By Jack Vaughn for PCGS ……
What do you think the cutlery was made of when Napoleon III had his prestigious guests over for food? Silver? Gold? The answer may be surprising, as they used aluminum cutlery. Guests of lesser status used mere silverware.
Aluminum is the most abundant metal in Earth’s crust (8.1%). However, it does not naturally occur in its pure metallic form. Instead, it occurs naturally in alums, a compound found in various minerals. The ancient Greeks and Romans used alums as medicine and to dye cloth. Metallic aluminum was finally discovered in 1825, although the first refining processes proved costly.
Emperor Napoleon III was born in April 1808 and died in January 1873. When he first rose to power in 1851 and had access to this ghostly light metal, he attempted to produce armor and weapons for the French Army. The idea was quickly put on the shelf once it became apparent how costly it would be. Only a few kilograms of aluminum were being produced annually at this point. Manufacturers were mainly unwilling to abandon using metals like iron, brass, or bronze. Instead, aluminum was used by the elite as jewelry, silverware, plates, etc.
The Washington Monument was officially completed on December 6, 1884, when a nine-inch, 100-ounce aluminum pyramid was placed there. This final addition was a lightning rod because of its conductive properties. It was the largest piece of aluminum known to date, being displayed at Tiffany & Co. in New York City prior to the completion of the monument.
A more practical method for refining aluminum metal was discovered in subsequent years. As a result, the price of aluminum dropped significantly, falling far beneath the price of gold and then silver.
Aluminum coins (world coinage included) bear a stigma for being cheap. They are the coins you find in the junk bin by the front door at a coin shop. However, I always ask myself: When was it struck? If it was struck before the mid-1980s, then you more than likely have a piece with a low mintage. The United States Mint struck pattern and die trial coins in aluminum. These coins are highly sought after by collectors because of their sharp, watery, gunmetal looks and extremely low mintages. The first pieces were struck in 1863 and were consistently made through 1885 – right before the price of aluminum plummeted. Check that bin by the front door next time you visit your local coin shop. You probably won’t find one of these pattern pieces, but you may find a significant coin no one else noticed.
I had always assumed that the U.S. Mint used aluminum for patterns and die trials because it was a soft, cheap metal. It would not deteriorate the dies quickly at all and would certainly be more practical than using it for what would have been unreliable helmets! More importantly, these coins would look nice and presentable. But, knowing what I know now about the historical values of aluminum, I view the process differently. The U.S. Mint did not view making patterns and die trials as a chore. They were producing the strongest currency in the world and wanted their pieces struck in the finest metal available. They were proud.
So, the next time you hold an aluminum coin from that era, know that, in a way, you are holding a coin more valuable than gold.
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