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Gold has been widely used throughout the world as a vehicle for monetary exchange, either by recognition of gold coins or other bare metal quantities, or through gold-convertible paper instruments by establishing gold standards in which the total value of issued money is represented in a store of gold reserves. However, the amount of gold in the world is finite and production has not grown in relation to the world's economies. Today, gold mining output is declining.
With the sharp growth of economies in the 20th century, and increasing foreign exchange, the world's gold reserves and their trading gold market have become a small fraction of all markets and fixed exchange rates of currencies to gold became unsustainable. At the beginning of World War I the warring nations moved to a fractional gold standard, inflating their currencies to finance the war effort. After World War II gold was replaced by a system of convertible currency following the Bretton Woods system.
World governments, being replaced by fiat currency in their stead, have abandoned gold standards and the direct convertibility of currencies to gold. Switzerland was the last country to tie its currency to gold; it backed 40% of its value until the Swiss joined the International Monetary Fund in 1999.
Pure gold is too soft for day-to-day monetary use and is typically hardened by alloying with copper, silver or other base metals. The gold content of alloys is measured in carats (k). Pure gold is designated as 24k. Gold coins intended for circulation from 1526 into the 1930s were typically a standard 22k alloy called crown gold, for hardness.
Gold has been known and used by artisans since the Chalcolithic period – or Copper Age. Gold artifacts in the Balkans appear from the 4th millennium BC, such as that found in the Varna Necropolis. Gold artifacts such as the golden hats and the Nebra disk appeared in Central Europe from the 2nd millennium BC Bronze Age. Egyptian hieroglyphs from as early as 2600 BC describe gold, which king Tushratta of the Mitanni claimed was "more plentiful than dirt" in Egypt. Egypt and especially Nubia had the resources to make them major gold-producing areas for much of history.
The earliest known map is known as the Turin Papyrus Map and shows the plan of a gold mine in Nubia together with indications of the local geology. Strabo and included fire setting describe the primitive working methods. Large mines also were present across the Red Sea in what is now Saudi Arabia.
Gold is the most malleable and ductile of all metals; a single gram can be beaten into a sheet of 1 square meter, or an ounce into 300 square feet. Gold leaf can be beaten thin enough to become translucent. The transmitted light appears greenish blue, because gold strongly reflects yellow and red. Such semi-transparent sheets also strongly reflect infrared light, making them useful as infrared (radiant heat) shields in visors of heat-resistant suits, and in sun-visors for spacesuits.
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