16th Century


Gold price: £2.01 (£2.0s.2½d) per troy ounce fine

Gold/silver ratio: 1:10.7 (European average)

Production: ± 150,000 ounces

Entering the modern era

The discovery of the Americas and the pioneering of the sea route to India round the Cape of Good Hope at the close of the previous century began the modern era of precious metals with new sources of supply and direct access to major markets. Although gold output did not increase as dramatically as silver, its use blossomed under the Renaissance in the works of virtuoso goldsmiths like Cellini, while the minting of coin revived to levels not seen since the 1340s. Gold from Africa, central Europe, and central Asia was supplemented by the first supplies from the Americas.

1500-20 Portugal imported around 25,000 ounces of gold a year from its trading posts in West Africa, which was made into cruzados at the Lisbon mint.
1503 The first official records of gold coming into Spain from the Americas recorded at Casa de la Contratación (House of Trade) at Seville - around 20,000 ounces a year (see box). Officially, one-fifth went to the King. The gold was coined at the Seville mint. Initially it came from Hispaniola (Haiti), then from Puerto Rico and Cuba.
1505 Significant increase in gold coin minting in England; the mint used an average of 50,000 ounces annually for four years.
1524-31 Venice mint output revived to 32,000 ounces in ducats annually.
Official gold imports into Spain

(troy ounces)


Source: American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain 1501-1650 by Earl J. Hamilton

1526 In England, Henry VIII began major debasement of the coinage to pay for foreign wars. New gold crown of 0.18 oz (5.7 grams) at 916 fine (instead of traditional 990 fine) issued, worth £0.25 (5s.), equal to a fine gold price of £2.28 (£2.5s.8½d). The mint used over 50,000 ounces for the coins.
1533 Conquest of Peru by Francisco Pizarro brought the destruction of the fine gold treasures of the Chimu and Inca peoples. The ransom for the Inca emperor Atahualpa alone yielded around 150,000 ounces. Total looting of wonderful ornaments in South America may have provided over 250,000 ounces, reflected in the jump in Spanish imports 1531-40 (see box). Most ornaments were melted down for coin.
1543 The Florentine goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini created a solid gold salt cellar for Francis I of France. Building on the spirit of the Renaissance, this was the age of the virtuoso goldsmith in Europe, not only in Italy, but in France and Germany.
1544-46 Further debasement of the currency by Henry VIII in England, after he had discreetly bought up large stocks of gold and silver in the previous two years. The gold content of the angel was reduced from 990 fine to 958 fine, and the fine gold price raised initially to £2.40 (2.8s.0d). Within a few months, with the king beset by new wars with France, it was put at £2.50 (£2.10s.0d), and ultimately rose to £3.00 (£3.0s.0d) and briefly to £3.05 (£3.1s.0d), while gold coins were debased to 833 fine for a period in 1546. Stability only returned to the coinage under Elizabeth I in the late 1550s
1550 Gold production had risen towards 200,000 ounces annually, with the establishment of Spanish control in Mexico, New Granada (Colombia), Peru and Chile during the preceding decades. But by 1550 the flow of gold from West Africa to Portugal and over the Sahara to Morocco and Tunis was less. However, 1551-60 was the peak decade for gold imports into Spain (see box opposite). Thereafter the huge increase in silver output from South America, with the discovery of Potosi and other mines, almost swamped gold, so that the revival of gold coin circulation in the first half of the 16th century was checked. Gold coin did not make a real comeback until the Brazilian discoveries 150 years later (although gold was discovered in small quantities in Brazil in 1552).
1556 De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricola published (see box).
The ultimate handbook on geology, mining and metallurgy

In 1527 a young doctor Georg Bauer (alias Georgius Agricola) settled in the German silver mining town of Joachimsthal. He was fascinated by the mining and devoted nearly thirty years to researching his monumental book which was the first complete account of every aspect of gold and silver mining and metallurgy. It described everything from amalgamation, milling, assay crucibles and furnaces, cupellation and fans for ventilation, to nitric acid making and use, parting of metals, quicksilver distillation, stamp mills, suction pumps, touch-needles and weights for assay balances. Over 150 detailed drawings illustrated every stage or item of equipment. The original book was written in Latin, but was quickly translated into German and Italian; it did not appear in English until 1912.


In England, under Elizabeth I, the gold coinage was restored at 990 fine for angels and 916 for crowns, but coinage was usually under 10,000 ounces annually.

Across the Channel, Antwerp became the main port for Spanish bullion fleets taking gold and silver to the Netherlands (then ruled by Spain), where the Spanish worked with such banking families as the Fuggers. From Antwerp, precious metal was distributed to England, Germany and northern Europe.

1562 Indian mogul Akbar issued Mohur coin of 0.35 oz (11 grams).
1568 Significant shift in the distribution of Spanish bullion towards Genoa, because of revolt in the Netherlands and British adventurers attacking bullion fleets. Philip II of Spain used his galleys to Italy to transport up to 10,000 gold crowns at a time to the Fuggers' agents. With Genoa as clearing house, much of this gold (and silver) went to the Levant and India.
1571 Increase in silver output from Potosi in Bolivia, due to the application of amalgamation process with mercury for recovery, flooded the European market with silver, widening gold/silver ratio to 1:12.
1575 The beginning of the great period of Ashanti gold ornament making on the 'gold coast' of West Africa, where chiefs and their entourage were adorned with these symbols of power.
1594 Gold caravans took up to 75,000 ounces annually across the Sahara to Morocco, where it was coined in Algiers and Tlemcen. These coins, with Spanish gold escudos, circulated widely in North Africa.
1598 Record consignment of 200,000 Spanish gold coins arrived in Genoa for re-export east.