’s kick right off by stating that it’s virtually impossible from the technical and manufacturing standpoints to produce a coin that is 100% pure gold. Why? One of the most challenging considerations in producing gold coins of high purity is that gold is a very soft metal, and the higher the gold purity of a coin, the physically softer it is. A theoretical gold coin that is 100% pure gold would be too soft to produce and would not be as physically stable as a gold coin that has some degree of copper or other metals that enhance the coin’s overall hardness and physical integrity.
While producing 100% gold coins is technically infeasible, there are gold coins that are virtually pure and enable bullion investors or coin collectors an opportunity to own a gold coin of extremely high purity. These include "four-nines" and "five-nines" gold coins (.9999 fine and .99999 fine gold, respectively), which are produced by a few of the world’s most respected and technologically advanced mints.
##List of the Purest Gold Coins Today##
1. Canadian Gold Maple Leaf Coin
The Canadian Gold Maple Leaf was the first bullion coin in the world to use the four-nines purity.
The Royal Canadian Mint is world renowned for its variety of high-quality, high-purity gold coinage. It’s one of the few mints anywhere in the world to regularly produce five-nines gold coins. Among these are special .99999-fine (five nines) issues of the Gold Maple Leafs
, the country's official gold bullion coin.
Gold Maples have been struck since 1979 and are generally produced in .999 (three nines) and .9999 (four nines) formats. There are also many special commemorative or collectible gold coins outside the Canadian Maple Leaf series that the Royal Canadian Mint offers boasting five-nines purity.
2. American Gold Buffalo Coin
The American Gold Buffalo was the first U.S. coin to be made as a 24-karat gold coin.
The American Buffalo gold coins burst onto the scene in 2006, two decades after the Gold Bullion Coin Act of 1985 that established the 1 oz American Gold Eagle coin. The coin sports an American bison in its design, inspired by the Buffalo nickel that was made from 1913 to 1938.
Unlike the 22-karat American Gold Eagle coin, one of the world's most popular gold bullion coins, each Gold Buffalo coin
is struck from .9999 fine gold. As the first gold coins in the United States offered with this purity, Buffaloes likewise became very popular.
Although initially minted in several popular sizes like 1/10-oz and 1/2-oz, today the U.S. Mint only produces Gold Buffaloes as a 1-ounce coin. Again, remember that **the higher purity doesn't mean these coins contain more actual gold than their peers**. The 1 oz Gold Eagle has just as much gold by weight (one ounce) as does the Gold Buffalo, despite the former being "only" .917 fine gold.
3. Austrian Gold Philharmonic Coin
The Austrian Gold Philharmonic is known for its culturally and visually elegant design.
The Austrian Mint strikes the Vienna Gold Philharmonic each year. It has been a mainstay in the European and international markets since the late 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of these coins are minted every year and sold to buyers around the world. Like the preceding coins on this list, the Gold Philharmonic coin
is struck from 99.99% pure gold.
The aptly nicknamed "Gold Philly" is renowned for its eye-pleasing artwork. The coin is named for Vienna's world-famous Philharmonic Orchestra, and the design choices of the coin reflect this cultural heritage. An arrangement of orchestral instruments appears on the coin's obverse, while the reverse shows Vienna's Music Hall.
4. Great Britain Gold Britannia Coin
The Gold Britannia is a great addition to any precious metals portfolio.
The British Royal Mint is among the oldest minting facilities in the world—the aforementioned Austrian Mint can claim to be the oldest—but the Gold Britannia coin
is one of the newer entries on the list. It debuted in 1987 and was once made from an alloy known as "Crown gold" that was .917 fine. More recently, the Royal Mint decided to up the purity to four-nines fine in 2013 in order to meet the public's expectations.
Lady Britannia is the key figure depicted in the coin's design. She functions as the symbolic embodiment of Great Britain and British identity, much like Lady Liberty on American coins. One interesting design choice is that the Britannia proof coins alternated different design each year, providing a number of exciting opportunities for collectors.
5. Australian Gold Kangaroo Coin
The Gold Kangaroo coin has long been Perth Mint's most popular gold bullion investment product.
Australia is well-known for its rich gold deposits. Perth Mint, located in Western Australia, helps convert much of that abundant gold into gold bullion bars and coins, chief among them the Gold Kangaroo. Up until the early 1990s, this coin series was actually know as the Australian Gold Nugget. Unsurprisingly, the coins are also .9999 fine gold.
The annually updated reverse designs of the Australian Kangaroos consistently keeps customers coming back to the series. In addition to the standard one-ounce size, the Gold Kangaroo coin
is also offered in half-ounce, quarter-ounce, and tenth-ounce sizes.
6. Chinese Gold Panda Coin
Gold Panda coins are favored not only by Asian investors but also buyers all around the world.
Another beloved series for both the average Joe and large institutional investors is the Chinese Gold Panda. Gold Pandas are an attractive addition to many coin collections given the limited number that is struck by the central mint of the People's Bank of China (colloquially, the Chinese Mint) each year. Moreover, only a fraction of the number minted are allowed to be exported out of China.
Another feature that is especially appealing about this series is the fact that the reverse design changes on a yearly basis. This provides fresh collecting opportunities and keeps Panda coins from seeming stale or repetitive. Gold Pandas were the first bullion coins to update their designs annually, and this blueprint was soon followed by several other coin series (notably, those released in Australia).
Unlike the other coins listed above, the Chinese Gold Panda is "only" .999 fine gold. In recent years, the mint switched their weight from 1 troy ounce (31.1 grams) to 30 grams in size. Despite containing slightly less gold, the scarcity of Gold Panda coins means their current value has a slightly higher premium above gold prices.
###What About Four-Nines Gold Coins?###
While there aren’t many mints that strike five-nines gold coins, there are many four-nines gold coins available that are quite popular with investors and collectors. These include most Canadian Maple Leaf gold coins struck since late 1982, Vienna Philharmonic gold coins, and American Gold Buffaloes. All of these examples are legal tender gold coins produced by a sovereign mint (government mint).
Among the purest are the four-nines and five-nines gold coins, which often carry numerical hallmarks declaring these purities, such as .9999 and .99999, respectively. The four-nines and five-nines gold coins are an extremely popular choice with gold investors and precious-metals speculators due to their high purity. Their popularity as gold investments comes from their melt value, also called bullion value, which is based on the current market price of gold
##Are Lower-Purity Gold Coins Worth It?##
Many people seem to think that the purer the gold coin, the better it is. But this isn’t always true. First, you must consider the point made earlier that gold coins of higher purity tend to be softer than those with lower finenesses. But there’s more to the matter than that. Some of the most widely traded gold coins in the world aren’t even .999 (three nines) fine.
Take, for example, the Gold American Eagles, South African Gold Krugerrand, and British sovereign gold coins. These are “only” .9167 fine, containing 22-karat gold. And pre-1933 U.S. gold coins
like the Saint-Gaudens double eagle? Those are “just” 90% pure gold—meaning .900-fine. These gold coins are not only some of the most sought-after gold coins anywhere, but they are also highly durable and well recognized.
The Gold Krugerrand is struck by the South African Mint and is considered the original bullion coin, debuting in the late 1960s.
And, guess what? Even though the American Gold Eagles
, British sovereigns, South African Krugerrands
, and pre-1933 gold coins are less than four-nines or five-nines fine, these particular gold coins carry some of the highest price premiums of any gold coins in the world. They are beloved by both investors and collectors, and thus they enjoy popularity well beyond the bullion marketplace alone. On the secondary market, they may even acquire some collectible value. They are some of the easiest gold coins to sell or liquidate because so many people are familiar with them, therefore these are some of the best gold coins to buy
##How Do Gold Purity Standards Affect the Appearance of a Coin?##
Gold coins are gold coins are gold coins, right? Perhaps some people look at gold coins only from the standpoint of how many nines represent their gold purity. And that’s totally fine! But those who appreciate gold coins—or coins in general—from the artistic and aesthetic perspectives will notice that the color of a gold coin will differ depending on the purity of the coin’s gold content.
One of the best, most well-known examples of this comes with the 2018 United States Breast Cancer Awareness commemorative half eagle—a rose gold coin that captured attention across the numismatic industry for its distinctive pink coloration. The United States Mint specifically chose this rose-gold format for the 2018 Breast Cancer Awareness gold coins to symbolically represent the pink ribbons and other pink-hued items that signify support for breast cancer survivors and their advocates.
But making this rose gold coin wasn’t easy. It should be noted that the rose gold coloration wasn’t created by tinting or dyeing the coin before or after it was struck. It’s the natural color of the gold alloy mint officials chose for producing this commemorative piece. The rose-gold coloration was perfected after much testing by U.S. Mint researchers, who determined the best alloy for striking a rose gold coin was a composition consisting of 85% pure gold, 14.8% copper, and the balance zinc. The addition of copper and zinc, along with the lower gold purity, helped the mint achieve the rose gold coloration of the 2018 Breast Cancer gold coin.
Despite its lower purity, the American Eagle gold coin enjoys widespread popularity in the bullion market.
Conversely, the higher the gold content of a coin, the richer the yellow coloration of its outward appearance. There are also subtle differences between coins of the exact same fineness if the rest of the alloy uses different metals. For instance, the Krugerrand is made from the same "Crown gold" as old British sovereigns. This alloy is 91.67% gold and about 8.3% copper, giving the coin an orange-gold hue. By comparison, the .9167 fine American Gold Eagle of the same purity has a lighter tone due to using 3% silver and 5.3% copper to balance the alloy.
Comparing gold coins of different fineness levels with each other is not only a fun thing to do, but one will really get to see the coloration differences between gold coins of differing purities. This exercise can also serve as something of a metallurgical experiment in understanding how gold fineness affects the color of a coin. One might even say that owning and examining gold coins really can be an educational experience!
Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a journalist, editor, and blogger who has won multiple awards from the Numismatic Literary Guild. He has also authored numerous books, including works profiling the history of the United States Mint and United States coinage.
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